A faith-based program housing and counseling women who have escaped sex trafficking received unanimous approval from the Hall County Board of Commissioners on Thursday night to locate in a residential area off Weaver Road.
But the OK came only after officials agreed to reduce the number of residences to five, each housing just four women, from an initial proposal of 17 while also adding buffer and security requirements to protect adjacent neighborhoods.
Commissioners repeatedly expressed support for Gainesville-based Straight Street Revolution Ministries but sought to alleviate safety concerns brought forth by dozens of residents in the area.
The controversial rezoning of 50 acres of agricultural property near Poplar Springs Road had pitted residents against a mission they said they support.
It’s just that the location was all wrong, they argued.
Gina Dyer told commissioners that she researched similar ministries and found the location incompatible with what Straight Street sought.
For instance, the location should remain private and unpublicized, within city limits and ideally in commercial districts. Straight Street does not meet any of these criteria, Dyer said.
Instead, they are fostering “isolation and dependency,” she said.
Several residents said they feared that victims of sex trafficking living at Straight Streets’ residential compound could be targeted by past abusers and other criminals.
This is a residential area where “kids play in creeks and neighbors share casseroles,” Lisa Murphy said, adding that her family bought their home because the adjacent property where Straight Street will locate was not previously zoned for such commercial or nonprofit uses.
Straight Street founder Todd Robson called the program “life-changing” but said he understood the fears.
But his message was helped along by the appearance of Jentezen Franklin, pastor at Free Chapel, who said he has known Robson for many years and plans to support and partner with Straight Street.
“I can tell you firsthand that lives will be changed,” Franklin said.
Other supporters said it was the right thing to do, even if it’s the hard thing to do.
Straight Street offered to comply with several other conditions, include providing one full-time staff member at each housing unit and installing security gates at the main entrance off Weaver and internal entrances to residences.
Straight Street’s other plans call for adding an administrative building, barn, chapel, activity field, garden and meadow.
“We don’t take these things lightly,” Commissioner Jeff Stowe said of the commission’s decision. “No matter where you put it in the county, somebody is not going to be happy.”