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Issues to watch in 2016 in Gainesville/Hall County
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Possible end to tri-state water wars?

It’s been dragging for 25 years, but the tri-state battle over water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin, which includes Lake Lanier, might be nearing a critical milestone.

U.S. Supreme Court filings this fall showed lawyers for Georgia and Florida talking about mediation.

“I will say that we agree that it could be helpful to us and to Georgia in particular if our discussions on a potential settlement could be officiated by a sharp and effective mediator,” Florida lawyer Philip Perry is noted as saying in a Nov. 10 phone conference.

In a Nov. 6 “status report” on litigation between the states, Georgia said it believes “the best way to advance the process is to engage a mediator acceptable to both sides who can create a framework for formal in-person discussions and periodic exchanges of information specifically directed to settlement.”

Florida has charged that Georgia’s “overconsumption” of water in the ACF is creating economic hardship, particularly on the oyster industry in Apalachicola Bay.

Georgia has denied the allegations.

Alabama, which has been part of past litigation over water in the basin, isn’t part of the latest lawsuit.

Glades Reservoir

Hall County has spent about $16 million to date on the proposed Glades Reservoir, acquiring land in North Hall and working through a years-long application process with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

So it’s no surprise that county officials said they want assurances and reimbursement if the state turns the proposed Glades Reservoir into a regional water supply project.

Recent population projections, which show slower growth over the next several decades than previously thought, have called the water supply needs of Hall County into question.

And with ongoing disputes over water access between Georgia, Florida and Alabama, Peach State officials seem to have found additional uses for Glades.

Those uses include supplementing flow of the Chattahoochee River downstream of Lake Lanier, which could help meet the demands from neighboring states.

There is also speculation that the proposed 850-acre reservoir could be expanded.

But if the state takes over Glades, county officials said they are committed to receiving “a return on our investment.”

Environmentalists have long criticized Glades as nothing more than an amenity lake for future residential and commercial development.

The reservoir’s ultimate fate will be determined when the corps makes a permitting decision in October or November 2016.

Gainesville stormwater program

A proposed “rain tax” in Gainesville to fund stormwater infrastructure upgrades seemed destined for approval late in the year.

But then residents and business owners stepped up to the microphone and city officials voted it down.

Reports of the stormwater utility’s death, however, are premature.

Gainesville officials have warned that aging pipes, costly road washouts and new state and federal water quality regulations have prompted the need for a self-sustaining fee program.

An initial proposal calls for charging $1 for every 1,000 square feet of impervious surface on residential, commercial, nonprofit and government property.

Churches, hospitals and even government buildings will be subject to the new fee.

There are more than 124 million square feet of impervious surfaces in Gainesville alone, and the fees could generate about $1.5 million in revenue in the first year.

City officials said they will hold public meetings on the proposal in 2016 and expect to hold another vote on the fee program by April.

Standardized testing changes coming

Changes are coming in 2016 to standardized testing at just about every grade level.

In December, Congress made some changes and reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, while renaming it the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The change effectively ends No Child Left Behind and allows for some flexibility from standardized testing at the state level.

How exactly the new act will affect Georgia students remains to be seen. Prior to the change, State Superintendent Richard Woods called for a testing audit to determine what state and local testing could be eliminated.

“This is an issue explicitly recommended in the new law, which we will gladly continue,” Woods said. “Over the coming months, my team and I will look carefully at this new legislation and move forward with some of our already implemented actions to provide relief from over-testing and over-burdensome accountability. Now that the federal government has provided states with flexibility, we as a state must act in the interests of our students and teachers.”

At the high-school level, students taking the SAT are also in for a switch this year. The first administration of the “new” SAT begins in March, and it will return to the 1600-point scale.

Math and reading sections will be scored between 200-800, and the essay portion will be optional and evaluated separately.

The one-quarter-point penalty for wrong answers will be discontinued, making the new scoring model more complex than years before.

New commercial and residential development

Gainesville took in more than $1 million in permitting and impact fees from new commercial and residential development in 2015.

Nearly 40 new commercial and 400 new single-family residential permits were issued last year.

City officials said they expect to see continued commercial development along Dawsonville Highway and in the New Holland area on the east side.

And mixed-use developments in and around the downtown square could finally emerge.

Though South Hall will continue to see its fair share of new development, real estate experts believe growth in Gainesville will also remain strong as more and more people and businesses look to locate in the county’s urban core.

Major South Hall traffic artery to open

Work is set to finish in January on a new four- and six-lane Ga. 347/Friendship Road connecting Interstate 985 and Old Winder Highway/Ga. 211 in South Hall.

Ga. 347 between Ga. 211 and Spout Springs Road opened in June, shortly after the 100-unit Northeast Georgia Medical Center Braselton opened its doors off Ga. 347. Other medical offices are now springing up around Ga. 347 and Ga. 211.

Other plans are underway to widen Ga. 347 between McEver Road and Lanier Islands resort. The Georgia Department of Transportation finished widening Ga. 347 between McEver Road and I-985 in late 2014.

With the completion of all the segments, Hall County will have one of its longest east-west connectors, running from Lanier Islands in Buford to Ga. 211 in Braselton. Ga. 211 then leads to Chateau Elan and Interstate 85.

Homelessness

A growing homeless population in Gainesville and a clear shortage of resources to address the problem have city officials, nonprofit directors and community leaders reconsidering how best to move forward.

Councilman George Wangemann said he and other city leaders expect to meet with Jerry Deyton, pastor of The Way ministry located in the industrial area of Gainesville, in a few weeks to discuss Deyton’s plans to open a new homeless shelter.

Meanwhile, Phillippa Lewis Moss, director of the Gainesville-Hall County Community Service Center, has been working to identify where homeless assistance programs overlap, where gaps are growing and where new programs are warranted to serve those in need.

Moss said she is building a resource directory and map that details homeless assistance programs available in Hall, as well as the location of transitional apartments, affordable housing, and mental health and substance abuse counseling.

Moss said she also hopes to build a coalition of support involving local government, businesses and residents.

A concerted effort is just what is needed to address the problem, Wangemann said.

New pedestrian/bike trail opening

With the projected completion of a pedestrian tunnel late in 2016, a key segment of what has been dubbed the “Highlands to Islands” trail could be completely open.

Walkers and bikers already are taking advantage of sections now open — between Palmour Drive near Lee Gilmer Memorial Airport and Chicopee Mill Village — but there’s more work to do.

Workers still need to put in the concrete trail between Chicopee and the Georgia Department of Labor office off Atlanta Highway/Ga. 13.

The final link in the $2.3 million project, though, is the pedestrian tunnel, which will run under Ga. 13 from the Chicopee side of the road to the labor department side.

Also, officials are talking about the park-and-ride lot off Ga. 13 and Thurmon Tanner Parkway serving as a trailhead. The lot is about 60-70 feet from the trail, with a sidewalk connecting the two.

In the meantime, Gainesville is seeking a $100,000 grant through the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to extend the trail from Palmour to Queen City Parkway/Ga. 60.

School construction

The new year also brings the start of some major changes in Gainesville and Hall schools.

Students at Enota Multiple Intelligences Academy in Gainesville will spend the 2016-2017 school year in a temporary facility, while the current school building is replaced with a brand-new one. Construction will begin likely in May, when the current school year ends.

The project is made possible with the renewal of the special purpose local option sales tax for education, which provides funding for capital projects including renovations or construction of schools.

E-SPLOST could also fund the construction of a new school in the Mundy Mill area and a renovation and addition at Centennial Arts Academy. Additional information about both of these projects is expected in 2016.

In the county, the new year should bring news of a new middle school on the Chestnut Mountain Elementary School property in Flowery Branch. The new school would be the start of an eventual seventh high school district in Hall County.

A formal recommendation for the project is expected to be made in early 2016, and the district foresees the project taking 2½ years.

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