Downtown ‘blight’ raises question of eminent domain

News
Downtown Hiawassee

HIAWASSEE, Ga. – Plans for two Hiawassee buildings are steadily progressing, with Hiawassee City Council scheduled to vote Tuesday on a Blight Resolution proposed by Hiawassee Mayor Liz Ordiales earlier this week. The City of Hiawassee recently purchased the historic structures, located just west of town square, for the purpose of downtown redevelopment.

Click to read Hiawassee solicits business ideas for purchased buildings

“We did Environmental Phase One and Two studies and there was nothing wrong with the buildings. They even did soil surveys and found that there was acetone in there,” Ordiales said during the monthly Mayor’s Report at city hall. “They said, ‘But yeah, you don’t even have to worry about it. It’s very minimal amounts, you can do what you want with the buildings.'” Upon inquiry from Councilmember Amy Barrett, Ordiales confirmed that asbestos testing was additionally conducted and that none was found.

Later in the Jan. 27 work session, listed as new business, the Blight Resolution appeared on the council’s agenda.

“In order for us to apply for big money for the remodel of those old buildings, we have to declare them blight and like, falling apart,” Ordiales said. “And once we get that we can apply for (what) they call Community Development Block Grants…and if it’s a blight building and we’ve deemed it to be a blight building, they give you more money. Well, certainly that’s a blight building. There’s nothing to discuss.”

Mayor Liz Ordiales

Mayor Liz Ordiales at the council’s Jan. 27 work session.

The Community Development Block Grant program is federally funded and “focuses on benefiting low- to moderate-income people by providing resources for livable neighborhoods, economic empowerment, and decent housing,” the Georgia Department of Community Affairs website explains.

Although the exact requirements of a blighted location widely vary, the City of Hiawassee has not released specific criteria. The following list, however, are common examples of blight:

•    Deteriorating and/or abandoned structures
•    Population loss or significantly changed population demographics
•    Defective street layout
•    Unsafe or unsanitary conditions
•    Lack of utilities or public works improvements
•    Environmental contamination of nearby structures or land

Hiawassee blight

An interior look at one of the Main Street buildings purchased by the City of Hiawassee.

FYN was contacted by a downtown business owner who questioned the city’s future intentions, concerned with the possibility of the resolution opening “Pandora’s Box” toward eminent domain. Research into the topic of blight, in fact, revealed a consistent connection to eminent domain land grabs.

In late-2018 when the five-year strategic plan was introduced at Hiawassee City Hall, an appointed ethics board member publicly inquired whether eminent domain – a highly-controversial practice in which the government expropriates private property for public use – was an option to abolish what the member considered an unattractive local business. A representative from the Carl Vinson Institute responded that grants, rather, may be available to encourage compliance with the city’s aesthetic vision.

Click to read Editorial: Hiawassee’s plans may encompass more than meets the eye

Following an announcement in August 2019 by Economic Developer Director Denise McKay that 209 properties had been identified by the city government as redevelopment sites, FYN filed an open records request to research the matter.

Click to read Residences on Hiawassee’s wish list for commercial development

The properties on the City of Hiawassee’s radar for redevelopment include numerous occupied buildings and several residential homes in the area. A full copy of the identified properties is available here: Rural Zone

“Though redeveloping blighted areas may seem like a positive step to many, it can cause major harm to landowners in these areas,” the law firm of Sever Storey, attorneys specializing in property rights, explained. “Additionally, the definition of ‘blight’ is often so vague that the government may try to seize property under the guise of blight when, in reality, the neighborhood is functioning and vibrant. One abandoned building should not mean that an entire block of homes should be seized from their owners and torn down, though studies have shown that the government often abuses its powers to condemn blighted areas.”

case study was released by the Institute of Justice after the organization became involved in an Elberton, Georgia, couple’s fight against the city to save their small business from an attempt to deem their town square building blighted. “Because eminent domain—especially quick take proceedings—can deprive people of their property, courts strictly construe eminent domain statutes to ensure property and due process rights. Strictly construing the power to take property for ‘public road and other transportation projects’ is also necessary to prevent Georgia governments from improperly invoking that power to avoid the important provisions of the Landowner’s Bill of Rights and Private Property Protection Act,” the Institute of Justice said.

While the issue of blight progressing into an eminent domain situation is unfounded, history has shown a concrete correlation between blight findings and eminent domain in the hands of Georgia municipalities.

Georgia’s constitution authorizes its counties and municipalities to establish a community redevelopment tax incentive program (Ga. Const. art. IX, § 2, para. VII). Those that choose to do so must adopt an ordinance that includes certain provisions.

Hiawassee City Council is set to vote on the Blight Resolution, Tuesday, Feb. 4, at 6 p.m. While the meeting is open to the public, citizen input is prohibited during the council’s regular sessions.

 

Downtown Development Authority brainstorms plan for Hiawassee’s future

News
Hiawassee DDA

HIAWASSEE, Ga. – Hiawassee’s Downtown Development Authority (DDA) met Monday, Oct. 15, at Hiawassee City Hall to plan the revitalization stages of the city’s economic structure. Joint Economic Developer Denise McKay, along with DDA Chairman Herb Bruce, Tamela Cooper, Maggie Oliver, and Lindie Wright were in attendance.

A beautification goal for murals to grace the sides of local businesses is progressing with two locations tentatively identified. The cost to the city of Hiawassee will amount to approximately $3,000, McKay said. Minor changes were adjusted in the DDA bylaws, and the fiscal year was adapted to coincide with the city of Hiawassee’s audit period of July 1 through June 30. DDA directors who do not attend four consecutive meetings will forfeit their position on the board. A quorum, defined as the minimum number of members of an assembly that must be present at any of its meetings to make the proceedings of the session valid, was determined to amount to the majority of DDA directors.

Objectives for use as marketing material were discussed in the form of a brainstorming session. DDA directors seemingly agreed that a “visually appealing city” would draw additional business to the area, aiding in the creation of a “cute, little downtown.” The board members noted a need for after-hour businesses, such as restaurants and a tempered, nightlife atmosphere. City “walkability” was a factor in the forum. Activities for youth were mentioned, and target audiences from two separate age groups- 16 to 40-year-olds and 40 to 80-year-olds – were formed.

The city’s DDA was created to operate in conjunction with Hiawassee’s strategic plan. The future meeting schedule and ideas for activities and fundraisers were listed under new business. In addition to the members present at Monday’s session, Hiawassee Mayor Liz Ordiales, Teresa Andretta, and Judith Weible form the city’s DDA. Mayor Ordiales was out-of-town, and could not attend Monday’s meeting.

 

Feature Image: Hiawassee DDA Chairman Herb Bruce at the Oct. 15 meeting.

 

 

Commissioner Bradshaw talks economy, jobs, and “small town feeling”

News
Towns County SPLOST

HIAWASSEE, Ga. – Towns County Sole Commissioner Cliff Bradshaw opened his monthly meeting, Tuesday, June 18, with  an update on the county’s financial health. “Right now, the sales tax collections are up around $28,000 from what they were this time last year, so we’re very thankful for that. We give that to a good economy. We give it to many people trying to do many things to promote our county, have events, and bring  people here, and they spend money, and have a great time. They leave and then it’s longing to come back here again, and they do, and a lot of them come back and build a house or buy a house, and that’s what it’s all about, so were very thankful.”

Towns County Commissioner

Towns County Commissioner Cliff Bradshaw

Commissioner Bradshaw noted the proven economic contributions of Candace Lee of the Towns County Chamber of Commerce, who was in attendance, and officially introduced Denise McKay, who serves as the economic developer for Hiawassee, Young Harris, and Towns County as a whole, praising McKay’s initial efforts.

“Jobs are very important and this is the whole plan…,” Commissioner Bradshaw went on to say, emphasizing the appeal of a “small town” essence, including a desire to deter younger generations from relocating from the area due a lack of employment options. “But I do feel like it is our job as county government to try to promote businesses, and try to promote some growth so that we can provide job opportunities, and that’s what Denise is here for. However, and she understands, and she likes it here, that’s why she moved here, but we don’t want to lose the small town feeling.” The commissioner concluded that his pressing goal is to fill vacant buildings and empty lots within the county with economic opportunities, beneficial to all.

 

Hiawassee scheduled to activate Downtown Development Authority

News
City of Hiawassee

HIAWASSEE, Ga. – Hiawassee City Council, in cooperation with Hiawassee Mayor Liz Ordiales and Economic Developer Denise McKay, are scheduled to activate the city’s Downtown Development Authority (DDA) during their regular session, Tuesday, June 4, at Hiawassee City Hall.

According to FYN’s research into DDA board member training, the governing body of the city “activates” the DDA via an “activating resolution.” The General Assembly has already created a DDA for each Georgia municipality, although the DDA cannot transact any business, nor exercise any powers, until the city activates it. In the activating resolution, the city must designate the city’s downtown development area – which consists of the geographical jurisdiction of the DDA –  and appoint initial directors.

“Wouldn’t it be nice to have every, single storefront filled? That’s my target,” stated Mayor Ordiales last week at the “Eggs & Issues” breakfast meeting.

Downtown Development Authorities (DDA) and their appointed boards are created to revitalize and redevelop the central business districts of cities in Georgia. DDA training provides local leaders with the skills and knowledge they need to ensure a healthy, vibrant downtown. According to the University of Georgia, DDAs have a range of powers which include: developing and promoting downtowns; making long-range plans or proposals for downtowns; financing (by loan, grant, lease, borrow or otherwise) projects for the public good; executing contracts and agreements;  purchasing, leasing or selling property; and issuing revenue bonds and notes.

Furthermore, a “Broadband Ready” ordinance is scheduled to go before the council Tuesday evening.

Hiawassee City Council convenes on the last Monday of each month for work sessions, followed by regular sessions the following Tuesday, at 6 p.m. Meetings are open to the public.

Hiawassee updates community on loans, city advancements

News, Politics
Hiawassee election

HIAWASSEE, Ga. – Hiawassee City Council convened for March’s work session on Monday to discuss numerous topics. Hiawassee Mayor Liz Ordiales opened with a monthly report, including an update on city loan repayments. Mayor Ordiales announced that yet another Georgia Environmental Finance Authority (GEFA) loan has been repaid, saving taxpayers $50,543 in interest. The payoff amount was listed at $191,312. While $3.8 million remains in city debt, a total amount of $823,684 has been paid to date, the mayor said. Three United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) loans loom, totaling $2.3 million, with the highest interest fixed at 4.375 percent. “I would love to take care of that one, but that’s a $700,000 loan so we’ll figure a way to get to that one later,” Ordiales explained. Four GEFA loans remain, amounting to $1.7 million, with the highest interest set at 3.81 percent. “I’ve got my eyes on two of those. The highest one will probably be gone in a couple months, so we’re moving in the right direction with that,” Ordiales said. The mayor reminded that designation as a PlanFirst community offers a half percent credit on GEFA loans, and such will be applied toward water treatment plant funding.

Liz Ordiales

Hiawassee Mayor Liz Ordiales

Mayor Ordiales reported that maintenance on the million gallon water tank was completed, as well as the “green tank” that serves as storage, and that a derelict home on River Street was demolished in accordance with the city’s five-year strategic plan. Revitization on the post office began the weekend prior, with pressure washing taking place. At the conclusion of the meeting, citizens were invited to cast votes for the future color scheme of the post office by dropping play money into buckets. The mayor proposed purchasing Galaxy Samsung 32GB tablets for the council to receive official emails, at a cost of $188.84 per tablet. The council remained silent on the issue, opting to discuss the matter at a later date. The mayor informed that students on spring break from Grand Rapids, MI, visited Hiawassee, removing kudzu vines from an area behind McDonald’s. Ordiales relayed that the city purchased lunch for the volunteers.

New business included a screw press declaration pertaining to the water treatment plant. The “sludge remover” will cost approximately $384,000, the mayor said, adding that the current belt is 35 years old, costing $15,000 in repair each time that it malfunctions. Debt collection through Georgia Municiple Association (GMA) was noted, with the service retaining 17.5 percent of collected funds. The first reading of a defined benefit resolution ordinance was held, transfering management from GMA to One America. The city matches up to 3 percent of city staff contributions, and the mayor reported that 12 government employess have signed up for the program thus far.

A University of North Carolina water study was announced by Ordiales which will increase residents’ water rates from the current amount of $19.27 to $42.25 over a five-year span. FYN requested additional information from the city clerk on the increase, and an in-depth article explaining the process – including the potential addition of fluoride to the local water supply – will follow. Economic Developer Denise McKay addressed the citizens as the meeting concluded, briefly explaining the implementation as a Main Street Affiliate through the Department of Community Affairs, which McKay said will open resources, and a Rural Zone Designation program, an endeavor that McKay described as a labor-intense project that will focus on the downtown area, defining physical boundaries. Hiawassee Police Chief Paul Smith recounted the donation of a patrol vehicle and speed detector devices from a generous law enforcement agency in Sunny Isle Beach, FL.

Hiawassee Post Office

Buckets for votes on the future color scheme of the Hiawassee Post Office

Elijah Moody, a student from Eastgate Life Academy, opened the meeting with a lively speech on the future of artificial intelligence. Rotary Club Public Image Chair Bonny Herman provided information on an Earth Day event, scheduled for April 13 on Hiawassee Square. Additionally listed on the agenda, City Councilwoman Nancy Noblet resigned from organizing future square activities, explaining that the task has become challenging. Noblet volunteered for square event oversight three years prior.

Hiawassee City Council will meet for their regular session Tuesday, April 2, at 6 p.m. A public hearing on the city’s 2019-2020 proposed budget is scheduled for Thursday, April 18, at 6 p.m.

Towns County joins Hiawassee and Young Harris in hiring economic developer

News
City of Hiawassee

HIAWASSEE, Ga. – The City of Hiawassee, in cooperation with the City of Young Harris, and Towns County as a whole, arrived at a unified decision to employ an economic developer to assist in the creation and retainment of business-related endeavors in the area. Hiawassee Mayor Liz Ordiales introduced Denise McKay to the community during a town hall meeting on Dec. 4. The announcement corresponded with the revelation of a five-year tentative plan for Hiawassee’s future, designed from input from citizens and local leaders by the Carl Vinson Institute of Government.

Denise McKay

Denise McKay

McKay holds a decade of experience as the Main Street Manager of Commerce, Georgia, and Economic Development and Main Street Director of Hampton, Georgia. McKay graduated from Upper Iowa University in 2012, with a Bachelor of Science degree in Public Administration.

Towns County Commissioner Cliff Bradshaw addressed the joint initiative on Dec. 18. “The county is doing this as a pilot program,” Bradshaw explained, “We’re going to do this for one year to see how this lady works out for the county, and to see, to put it in simple terms, to see if we get our money’s worth.” Bradshaw quoted the cost to county taxpayers at roughly $20,000. Acquiring grants will be an additional task delegated to McKay.

Bradshaw stressed that his main objective is to provide ample economic opportunities for local youth who wish to remain in Towns County once they have entered the job market.

The commissioner plans to invite McKay to address residents and business owners during a public meeting, scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 15, at 5:30 p.m. at the Towns County Courthouse.

Feature Photo Credit: City of Hiawassee

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