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Shooting range request fails after commissioners deadlock
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COVINGTON — A request to amend Newton County’s zoning ordinance to allow for an outdoor shooting range in agricultural zoning failed after commissioners reached a stalemate with undertones of parliamentary gamesmanship.

Attorney Nezida Davis and Colin Mapp, president of the Bass Reeves Gun Club, presented a request for a text amendment to the zoning ordinance to commissioners at their Feb. 2 meeting. Bass Reeves is an Atlanta gun club of about 900 members that is pro-Second Amendment and advocates for safe, responsible and skilled gun ownership in the African American community, according to the club’s website.

District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson made a motion to initiate the ordinance amendment, and District 2 Commissioner Demond Mason seconded the motion. With District 1 Commissioner Stan Edwards and District 2 Commissioner Ronnie Cowan opposed, District 3 Commissioner Alana Sanders abstained in an apparent attempt to compel Chairman Marcello Banes to break the tie. Banes, however, also abstained, which caused the motion to fail.

Sanders said she abstained because she wasn’t clear on the wording of Henderson’s motion.

Banes attempted to get Henderson and County Attorney Sam VanVolkenburgh to provide some clarification for Sanders, but she persisted in abstaining.

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but if I abstain my vote, the vote goes to the chairman,” she said. “I think I kind of explained the reason why. So I abstained my vote.”

After briefly conferring with the county attorney, Banes said he would also abstain.

“That motion will fail for the lack of support,” he said. “So if we want to play games like that, we can play them.”

The shooting range is a project of the Bass Reeves Gun Club of Atlanta, a chapter of the National African American Gun Association. The group had sought to locate a shooting range in District 1 near the intersection of Ga. Highways 212 and 36.

Development Services Director Judy Johnson explained to commissioners that if they allowed an outdoor shooting range in AR zoning, it would open up the possibility that gun ranges could be established in any of the five commissioner districts in the county.

“The AR zoning district is our most common zoning district,” said Johnson … “It’s not about a great group of people or one particular property, it is about establishing legislation to allow any petitioner to move forward (in AR zoning).”

Newton County currently has one outdoor shooting range, the South River Gun Club, which was founded in 1956 and grandfathered when the county adopted its zoning ordinance in 1971. The club is located on Ga. Highway 212 in District 1.

Commissioner Edwards, who represents District 1, said the requested change in zoning would result in complaints from homeowners in the area.

“This is not actually about Bass Reeves Gun Club; it’s about allowing a place for outdoor shooting anywhere in any of our districts that has this particular zoning,” said Edwards. “I can tell you that this text amendment will allow South River Gun Club to expand exponentially. I get complaints about South River Gun Club all the time from District 1 and District 2.”

Edwards attempted to put the shooting range issue to rest by making a motion to deny the text amendment and any future shooting ranges. Cowan seconded the motion, which failed 3-2.

Henderson then made a motion to move forward with the text amendment, with Mason seconding the motion.

“No disrespect to the other commissioners, but y’all don’t live in a rural area like we do where there is a lot of vacant land,” said Cowan. “People have chosen to move out there for a particular reason… I’m just telling you I think you guys have made a mistake on this one.”

Edwards apologized to his constituents, saying, “I know for a fact that this gunfire will disrupt lives … but we don’t seem to care.”

Sanders said she voted against Edwards’ motion because it would prohibit any shooting range in the future.

“When we sit on this platform we need to respect each other’s opinions,” she said. “We may agree and we may disagree, but that’s what we were put in place for.”

The vote on Henderson’s motion then ended in a tie. Banes called for a brief recess. When the board returned, Banes called for a vote to table the request indefinitely. Edwards made the motion; Cowan seconded it. It failed 3-2.

Fourth-grader is Newton's Super Speller
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COVINGTON — Porterdale Elementary School student Malachi Brock emerged victorious in Newton County School System’s 2021 District Spelling Bee.

Brock, a fourth-grader, edged out all other NCSS elementary and middle school school-level champions to walk away with Super Speller bragging rights this year and will now represent NCSS in the Regional Spelling Bee on Feb. 27. Iyana Black of Live Oak Elementary School and Aiden Jarvis of South Salem Elementary School tied for second place in the district spelling bee.

“I love to read, so I’m good at spelling,” said Brock after he accepted his winner’s trophy. “I read a lot of books and work on vocabulary.”

“I am so proud of Malachi and his performance in the county spelling bee,” said Clydia Newell, principal of Porterdale Elementary School. “Malachi is a wonderful student. He is a voracious reader, and I am confident that his reading has contributed to his ability in spelling. I am excited that he will be representing Porterdale Elementary School and the Newton County School system in the regional spelling bee.”

According to Dr. Helena Foster, Elementary Curriculum and Instruction specialist for NCSS, this year’ spelling bee was different from previous years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This year’s bee was conducted using an online assessment platform created by Scripps,” explained Foster. “Students were given 50 words to spell. The computer called the words for the students, and they had to type the words correctly within 30 minutes. Students still had the option to ask for a definition and a sentence like they do in the traditional bee. The students moving on to the regional bee will test in the same format. They will be given 30 minutes to spell 50 words, and they will also have a multiple choice vocabulary test.”

Brock seemed unfazed by the prospect of competing in the regional bee.

“I’m going to keep reading and working on my vocabulary,” he said. “I want to keep going all the way!”

“I am so impressed by Malachi’s performance in the district spelling bee,” said Dr. Penny Moseley, director of Elementary Schools for NCSS. “To win the champion’s trophy as a fourth-grader is a remarkable accomplishment. I can’t wait to hear how he fares in the regional bee and look forward to him competing in our district bee for many years to come.”

Rockdale, Newton students on track to return to classrooms
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CONYERS — Students enrolled for in-person instruction in Rockdale and Newton counties appear to be on course to return to the classrooms.

In Rockdale County, school system officials said students who opted for in-person learning will return on Feb. 22, as announced in December. Those who have chosen the virtual instruction model will continue to learn from home.

Newton students who opted for in-person instruction are slated to return on Feb. 16 after the two-week rate of positive cases of COVID-19 reached the “moderate” level this week.

The Newton County School System announced last month that officials would be monitoring COVID-19 data on a week-to-week basis to determine when to resume in-person instruction.

At Tuesday night’s Board of Education work session, Superintendent Samantha Fuhrey said the school system appeared to be on track to return to school Feb. 16, as planned.

Fuhrey also asked community residents to keep up their guard against the virus.

“As a friendly reminder, it is extremely important that every person do their part,” she said. “I monitor the numbers … and while we are on a downward trend, all it will take is people congretating and not wearing their masks and not washing their hands, not watching their distance, then those numbers will increase again, and we’ll be back in the same situation. So it is extremely important that our community work hard to keep those numbers on a downward trajectory.”

Fuhrey said the downward trend looks promising.

“I think the rate of positivity today (Tuesday) is in the 7s, so that’s great news because the Department of Public Health says that moderate is between 5 and 10,” said Fuhrey. “We haven’t seen that number in a long, long, long time. We are doing the right thing; we just have to continue to do it as we try to bring kids back to school.”

The school system announced the return to school on its Facebook page Wednesday, drawing mostly positive comments from local parents.

“Praise the Lord!” said one.

“Thank you Lord,” posted another. “I hope the school system has had enough of this game! It’s time to get back on track and give these kids the education they deserve.”

Despite the enthusiasm for getting students back to school, there was some hesitation for the welfare of teachers.

“Any teachers out there you’re definitely in my prayers,” posted one woman.

“I’m thrilled for the students but still very concerned for teachers and staff,” said another. “I wish they could have got the vaccine before they went back.”

After a last minute agreement is reached on a berm, Rockdale approves townhouse development
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CONYERS — With a final decision on a proposed townhouse development rezoning request coming up at the Feb. 9 meeting hinging on the developer and the adjacent BJ’s Warehouse Club reaching an agreement on a berm, the Rockdale County Board of Commissioners received a message just prior to the meeting that the agreement had been reached. They subsequently unanimously approved a change to the county’s future land use map and the rezoning request.

DRH Properties was seeking a change to the county’s future land use map and a rezoning from limited industrial to high density residential for 14.93 acres at 2021 Old Covington Highway and Salem Industrial Boulevard. The developer plans to build 153 townhomes on the property.

The major sticking point at the BOC’s Jan. 26 zoning hearing was a berm BJ’s was requesting be built between its property and the townhouse development. While BJ’s and the Rosen Group, which ground leases the site on Dogwood Drive to the business, said they had no problem with the townhouse development, they were concerned that truck traffic noise at the back of BJ’s would be a deterrent to home buyers and requested that the developer install a large berm between the properties to reduce the amount of noise the homeowners would hear.

But representatives of the developers said the berm being requested would cost $800,000 to build and was not reasonable.

At the Jan. 26 meeting, the BOC said an agreement on the berm would be the biggest factor they would weigh in approving or not approving the requests.

After receiving the message that an agreement on the berm had been reached, Post 2 Commissioner Dr. Doreen William thanked both sides for being able to work together.

“I just wanted to say that we appreciate you working that out, because it really was not a zoning issue,” said Williams. “It really was a private ownership decision. I know that they had to put a lot of work in to get that agreement, and I appreciate it.”

Post 1 Commissioner Sherri Washington also thanked the developers for agreeing to two-car garages and wider streets in the townhouse community.

“We had a lot of discussion on aesthetics and standards regarding this property and this project,” said Washington. “We have insisted on two-car garages and that the streets are a certain width so that emergency vehicles will have no problem getting through the development. I want to thank the developers for being so conscious and so willing to work with us and adhering to the standards that we are setting forth in Rockdale County regarding townhome communities.”

Commission Chair Oz Nesbitt Sr. praised everyone involved, including his fellow commissioners, the planning and zoning staff, and the developers and BJ’s representatives.

“The essence of what came out of this was clear communication, people working together, listening to the hearts and minds of the citizens here in Rockdale County, and for the two developers and the land owner to be able to get together and work it out,” said Nesbitt. “This is progress in the right direction, and I think this will be a good example of how things can be done in Rockdale County when we’re all engaged in moving this county progressively forward.”