In other business
Gainesville City Council approved a resolution to submit a community agenda as part of its 2030 comprehensive plan to a state agency for review. The plan includes 13 different character areas including Midtown and Downtown, as well as “College Town” near Brenau University. Much of the plan also includes an effort to bring more pedestrian- and bike-friendly areas to the city. The plan will be sent to the Georgia Mountains Regional Commission for review.
The council approved designating three areas of the city as “opportunity zones” as part of an urban redevelopment plan. The zones, which have to be submitted for approval to the state’s Department of Community Affairs, could be eligible for tax credits for jobs added from relocating or expanding businesses. The city is also looking at partnering with Hall County in applying for the opportunity zone designation.
The council approved the write-off of delinquent payments of personal property tax and water bills more than 7 years old. Gainesville city officials said the delinquent payments were largely from bankrupt companies and deceased individuals. The total property tax write-off was $121,000; the total for water bills on bankrupt and deceased customers was about $33,000.
Despite vocal opposition from residents, Gainesville City Council on Monday approved a proposed expansion of Norton Insurance's headquarters in a historic Gainesville neighborhood.
The agency won its request to rezone the property on 424 Boulevard, occupied by a historic home, for office use. The approval allows the agency, which already has three renovated historic houses comprising its headquarters across the street, to expand office and parking spaces.
In a contentious City Council meeting, several Gainesville residents pleaded for elected officials not to allow the plan to move forward. They listed noise, traffic safety and loss of residential character as being at stake.
"I think it's a loss for the Gainesville historical neighborhood," said Fred Powell, who lives next to the property in question.
Brothers Frank and Bob Norton, presidents of Norton Agency and Norton Insurance, respectively, defended the company's reputation for maintaining the historic character in Gainesville.
"We believe businesses should take the lead in historical preservation," Frank Norton said at the meeting.
By a 4-1 vote, with Councilman Bob Hamrick opposing, the council approved rezoning for office purposes and allowing the company to build a 20-space parking lot behind the house.
Parking was the most controversial element of the proposal.
Initially, the Nortons proposed a total of 32 parking spaces at the rear of the house. However, the Gainesville Planning and Appeals Board approved only a maximum of 11 parking spaces at its February meeting.
City code allows for 11 spaces based on the size of the property, said Community Development Director Rusty Ligon.
As a compromise, Frank Norton asked for 20 spaces.
Residents who opposed the expansion were not impressed by the change.
Powell likened the plan to "stuffing a size-10 foot in a size-6 shoe."
Deborah Harkrider, who lives nearby on Park Street, said Norton Insurance had been a good neighbor in its current location. But, she said, the parking lot was too big for the neighborhood.
Others expressed worry of vehicles running in and out of that driveway on the mostly residential side of the street where pedestrians walk and children ride bikes.
Frank Norton said the expansion would not bring more parking onto the road because the property in question would house only cars and employees currently crammed into the existing campus across the street.
"You're not increasing traffic; you're just moving it," Mayor Danny Dunagan said.
Trying to find another compromise, Hamrick proposed changing the parking lot to 15 spaces instead of 20. That modification did not get support from other council members.
As part of the approval of renovations, Norton Insurance is agreeing to "maintain the historical nature of the structure."
There are currently dozens of historic homes in the neighborhood that have been converted into offices. Frank Norton has pointed to those as evidence that businesses are leading in maintaining Gainesville's historic character.
Bob Norton said the company works to "balance business needs with leaving a quality legacy in our community."
Reacting to the council's approval of the proposal, opponents said they were disappointed by what they saw as a loss for neighborhood residents.
"I think it's a sad day on Boulevard," said Brenda Powell, Fred's wife and 12-year resident of the neighboring property.
Frank Norton told The Times that despite the opposition to the plan, the company "will be good neighbors."
"We were friends before," he said. "We'll be friends afterward."