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From weddings to retreats, clear rules, standards needed

In what has become a trend, the planning commission most months hears a request for a special use permit from someone seeking to open a public venue – usually tied to the wedding business.

The appointed commission members then wring their hands over the lack of guidance in forming coherent and uniform decisions on these “special uses.” 

Then they either approve or disapprove, in a fairly arbitrary manner.

Last month, they tabled a recommendation on a permit for a property in the Henderson Mountain Road area presented with the unusual twist of tree house lodging.

The previous month, they approved a permit for a bed and breakfast to host small weddings, and the occasional meeting or fundraiser dinner in the Long Swamp Church area in a home where the owners would continue to live.

But, they voiced a negative opinion on a much larger wedding venue on Philadelphia Road. Different results even though a couple of their concerns (accessibility to emergency crews; limits on the venue’s growth; signage for out-of-area motorists; general traffic in the area) applied to both.

They have approved the special use permit for an eco-friendly farm-lodging operation in the Whitestone area, even though planning director Richard Osborne cited this as having a poor access road for emergency crews. They approved a wedding venue on Cove Road that backs up to Big Canoe, but this one led to a slap on the wrist for the county’s whole zoning appeals procedure from the Ga. Supreme Court.

During the July meeting, planning commission members Lee Thrasher, Clayton Preble and Bill Cagle all made similar statements about the lack of any “template” (Preble’s word).

And they appear to still be at square one for this template. The only hard and fast rule for a special events/wedding venue is to shut down live music/outside events by 10 p.m. (We’ll wager their sole rule will be a huge enforcement problem, trying to turn out a wedding barn full of paying guests that early.) 

Commission member Thrasher remarked in the July meeting that his “gut instinct” is they need something more. Thrasher’s gut is correct.

Among the template/ standard procedures that are needed:

• Categories - The commission could save a lot of time to formally recognize that a bed-and-breakfast in a private home and 300-person capacity venue need different levels of scrutiny from the start.

• Provisions to limit future changes/expansions – It never fails to come up that neighbors comment they don’t have a problem with the proposed plan/owner but what happens if the venue changes hands and it goes from a small yoga retreat to the next Burning Man Festival? This is a valid question. The commission needs a legal means to allow a business to move ahead with some plans without giving them carte blanche for anything they want down the road.

• Farms and festivals may both be good, but need to be judged differently.  The commission needs to go further to refine/separate agriculture versus agro-tourism. Agro-tourism has been targeted as a great way to spur commerce in rural areas. But, for land-use planning purposes, there is a vast difference between a pick-your blueberry farm and a winery that hosts festivals.

• Roads and infrastructure – Commission member Harold Hensley made the observation that it seems every road in the county is too crowded, with traffic moving fast. Commission members should be presented with actual vehicle numbers, crash reports and a professional opinion of the road condition. 

Similarly with water/infrastructure issues, there is either enough capacity or not, and a report from the water department should settle that.

The possibility of these agro-tourism venues developing  nice, unique settings, attracting out-of-town spending and creating jobs makes this discussion a worthwhile endeavor. But they can’t be allowed at the cost of sacrificing the quality of life of the neighbors. It’s a tough job to find the right balance. We do not envy the planning commission this task. Let’s hope that the county will better prepare them with a template to make good decisions.