April 13 2015
Ron Johnson’s voice, loud and animated, crackled from the radio. In response to a question about local politics, he enthusiastically mentioned the 9th district GOP banquet. “We’re trying to get Scott Walker!” he exclaimed, “We’re really working on Scott Walker.”
Immediately after leaving the air, Johnson, the Second Vice Chair of the Georgia GOP, begins to take personal calls. At the same time, he drives across the state to county GOP meetings, every once in a while losing the connection as he travels down off-the-beaten-path roads to get to very, very small population counties so that he can help with their meetings.
Very often, he goes to Athens.
At a College Republicans meeting, Johnson smiled at the group of college students. “What county are you from?” he shot at one girl. “Gwinnett? That’s an easy one. Yep, I’ve been there! Great GOP there.”
Johnson has been to 75 counties in Georgia. His dedication to local politics enthusiasm bordering on passion, he has no obligation to travel the state, but does so of his own volition, simply because he likes being involved.
While he GOP-meeting hops across the state on a daily basis, he keeps in mind those counties he feels need him the most. He tries to go to the smaller counties most often, ones with the smallest populations.
“Those are the counties that need the most help,” Johnson explains. “They’ve got their own rules, but they don’t understand some of the state rules. I help explain the rules to them, and make it pretty simple so they can understand all the rules they have to follow.”
He is, if not the only person, the “main one” that does this. In this way, he makes himself well-known statewide.
His zeal for local politics colors his everyday life. “I think it’s more important!” he exclaimed, when asked if local politics is as important as federal. He cites the gridlock in Washington, and the necessary majority Congress needs to pass a bill. “I actually believe at your local level you can make changes and get things done.”
Besides the possibility of change on a local level, Johnson mentioned the ability of local legislators to raise taxes. “The people who hurt you the most with the amount of money they take is not the federal government. The counties and the cities tax your home. And they can raise them however they want to.”
More people, he said, become involved in politics before a Presidential election. He believes this is backwards, if understandable.
“You really need to get involved in local elections, because that’s who hurt you,” he said, “That’s the way government’s supposed to operate. Not trying to take all your money. A little piece of it is fine.”
His proudest material accomplishment at the moment involves the Georgia Veteran’s Committee. This year, the committee donated wheelchairs to Paralympic participants—two tennis chairs, a basketball chair, and a racing chair.
“They make the Paralympic chairs and they’re handmade right here in Georgia. They make it so it fits them perfectly.”
Interrupting his GOP political talk, Johnson talked about the chairs for several minutes, and kept coming back to them. A retired veteran himself, the wheelchairs for Paralympic athletes hit home for him.
“It’s something they can get through the VA, but it probably takes a year and half to get one of those chairs,” he explained. “We made it happen in less than a month. We made it happen, we got them one of the best chairs in the world and it was made in Georgia.”
Another of Johnson’s major focuses is on Republican youth involvement. Saying that youth involvement is “absolutely” important for the future of Republican politics, one reason Johnson travels to Athens so often is the large youth population—he wants to motivate them to become more active in GOP politics, especially on the local level.
“When the Republican Party talks about reaching out to the youth, they’re talking about reaching out to the 25-40 group,” he said. “When I talk about reaching out to the youth, I’m talking about the Teen Republicans in High School and the College Republicans in universities.”
“They’ve supported me,” Johnson said about the young Athens Republicans, singling out several who had worked for his campaigns and helped him with district and county projects.
Turning to the rest of the group, Johnson encouraged everyone to go to their county GOP meetings—not just to become involved, but to jump in with both feet and run for positions in the near future. “We’re looking for those people,” he said, referring to motivated young Republicans who could become the future party leaders.
A way that Johnson has encouraged these young people to become involved in very real ways has been the convention cycle. Georgia, in the midst of their nominating district conventions and leading up to the large GOP State Convention, is undergoing potential changes in leadership and internal political affairs. Again pointing out a few college students, both in Athens and from other schools, Johnson brought up the State Convention as a prime example of youth involvement.
“I’ve looked at the number of College Republicans who were delegates,” he said. “Everyone should think about becoming a delegate next time.”
The Convention itself, according to Johnson, is going to be interesting. The outcomes are difficult to predict, he says, but it will certainly be interesting to watch.
Johnson’s interest in local politics did not preclude his increasing attention on the 2016 presidential election. “The more interesting one is going to be the 2015 one where we pick delegates for the national convention. I’ve been through a couple of those, and those really bring out people you’ve never seen before.”
The impact of local politics, to Johnson, is even more important with those large national elections approaching. “It’s really important that young people get involved, and especially in local politics,” he said.
“They don’t think they can have impacts, but they do. That’s why I push so hard for them to get involved. I’ll say that I’ve never turned down a College Republicans meeting! Sometimes I come to them even when I’m not invited.”
By Luke Dixon
Athens, Georgia is getting greener both literally and figuratively.
Like many small cities and municipalities in the state, Athens is now in the electric car charging business.
Eight electric car-charging stations have been installed throughout Athens-Clarke County. Similar to the ports installed at the University of Georgia’s North Campus and South Campus parking decks, Green Power Technology’s Signet electric car charging ports are downtown at the West Washington Street Parking Deck, Hotel Indigo and The Classic Center.
The City of Athens, the Classic Center, and car dealerships have been the primary beneficiaries of the new bright green spaces so far. Drivers of electric cars in downtown Athens are able to park at the charging space and plug in while they go about their business downtown. The system works via credit card payment, and is controlled through an interactive touch screen.
Electric motorists are able to recharge to 80 percent within half an hour at the Classic Center station. Because of the expedient fill up, a new social protocol has emerged as a result of the new charging stations, according to Athens-Clarke County Central Services coordinator, Andrew Saunders, and it involves leaving your phone number on your car.
“For instance if you show up and go to a concert, and you’re going to spend the day downtown, you might charge and in an hour you might be done,” Saunders said. “If I can park in the spot next to you, I can either see that you’re done and charge my car, or if I’m in a bind, I can call you if you’ve left your number and coordinate that I can use the charger.”
Much of the benefit comes from tax credits offered by the State of Georgia and the Federal government. Purchasers of the electric vehicles can get $5,000 and $7,500 tax breaks, respectively. In essence this knocks off roughly 38 percent of the approximate $32,769 (Kelly Blue Book) price tag of an all-electric car.
The metropolitan Atlanta area has taken the most advantage of these benefits. Eighty percent of registered electric car users in Georgia live in this area, according to a previous article on OnlineAthens.com
Nissan, Hyundai, General Motors and BMW are the most recognizable car brands that have established a relationship with Green Power and types of vehicles, which can be recharged at the chargers in Athens.
The Athens Nissan dealership is the biggest player and business beneficiary of the new ports and spaces. They’ve sold approximately 10 electric vehicles per month as the electric car trend has grown in Athens, according to Saunders.
With 80 percent of Georgia’s electric car sales and owners in the Atlanta area, that would leave few Athenians among those outside that majority, but businesses like the Classic Center wouldn’t install the spaces if they didn’t see the financial benefit to having the spaces.
“It’s a 50-50 split between us and Athens-Clarke County,” Classic Center Assistant Director Philip Verrastro said of the deal the Classic Center and Athens-Clarke County agreed to.
Verrastro said that the Classic Center did not install the charging port to reap immediate financial benefits from the machine, but to serve their customers and patrons in an additional way.
“If we can get more of these things out there, we can get more electric cars out on the road,” he said. “We just wanted to be apart of that and help promote that to our customers as well. ‘Hey, you have an electric car and you’re coming over from Atlanta for a meeting, you can charge it while you’re here.’ It’s become kind of a win-win thing.”
A specific benefit for those who choose to host and install the electric chargers is Georgia Environmental Finance Authority’s rebate program called Charge Georgia. The rebate is offered to civic centers like the Classic Center and local governments like Athens-Clarke County and can amount up to $40,000, according to the GEFA website.
This incentive is what caused Athens-Clarke County to begin considering hosting the charging ports many years ago, according to Saunders. With the tax breaks and rebates available, there is only one issue that remains for the Athens government when it comes to electric charging stations – monitoring their usage.
According to Green Power’s website, the ports work on a subscriber function and you are billed through your card and plan each time you refill. The issue with this for Athens is they currently cannot get usage data from the ports. This is because there is no monitoring agreement in place between Green Power and Athens-Clarke County at the present date. Saunders said such an agreement is in the works and will be finalized soon.
“We’re still negotiating with them on the monitoring, but we will have them monitored and we will be able to tell the charge events in any given month,” he said.
There are benefits for the citizens of Athens, but it could be awhile before the stations help more than a niche industry right now.
“It’s definitely beneficial if you’ve got an electric car and live in Athens,” University of Georgia senior Nick Carlotto said. “I don’t have one, but if I did it would be nice because then I wouldn’t have to drive to Atlanta just to recharge.”
Downtown Athens Parking System (DAPS) could reap benefits, but only if more Athenians have electric cars, according to DAPS Director, Chuck Horton.
He said that so far he hasn’t seen many drivers plug up at the West Washington Street port.
Green Power estimates that it takes 1.8 chargers per car for every car to have access to a station. With Athens having a population of 120,000 and approximately 100,000 adults. If half the adults owned an electric car in Athens-Clarke County, that would call for approximately 90,000 units to be able to service the electric cars, according to Signet’s data of 1.8 charging units per car. That is an inflated number as many electric cars, like the Nissan Leaf, are sold with plug-in-at-home units. If electric car ownership increased, DAPS could start collect more immediate benefits.
Saunders is more optimistic and thinks despite being a little behind the initial electric car push in Georgia, Athens will continue to move in a greener direction and follow Atlanta’s lead in the electric car department, but on its own terms.
“I think Atlanta very quickly discovered the tax incentives and those vehicles are perfectly designed for Atlanta when you think of something that’s a 70-mile range and really gets the highest efficiency on in town driving,” he said. “They had a much earlier adoption, but that’s not to say we haven’t had people in Athens driving them.”
Even before the electric charging stations, Saunders said Athens was a very green and environmentally aware town.
“Yeah, I would certainly say that downtown Athens has been [green],” he said. “If you look, we’ve got the car chargers of course. The Classic Center is a LEED certified building. The new parking deck is LEED Gold.”
In his time at the Classic Center, Verrastro said he has seen Athens grow greener overall, but cautioned that there’s no way of knowing for certain where the electric car trend is heading. He said the addition of more electric charging ports is dependent on if the initial stations are put to use and if more are needed.
“Our [charging station] is very public accessed easily,” he said. “It’ll all be on demand. We’ll look at it annually and if the demand is there, then we’ll certainly look at others, but that’s way too early to tell.”
By Joy Bratcher
The Board of Education tonight will vote on the $130 million budget proposed by Superintendent Phillip Lanoue.
Lanoue says the budget includes expenses needed to equip the renovated Clarke County High School and the rebuilding of Whitehead Elementary and Barnett Shoals Elementary schools.
A special purpose local option sales tax, SPLOST, financed the construction. In addition to the operating budget, the board will vote on matters related to the SPLOST tax
Construction began in mid 2014 on Clarke Central High School, Whitehead Road Elementary School, and Barnett Shoals Elementary School. At Clarke Central High School, a $30-million renovation and partial reconstruction is taking place according to the Clarke County School District Update presented in August of 2014.
Tonight, Lanoue will update the board on the construction.
Much of what has happened so far is demolition, but some of the restoration process is already finished. At the start of this school year, students seen restoration to their classrooms in the west wing second and third floors of the high school.
The wing’s classrooms have been expanded from 660 square feet to 930 square feet, Shearer’s article stated. This is to accommodate larger class sizes Clarke and other schools have been forced to form due to cutbacks in education funding.
Students at Whitehead Elementary will be anticipating a new building this fall as construction is scheduled to conclude in August. The new school will also be welcomed along with a new Barnett Shoals Elementary that will be finished at the end of 2015 and opened in January of 2016.
According to the budget presentation, the goals of the 2015-2016 budget also includes:
Goal I – Select, support and retain a highly dedicated, talented and diverse professional workforce.
Goal II – Create dynamic learning experiences for all students to close the achievement gap and to prepare them for college and careers.
Goal III – Strengthen neighborhood schools through strong collaborations with parent, district and community members to support student academic growth, socio-emotional development and physical well-being.
Goal IV – Strategically leverage resources to improve district programs and implement new initiatives.
Tonight’s meeting will begin at 6 pm at 240 Mitchell Bridge Road.
By Evelyn Andrews
Jonathan McCombs has no backyard, so even the proposed ordinance to allow “backyard chickens” would not help him, the catalyst for the controversy.
“Where would I put the chickens?” McCombs said at the Athens-Clarke County Planning Commission meeting on April 2.
This problem of vagueness in Athens-Clarke County ordinances will be the subject to another change, which was also addressed at Thursday’s meeting. Some criticize ACC’s definition of agriculture has been criticized as being too broad, including members of the planning commission* at the meeting.
The definition of agriculture could be understood as restricting every gardening activity, the members said.
The new proposed definition has specific allowed behaviors for citizens, although this item did become a source of a lengthy argument among planning commission members at the meeting.
The current ordinance does not allow people to have chickens except in certain zones that the majority of people do not live in. The proposed ordinance would allow the animals in any zoning district with a limit of six chickens and prohibits roosters since they crow.
McCombs began the backyard chicken controversy after being cited in 2013 for having chickens. Athens is among several cities in Georgia that does not allow urban chickens, so McCombs was forced to get rid of them.
He, like several other supporters of backyard chickens, said he uses the chickens for fertilizer and eggs. McCombs prefers to eat organic food but cannot afford it on his graduate student budget, so he began raising chickens when he was in school in Austin, Texas, where urban chickens are allowed, he said in a Flagpole Magazine article.
Although McCombs was the case that convinced the government to draft a proposal, Mary and Michael Songster are the beginning of the movement for urban chickens in Athens.
“We are the genesis of the pro-chicken movement,” Mary Songster said.
The Songsters had four hens seven years ago, were caught and had to get rid of the chickens. Mary Songster had to sign something saying she was guilty of this offense, but she never felt guilty or that owning chickens was wrong. This began her questioning of why the rule banning chickens exists.
After several years, the Songsters hit a dead end and could not make any headway to get the city to draft a proposal they could agree on.
So it was “huge” when McCombs was caught owning chickens. McCombs volunteered to be cited so he could fight the charge in court, opening the door for a stronger case to allow chickens.
“It was a tremendous show of bravery and strength that he allowed himself to be ticketed,” Songster said.
A friend of the Songsters represented McCombs, they had a strong case and were again able to open the conservation with the city to allow chickens.
“That was huge, that changed everything,” Songster said.
Although the process of introducing proposals to allow urban chickens has been long, no planning commission members expressed any doubt that they should allow the chickens.
People often complain the noise and waste chickens produce are reasons to ban them, but citizen Greg Riley disavowed that complaint at the meeting, comparing them to dogs.
“When you treat them well, they are a wonderful addition to a neighborhood,” Riley said.
Raising backyard chickens is also community building, Songster said, because working outside with them gives people an opportunity to interact with their neighbors. Additionally, working with chickens allows her to understand where her food comes in a profound way.
“Instead of just going to the grocery store to get your food, which I still do and I still plan to spend plenty of money in the system,” Songster said, “having a hand in it gives you a wholeness in life that you can’t duplicate.”
Some other urban chicken supporters expressed concern over the requirement in the proposal that restricts chicken owners from crafting a coup out of spare material. People who want to have chickens are often motivated by sustainability and will want this to be evident in their coup,Songster said. People who cannot afford new materials will be unable to have chickens, she said.
Also, this problem is self-correcting, Songster said. She speculates the regulation was produced by concerns that coups built with scrap material would look unsightly, but she said the amount of money spent on coups will correlate with the type of neighborhood they live in and will be appropriate for their neighborhood.
The rule is also difficult to enforce, Songster said, because leftover material from a recent building project could be considered scrap material, even if it is in the exact same condition you could buy from a store.
“You have this really loose determination of what scrap material is,” she said.
The planning commission considered requiring neighbor approval before people could own chickens. This is problematic, Songster said, because neighbors should not be given authority over other people.
The planning commission did bend to these complaints by chicken supporters and will not require neighbor approval, which was an optional standard. Additionally, they agreed to add side yards to the allowed spaces for chickens to help cases like McCombs’.
The commission also grappled with the issue of standardizing space for each chicken. Space restrictions can become an animal control issue, some members noted, something that the commission does not handle.
“It would become an enforcement nightmare,” member Alice Kinman said.
However, planning commission member James Anderson did suggest adding recommendations, possibly in brochures, for people who may not know the recommended amount of space.
This opened up the other issue of whether or not to force residents to come to the Planning Department building to get a permit. Most of the members agree a permit should not be required, but this would stop people from receiving helpful information like the brochures.
The planning commission approved the proposal and it now will move on to the agenda-setting meeting for the Mayor and Commission on Tuesday, Apr. 21, and they are scheduled to vote on the proposal Tuesday, May 5.
Songster said she is “pleased” with the final proposal and hopes it will be approved by the Mayor and Commission.
By: Aaron Conley
At the entrance to the Athens Farmers Market two people are exchanging money for small, wooden tokens to be used at the various tents; one person swipes a platinum Visa card, the other uses a government issued EBT card.
The second individual is taking advantage of a program run through an organization called Wholesome Wave. That program doubles the value of food stamps when they are used to purchase food at local farmers markets.
According to its website, Wholesome Wave is a national nonprofit organization founded in 2007, and arrived at the Athens Farmers Market in the spring of 2010.
“The program lets me bring healthy food into my home,” said Tia Brown, a young mother of two on government assistance. “It has been a really great opportunity.”
The program is an new twist on the locavore movement, which encourages businesses and individuals to utilize food grown within a 100-mile radius. The campaign spawned from an interest in sustainability and eco-consciousness. Read the rest of this entry »
Athens-Clarke County’s Board of Elections reported in a recent meeting the outcome of the voting registration booth at the University of Georgia’s Peabody Award event March 30.
Students arrived in the Tate Theater to get a sneak peak of HBO-produced shows and movies including early previews of the season premieres for Game of Thrones, Veep and the film Silicon Valley.
“We got a call from somebody with the Peabody Awards,” said Administrative Assistant Wanda Raley. “They called and asked that we set up a voter registration booth with their Veep presentation.”
The Board of Elections set up the booth at the event to tie in with Veep, a political comedy show. The booth attracted a handful of registrations during the event.
“A lot of people thought we were a prop,” Raley said. “But we did get a lot of comments.”
The regular monthly meeting of the board was held Tuesday. Supervisor of Elections and Voter Registration Gail Schrader met with board members Charles Knapper, E. Walter Wilson, and Alison McCullick for a brief update on the voters of the county.
According to an activities report produced by the board, 59 percent of citizens within Athens are registered voters. This percent accounts for about 57,000 citizens who are at least 18 years of age.
In the month of March, 149 new voters were successfully registered, according to the report.
The board estimates that 70 percent of the citizens of Athens are eligible to register, meaning around 10,000 people may vote but for whatever reason do not.
Schrader presented another issue involving the county’s electronic voting equipment. The LED monitors require batteries that have an average lifespan of four to five years. Schrader asked the board to approve funds to replace the batteries early – before they potentially burn out on an important election day.
Knapper, Wilson and McCullick all agreed to approve the funds. The board has a budget of about $21,000 according to their internal report.
The Board of Elections is responsible for serving citizens “by being fair, nondiscriminatory and informed on all election laws and legislative changes” affecting the people, according to their official website. As such, the board is also responsible for finding and stopping instances of voter fraud.
Schrader described a situation that the office had discovered involving around 20 people sharing the same Alps Road address. On investigation, the location turned out to be a delivery address for P.O. Boxes.
Schrader went on to explain that she believes it to be an error on the part of the voters in filling out registration forms. The form asks for the person’s residential address, and she believes some mistakenly placed a delivery address in the space.
“We just want to be proactive to have something if they want to come to the board,” Schrader said.
The board is free to challenge these voters at any time, however the notification would have to be sent to the Alps Road address, and it is unclear whether this would be an effective means of contacting these people.
The board would also be unable to change any labels on the registration form itself, as these changes are carried out by the state.
In other business, the board is doing away with hard copies of voter information stored in their offices. Past voter information will now be kept digitally. To facilitate this change, the office will begin auditing their records.
“I think it’s going to be a really good change,” Schrader said.
Raley, who is helping to carry out the audit, agrees about the benefits of digital over physical.
“I actually think the process is working well,” Raley said. “It makes the person entering the data be more careful, because you know someone is going to come right after and look at it.”
Over the course of March, the elections office picked up $525 in fines from voters.
The meeting concluded with no unfinished business on the agenda. The next meeting will be May 12.
“This office is hugely well-run,” Thompson said after the meeting, explaining that despite few citizens attend the sessions, the board carries out its business effectively.
“It’s pretty quiet now,” Knapper said in reference to voting issues the board is dealing with. “Next year there will be issues to deal with, but this year has been pretty slow.”
By Lauren McDonald
Pickle ball, a combination of badminton, tennis and ping pong, was the unexpected topic of discussion at the meeting on how to renovate Bishop Park.
And a new pickle ball court may be one of many changes soon to come to the park.
About 30 Athens citizens participated in a public input session on Wednesday night, to give feedback on the new master plan proposal for renovations to Bishop Park, one of Athens most popular community sites.
“We’re looking at the whole park,” said Kevan Williams, an Athens park planner heading the project. “And making sure that it’s meeting the community’s needs.”
Emily Carr, who comes to Bishop Park regularly to walk and to visit the Athens Farmers Market, completed a survey at the meeting, She said the new master plan seems feasible.
“I thought the changes were realistic,” Carr said. “They weren’t high in the sky, that we don’t have money for. They made some real improvements.”
Major changes proposed include parking lot renovations, an 8,000 square-foot Wellness Center, an expansion of the Gymnastics Center and new rental pavilions.
Park planners also proposed an 18,000 square-foot event pavilion and plaza, which would be the home of the Athens Farmers Market.
Carr, who has lived in Athens for 44 years, remembers visiting the park in 1968, when it was just a fair ground.
Bishop Park, located at 705 Sunset Drive, was built 40 years ago and has undergone no major renovation since the 1970s.
The growing Athens community has since then developed different needs from the park, Williams said. The use of the park and the neighborhood around it have changed significantly.
Also, many of the park’s structures are no longer up to code.
The 33-acre park is relatively small compared to others parks in the community. Trail Creek Park is nearly 100 acres, and Sandy Creek Park is almost 800 acres.
“But this is a very dense park in terms of the scale of activities,” Williams said.
“It gets almost 400,000 visits a year. So this is a big project in terms of its significance, even if it’s not big in terms of its physical footprint.”
The Athens Park Planning Department enlisted the help of the University of Georgia’s Center for Community Design and Preservation back in October 2014 to garner public input.
A team of UGA students and faculty conducted online surveys and in-park surveys. They also consulted park planning staff and the Bishop Park workers.
Jarrad Holbrook, a student who worked on the project, said the most glaring renovation needs when he first began were restructuring of the parking lot and updates to buildings.
“First and foremost, that whole parking lot was a mess. It’s set up kind of like a maze, the turns are too sharp,” Holbrook said. “We also saw that there were clearly issues with some buildings. One particular building looked like it had been built temporarily, and then temporary became 15, 20 years.”
The CCDP hosted a public input session last year to get initial suggestions from the community on renovations they’d like to see, and the park planners incorporated many of those suggestions into the new master plan.
“People liked that the park is easy to access, and there’s something for everybody,” Lewis said. “It allows non-traditional uses, like the Farmer’s Market. It’s more than just a sports park. So they liked that it was good for families, and people, whether they’re doing group activities or whether they’re just going solo to run or walk with the dog.”
The public also asked for an indoor aquatics facility and a dog park, but planners did not included those requests into the new plan, due to cost and space requirements.
Park planners aim to ensure that Bishop Park offers “a little bit of everything for all people.”
“If you come here at different times, you’ll see a lot of real diversity of people that use this park,” Carr said. “In Athens in a lot of places, even though we’re a very integrated town, you can live your life with only seeing people that look like you. When you come to parks like this, you see lots of different kinds of folks.”
Once Park Planning Department confirms the master plan, the focus will move to funding for the project. Williams said funds may come from a special-purpose local-option sales tax (SPLOST) or from donations.
“There’s a lot of interest right now in wellness,” Williams said. “So we’re hoping right now that through partnerships with different organizations we may be able to attract some support for parts of the park that might support those goals.”
The department hasn’t set a timeline for completion yet. The department will move forward with the plan based on the community’s feedback.
So far, the department has received over 500 survey responses, including those received at Wednesday’s session.
“The feedback’s been really good,” Williams said. “It’s always kind of exciting when you put a big idea out there, to see how people are going to take that and what things people will pick up on.”
And Williams said a new pickle ball court will be considered when they begin redrafting the master plan.
“We’ll look at ways to look at their ideas and make sure we’re not leaving anything out,” he said. “That’s sort of the point of doing this – to make sure that everybody has a chance to make sure that their voice is being heard.”
By Luke Dixon
Drinking alcohol in Athens could become less restrictive in the near future, at least the area where you are permitted to do so.
The Athens-Clarke County Commission is set to consider making consumption of alcohol easier and allowing additional outdoor portable signage at sidewalk cafes in Athens.
The original sidewalk café ordinance was adopted by the City of Athens in 1979 and has been amended three times since then in 1994, 2003 and 2011. There are two types of sidewalk cafes as defined by the Legislative Review Committee’s proposal. One is a common area café on College Square, Walker’s which have open space in front of the bar property.
The proposed amendment to the ordinance also states that “cafés attached to the building which are limited to 50% of the sidewalk width and must allow a minimum of 5 feet for a pedestrian path, alcohol is allowed, and dividers are required” according to the commission report and recommendation.
The current ordinance calls for required physical barriers and railings that are placed outside the cafés to mark the territory where patrons can consume alcohol on the sidewalk and patio area.
There are multiple parts to the proposed amendment of the existing ordinance. The first part would allow an option of a physical barrier to be put up or sidewalk cafés no that are not in downtown Athens proper, but rather outside the downtown district. The Legislative Review Committee has proposed two zones– one in downtown, one for the rest of Athens-Clarke County outside of downtown.
The major difference is bars outside downtown wouldn’t require a physical rail boundary. Instead they could use a non-physical marker throughout the sidewalk that would mark where patrons could and could not drink. This would allow sidewalk cafés like Go Bar, which is located on Prince Avenue outside of downtown, to not have to put up a physical barrier on the sidewalk drinking area of their properties since it would fall under the scope of the outside downtown cafés.
The second part of the amendment would allow a place like Creature Comforts Brewery, which is located at the intersection of two streets and has its property on both streets, to be able to apply for a sidewalk café permit on both streets.
The third part of the proposed amendment states that owners of the establishments will be responsible for enforcing the boundary at their particular establishment. This means that any obstruction of the boundary i.e. a person crossing over the boundary could result in a fine to the owner/permit holder of the café. The fourth part of the amendment would eliminate the required pressure washing of the sidewalk by each sidewalk café.
During their discussion, the commissioners agreed with many of the provisions and amendments to the sidewalk café structure in downtown, but some also had some reservation and concerns.
Commissioner Jerry NeSmith was wary about the new boundary requirements outside of downtown. He questioned who would be held liable for any misteps and making sure patrons would be made aware of the new boundary. NeSmith requested the city manager and others proposing the amendment clarify the exact boundary requirements for those cafés.
“I wonder if we should require a sign that tells [patrons] because otherwise if no one tells them, then they’re just not going to know,” NeSmith said.
Commissioner Andy Herod shared the same concern and asked Athens-Clarke Attorney, William Berryman, about the enforcement of the proposed policy.
“I still believe if the patron steps out on the sidewalk, with an open container, that patron is going to have full responsibility,” Berryman said in response. “The government might be able to take an administrative action against the owner of the establishment for not giving the warning, but it won’t change the responsibility of the person with the actual open container.”
From a business standpoint, Jake Fisher, the manager of The Cabin Room, formerly known as The Bury, thinks the physical barriers are necessary to most bars downtown. He said that more space could allow for a less restricting barrier and that if a café has the space, like Creature Comforts Brewery for example, to allow freer roaming drinking space, they should do so.
“I think it has its pros and cons as far as clearing up some sidewalk space and allow some of these bars to expand out for the people who do like to go outside and drink a beer,” Fisher said.
Customers and in particular University of Georgia students would favor expanded drinking space, especially in the warmer months, according to UGA students Brandon Estroff and Logan Booker.
Estroff, said the idea of having more space is great even though it likely won’t effect him following graduation in May.
Booker on the other hand was ecstatic to hear of the possible expansion.
“I think it would just be a more lively atmosphere,” Booker said. “Just being outside in general is more of a festive drinking, not just drinking, but more of a social setting. In spring and fall in Athens, it’s nice to be outside.”
The proposed change in the sign ordinance calls for wall mounted board signs and additional sign allowance for all Athens sidewalk cafés.
These are signs that include menus and drink specials among other information, according to the Legislative Review Committee’s (LRC) report. The LRC is recommending that sidewalk cafes be permitted to use mounted wall signs to display menus and specials outside that are currently on portable signs that are placed outside during a businesses operating hours.
Presently, the ordinance does not allow for mounted wall signs that do not count against a café’s allowed signage space. If the mayor and commission approved the proposed amendment to signage ordinance, the mounted wall signs would not count against sidewalk cafés allowed signage space. The mounted wall signs would be restricted to one per business, two per property if the businesses are stacked on top of each other like Taco Stand and Blue Sky was the example Girtz described during discussion. Each sign would not be able to exceed six square feet.
During the discussion, three commissioners raised concerns about the proposed sign ordinance proposal. Link wanted to clarify the difference between signs and posters under the sign ordinance citing many of the downtown business owners concern of not wanting to further hinder their business’ signage and display, with more upcoming construction in the downtown area.
“I’m hoping that we can tweak our ordinances or at least clarify what constitutes art and what constitutes a sign in the very near future because we are going to be seeing some big giant retaining walls popping up in our downtown area and I know that it would be nice if we had the opportunity to brighten them up a little bit without jumping through a bunch of hoops,” Link said.
Herod was concerned that the change in the downtown sign ordinance could affect the proposed café boundary or hinder the marking of the boundary and Girtz was concerned about the content neutrality of the signs.
“Legally speaking, if they allow one type of signage, they have to allow all type of signage in the public space because we have to have content neutral approach,” Girtz said.
The additional signage allowance would be welcomed by sidewalk café businesses, according to Fisher.
“Having a hanging sign would alleviate some of the problems because when it does get busy, sometimes those signs can get trampled and get in the way,” Fisher said. “It’s happened before where I’ve been to other places where it happens. I’ve seen it happen at our bar, other bars.”
If the commission approves these measures at their montly April meetin, it will allow sidewalk cafes with the space and ability outside of downtown additional space in the outdoor and patio area of their establishments. All bars will be able to hang additional signage without hindering the walkway. It will also give more freedom for their customers to enjoy an alcoholic beverage outdoors just as spring fully arrives in downtown Athens.
Both amendments to the ordinance were tabled for further discussion at the Mayor and Commission’s March 17 agenda setting meeting. They will continue to discuss the proposal during their April monthly meeting.
By: Aaron Conley
This is Athens Restaurant Week, when special menus and lower prices are driving diners into the downtown area.
It’s a project of the Chamber of Commerce, which is worried about a dwindling number of people shopping and eating downtown.
Leaders in the Athens-Clarke County government believe that the blame for this trend can be traced back to the increase of online shopping, as well as the pull of large malls in other towns.