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.
“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.”
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
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.
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.
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.”
A 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.
HIAWASSEE, Ga. – The City of Hiawassee asked for the public’s “positive, serious” thoughts on the types of business they would like to see set up shop on Main Street, west of Hiawassee Town Square. Hiawassee Mayor Liz Ordiales announced the tentative purchase of Hiawassee’s two oldest buildings in late November, with Hiawassee City Council approving the purchase the following week.
The buildings’ appraisal was set at $135,000, Mayor Ordiales said on Nov. 25, although $36,000 was “donated to the city” by Dan Paris, reducing the city’s cost to $99,000. Ordiales expressed gratitude toward Paris, a local businessman who is assisting in the restoration of downtown Hiawassee.
Ideas ranged from a book shop to a pool hall and everything in between.
After many months of detailed research, the Carl Vinson Institute of Government revealed a five-year strategic plan for Hiawassee’s potential future on Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018, during a Town Hall meeting. The procedure of envisioned development was the result of numerous studies conducted between the institute and local leaders, business owners, and residents.
During the course of the study, community stakeholders listed what they felt was working well in Hiawassee, and what they believed could benefit from improvement. Positive aspects included the strong sense of community with a “small-town feel,” the city’s town square, and the location itself, brimming with natural amenities. Feedback on areas that could prosper from improvement consisted of advanced beautification efforts, occupation of vacant buildings and lots, improved traffic and transportation, and the promotion of business options.
What do you think would be a nice addition to Downtown Hiawassee? Let us know in the comment section below or on our Facebook page.
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HIAWASSEE, Ga. – Hiawassee City Council held their monthly work session Feb. 25, 2019, and Hiawassee City Hall was filled to rare capacity with citizens invested in the county seat’s future. Following the business portion of the meeting, public comments were accepted.
What follows is a speech, in its entirety, delivered by Towns County resident Becky Landress. FYN tracked Landress after the meeting to request a copy. The public address followed an article published by FYN earlier this month.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, Council and Ms. Mayor;
Please allow me to introduce myself. My name is Becky Landress. I am a resident of this county and have been my entire life. Despite what a lot of progressive, move in residents feel, I am not uneducated, nor have I been sheltered by small town life. I have a background in journalism and the reason I have stayed in Towns County has much to do with a lot of what has been mentioned as a potential for change. My family is one of the main components, which is not on the table of change, thankfully; although the rest may be.
“My roots run deep. I am proud to know many of the families that make up my community. Families I went to school with, or that taught me, or that have children that have grown up along side my own children. Although finding a job in this area that would fulfill my family’s needs was near impossible, my husband and I made it work for the other benefits. He drove back and forth from Gainesville for over seventeen years to provide for us. He would leave before daylight and often get home well after. We still chose to stay put for the benefit of our children; a good school system, recreation for our children, small town feel, and a value system that mimicked those of our neighbors. Today, I don’t believe we would make that same decision.
“Families are moving away, and others are not moving in. Jobs are still scarce and now recreation programs are almost non existent for children. Our surrounding communities still have recreation programs for children running full force and most importantly, no one is questioning their “Bible Belt stigma”.
“Our traditional values are being questioned by business owners that moved to our area, with those very values in play. Those “progressive” business owners somehow have a voice with this council although they were not elected by anyone in the area. They want to change our “Bible belt stigma” and even want to dictate what music should be welcomed by our area. I’m sorry, but as a native of this area, I find these voices have no business being heard by those of us that were here long before them and didn’t ask their opinion, although this is the make up of your “ethics” board. Really? Calling a political party names and associating them with one of the most horrific groups in history is not someone I would nominate to divise up any board with the word ethical in the description.
“Ms. Mayor and members of this council, I don’t reside within the city limits of Hiawassee but I should, along with every tax paying citizen in this county, have a voice. When people were invited to help divise the five year strategic plan, and boards were made up, they were a make up of a small amount of people that actually represent the vision of most residents. I realize you are a City Council and those that do not live within city limits don’t have a vote, but we should have a voice. No one can live in this county and not have a vested interest in the happenings within Hiawassee. This is where we do our grocery shopping, school clothes shopping with our children and main street is the road we travel to take our children to school everyday, or better yet, church on Sunday. It is the road I travel down to arrive at our small business on the outskirts of town.
“Let’s be honest here, if a five year strategic plan is in place, an aesthetic vision should be one of the components, but not the main component. When hiring an economic developer, as we have, we should feel in line with the words of our county commissioner, “we will try it for one year”. He also has a vision focused on families, instead of primarily community beautification.
“Ms. Webb’s article brought my attention to a lot of things I was unaware of beforehand. I believe many residents weren’t aware of most of the things addressed in her article. Since the article, I have been to the City’s website and studied each slide in the newly adopted strategic plan. I have read about all the previous meetings leading up to that point and I have gained much respect for three members of this council for representing the districts that appointed you.
“The mayor reached out to me through a message and asked me to meet with her to discuss my concerns after me and many others read the article covering last month’s council meeting, and we expressed our ill feelings of many things, most of which was said by a member of the ethics board. We didn’t appoint her to anything and she wasn’t elected by the voters of this City. If she feels the Bible Belt stigma is not her thing, Highway 76 will take her to a city on either side of Hiawassee. Let’s see if that proposition would hold water in either of those communities.
“Honestly, I had never heard of the term “gentrification” before Ms. Webb’s coverage, but I have studied the strategic plan, read about proposed water bill increases, additional proposed taxes and much more. I also have come to the conclusion that gentrification is at play.
“Ms. Mayor, please take note of the wishes of the community you moved in to. The community that welcomed you and even elected you to office. Look back over our history and listen to families. We are not worried about which bag we need to carry out of Ingles. We know our post office is outdated and we also see way too many vacant buildings. Know that many of us remember when those buildings were full. We remember in the late 80’s and early 90’s when there were several stores for ladies to shop for a new purse at. There was one for several decades right here in the center of town and another about a mile down the road, also in city limits, as well as one where those unsightly vacant buildings are across from the grocery store. We remember when restaurants were jumping in the summer and still able to keep their doors open in the winter. A face lift on the post office would be nice but that isn’t as pressing as many of our concerns.
“Focus on a future. Please, focus on getting families here. Possibly incorporate a small playground on your strategic plan. That would look great on the square, near the gazebo. It would work wonderfully with a bunch of new retail stores and restaurants all along the square. We are the only City in our area that doesn’t have shopping and dining around our square. Instead we have insurance and financial. Look into getting stores and restaurants around the square. There are plenty of open spaces and where they are not, try to open up the right businessess in the right spot. If you can accomplish that, families would have a reason to park and walk around Hiawassee, like the visual slides of the strategic plan. If not, there is no reason for additional parking or crosswalks. If you can do that, families would not only fall in love with Hiawassee for the beauty of our lake and mountains and our nice new post office and lovely trees, but they would know we aren’t a retirement ghost town, unwelcoming to families and their needs. They would have no reason to feel Blairsville or Rabun County would be better suited for them because their are more recreation programs for their children and places to dine and shop. With families, comes jobs.
“We can all agree tourism dollars are vital for our area but it’s time we all also agree that our future should not be geared toward retirees moving in. We need to be diverse. We need to bring back the necessities that those that are still working, paying bills, shopping and raising children need. The thoughts and feelings of a select few you have heard over the past few months is not the voice of this community as a whole. I feel you know that. You must know that. Since we can’t vote in city elections without being a resident within city limits, you may be finding an influx of residents moving into city limits and I promise you, it won’t be for the lovely new murals.
Thank you for your time.”
Emotions ran high following Landress’ passionate speech, and Hiawassee Councilwoman Patsy Owens reacted to the speaker’s remark pertaining to respect for unnamed council members. Owens expressed heated dissatisfaction with FYN’s reporting, with Councilwoman Nancy Noblet soon thereafter publicly stating that she did not appreciate Owens referring to the council woman in an alleged, offensive term. Noblet later said that she respects Owens and her fellow council, and while they may not always agree, she will continue to support the mayor and council members when she believes that they are doing the right thing for the citizens. Noblet stressed that she ran for a seat on the city council to serve the people. “I don’t go to any other council member and say ‘This is how I’m going to vote. You need to vote this way.’ I don’t do that. I’ve got a conscience of my own.” Noblet referenced her strong Christian faith, and said that she publicized the meeting on social media beforehand to encourage the high turnout.
Additional citizens voiced their views on varied subjects, ranging from hope for additional youth recreational activities, a desire for a local dog park, and the group seemingly agreed that more economic opportunities are important for the area.
Hiawassee Councilwoman Amy Barrett thanked everyone who attended, saying, “We’re a community. We’re a diverse community. We need everybody involved.” Council members Ann Mitchell and Kris Berrong were present, although they did not offer input during the public portion of the forum.
Following Landress’ speech, Hiawassee Mayor Liz Ordiales invited the Towns County native to meet privately in order to discuss concerns, and the mayor encouraged the public to attend future meetings so that their voices can be heard. Mayor Ordiales stated that she has an open door policy, and that has proven to be the case throughout her term, according to citizens’ reports and FYN access. Additionally, Ordiales relayed earlier in the meeting that she is making a steady effort to visit local business owners to become better acquainted.
One regular attendee shared that the City of Hiawassee as a whole has positively advanced in recent years, with another citizen saying that she “sleeps better at night” knowing that Mayor Ordiales is in office.
Mayor Ordiales remarked throughout the forum, reiterating that she believes that everyone is moving in the same direction. “I think it’s clear that everybody wants to do the right thing for the city,” the mayor said at one point, asking for the public’s patience. As the meeting adjouned, Mayor Ordiales invited the public to return to “hear the truth.”
A summary of the business portion of the Hiawassee City Council work session will soon follow this release, with a hyperlink added once it becomes available.
HIAWASSEE, Ga. – After many months of detailed research, the Carl Vinson Institute of Government revealed a five-year strategic plan for Hiawassee’s future on Tuesday, Dec. 4, during a Town Hall meeting. The procedure of envisioned development was the result of numerous studies conducted between the institute and local leaders, business owners, and residents.
The City of Hiawassee worked with the Carl Vinson Institute, a unit of the Office of Public Service and Outreach at the University of Georgia, which assists state and local governments in achieving their goals. Hiawassee received a $21,000 Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) grant in 2017 to assist in the funding of the study. Steering committees were formed for the endeavor, and interviews and focus groups were held to sculpt the formation of the plan.
During the course of the study, community stakeholders listed what they felt was working well in Hiawassee, and what they believed could benefit from improvement. Positive aspects included the strong sense of community with a “small town feel”, town square, and the location itself, brimming with natural amenities. Feedback into areas that could prosper from improvement consisted of advanced beautification efforts, occupation of vacant buildings and lots, improved traffic and transportation, and the promotion of a mixture of businesses.
The Carl Vinson Institute presented a slideshow of suggestions, adding that the plan is not set in stone, and should rather serve as a community stepping stone.
The proposed, comprehensive plan is available in its entirety on the City of Hiawasee website.
(Images: City of Hiawassee/Carl Vinson Institute of Government)
HIAWASSEE, Ga. – FetchYourNews (FYN) met with Towns County Sole Commissioner Cliff Bradshaw, Hiawassee Mayor Liz Ordiales, and Young Harris Mayor Andrea Gibby, along with newly-hired Economic Development Director Denise McKay, on the afternoon of Tuesday, Jan. 8, for an inquiry session pertaining to goals, and information on how sharing a single developer will work.
Towns County, the city of Hiawassee, and the city of Young Harris entered into a joint contract to share the expense and the fruits of McKay’s labor in expectation of bolstering area commerce. Funding will be divided equally between the county and dual municipalities, estimated at $20,000 per governmental entity, for a total amount of approximately $60,000.
Hiawassee Mayor Liz Ordiales explained that implementing the UGA-Carl Vinson Institute of Government strategic plan is Hiawassee’s top priority.
“We’ve been talking about this for several years, and we feel that since we’re so small, all three of us, the county is not that big, the city of Hiawassee and Young Harris are about the same size, and it’s all small so there’s no need to have three different efforts going on at the same time,” Mayor Ordiales said, “So if we combine our efforts, and you know, go toward the same goal, and I think we all have the same goal. My plan to to take the strategic plan that you’ve all seen and go, execute. Check, check, check. (Young Harris) of course has different needs, the county has different needs, and I realize that this is a big strategic plan, that we’re not going to be able to do it all in a year. I get it. But the ones that we can do, we’ll do, and whatever (McKay) can do for my partners (Towns County, Young Harris) here, that’s the way we’ll rock on with that.”
FYN questioned whether the endeavor is associated with the Downtown Development Authority (DDA). Due to stipulations set forth by the state, Ordiales confirmed that a current affiliation does not exist.
“We’re going to try to pursue Main Street designation, and you know, do the easy stuff first,” Ordiales explained, “If we grow into a DDA, great. If we never get to a DDA, okay.
Young Harris Mayor Andrea Gibby offered input from her mutual standpoint.
“I don’t see (McKay) as the economic development person just for the county, (or) just for us” Mayor Gibby imparted, “So I see her as one person that we are all funding, right? For different needs. It was tossed around at one point, like, (Mayor Ordiales) and I tried, we wanted to have a joint development authority. Because of the way the rules are written in the state – and you all can get all of the rules – we couldn’t do that. Because we wanted to share, we wanted it to be informal sharing, but we can’t do that. So then in asking a lot more questions of people in the state, we just decided along with some advice, that because we are small, because none of us can’t afford one person per city-county, right? Then we can share the cost of one person who can help us achieve goals, right? So while we all have similar things that we need done, we can share.”
Gibby went on to explain that while McKay’s efforts will be divided, there will be times when concentration is focused specifically on the development of Hiawassee or Young Harris, relaying that due to updated infrastructure, the time is right for her city to set plans into action. “We’re at the place where we’re ready to bring people back together, bring the town back together, and we’re going to do that in the next couple of months, and kind of dust this off, update it, and get some priorities in place, and (McKay) is going to kind of help us with that piece, and what are our priorities, and what do we need to do.”
Economic Developer McKay voiced optimism in taking on the work necessary to serve the lofty mission.
In turn, Commissioner Bradshaw shared approval in the stated goals of the project.
“What is so neat about this, as (Mayor Gibby and Mayor Ordiales) said, is that it is a joint effort. It’s a partnership, and I’m so glad that we have the relationships that we can do that,” Commissioner Bradshaw added, “So if (McKay) lands a business to come into the city of Young Harris, I’m as excited as if it were coming outside of the city limits of Hiawassee and Young Harris. It doesn’t matter to me. It all benefits Towns County.” Bradshaw explained that he is looking at the big picture, leading to the decision to partner with the cities.
Feature Photo: (L-R) Towns County Commissioner Cliff Bradshaw, Economic Development Director Denise McKay, Hiawassee Mayor Liz Ordiales, Young Harris Mayor Andrea Gibby
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HIAWASSEE, Ga.- Slightly more citizens than usual turned out at the council’s regular session at Hiawassee City Hall Tuesday, Feb. 5, to hear the five elected officials’ verdict on several issues, including the wastewater expansion bid, a pending sign ordinance, the city’s five-year strategic plan, and a proposal to expedite the adoption of future mandates.
Mayor Liz Ordiales opened the session by reminding the public that comments are not permitted during regular sessions, rather work meetings are the proper time to offer citizen input as they are “informal” gatherings. “That is the place for all kinds of public input,” the mayor said.
Concerning the sign ordinance, council dialogue revolved primarily around banner advertising. After lengthy discussion, the council resolved to amend the tenative ordinance, eliminating a $15.00 fee for businesses to hang banners, and removing the verbage pertaining to the amount of banners a business is permitted to display annually. A single banner, not to exceed 60 square feet in diminsion, is expected to remain in the decree. The council agreed that banners should be kept in presentable condition. An extended sign permit moratorium remains in place while the council reconstructs the ordinance.
Later in the session, Hiawassee City Council unanimously adopted the city’s 2019-2024 revitalization plan. Upon motion from Councilwoman Anne Mitchell and a second from Patsy Owens, Councilman Kris Berrong initiated discussion, explaining that he, along with community members, harbor hestitation. “Concerns of a few that have the strategic plan, and me, personally, I think that we need to talk about it a little bit more. I’m for a lot of it, but we kind of went over it one time with (Georgia Municiple Association) and that was about it,” Berrong relayed.
“But you have a copy,” Councilwoman Anne Mitchell interjected. “I do,” Berrong replied, adding that he was not confident in exactly what might occur when Mitchell pressed. Council members Amy Barrett and Nancy Noblet offered that they had spoken with business owners who had voiced similar concerns.
“This would serve as a document for us to use as a guideline for what we want to do in the city,” Mayor Ordiales said, “This was not our input; this was not the University of Georgia’s input. These are the people in the city who came to our focus groups, who came to the one-on-one interviews, who came to the town hall meetings.”
When a local business owner’s concerns were specifically outlined by Council member Amy Barrett during the session, Mayor Ordiales stated that the owner in question was invited to participate in the focus groups and declined the offer. FYN contacted the business owner the following day and was surprised to learn that the owner had, in fact, attended a focus group, but did not recall receiving any type of follow-up initiated by the city of Hiawassee.
Prior to the council vote, Noblet asked Economic Developer Denise McKay what the initial stage of the comprehensive plan will involve. McKay responded that “basic landscaping and hopefully painting” the post office, beautifying the entrance to Ingles with foliage, and improving the town square are the city’s starting points, explaining that the projects are “fairly easy and inexpensive to do.”
During the council’s work session the week prior, McKay listed public art in the form of murals as the third project, rather than the town square, when FYN publicly inquired into the initial three-fold plan.
A resolution to award the wastewater expansion project to SOL Construction, the lowest bidder, was approved by the full council during the meeting. Mayor Ordiales projected completion by fall of this year.
The session concluded with 3-2 rejection of the mayor’s proposal to enact single-session ordinances. Additional information on the issue is available by clicking this link.
Hiawassee City Council assembles for their monthly work session Monday, Feb. 25, at 6 p.m.