Hall County Board of Commissioners
What: Public hearing and final action on proposed rezoning for homes for women involved in sex trafficking
When: 6 p.m. Thursday
Where: Hall County Government Center, 2875 Browns Bridge Road, Gainesville
It was a faith-based proposal to help a troubled group of people in a rural Hall County residential complex, and it initially caused a stir among neighbors.
That’s the early story of Eagle Ranch, a highly acclaimed, Christian-based residential program for teens having problems at home and school.
And it’s a present-day scenario for Gainesville-based Straight Street Ministries, which is set to go before the Hall County Board of Commissioners this week with its much-opposed rezoning proposal for a campus to house women involved in sex trafficking.
The two are drawing comparisons.
“They did a great job, and that’s what we want to do, too,” Straight Street founder Todd Robson said last week. “We truly want to be a blessing to the community and something (residents) would be proud of.”
Founded in 1985, Eagle Ranch had a rocky start of its own as its plans became public two years earlier.
Residents initially were worried Eagle Ranch would house “hardened criminals,” according to “On Eagle’s Wings,” a book documenting Eagle Ranch’s founding.
The book, written by Gainesville resident John Vardeman, mentions how worries were fueled by a Reader’s Digest article about kids escaping a youth detention center and killing several people in their wake.
As the issue went before the Hall County Planning Commission in April 1983, Gainesville lawyer Frank Armstrong and Eagle Ranch founder Eddie Staub said the boys in the program — girls would be accepted later — would not be juvenile delinquents or other court-sponsored youths, according to The Times coverage of the issue. Instead they would be “neglected, abused or orphaned boys.”
Property owners showed up not so much in opposition but asking questions about road safety, water supply, sewage disposal and how the money to operate Eagle Ranch would be raised.
“Will you get started, run out of money and leave us an albatross?” one resident asked.
Eagle Ranch got the planning board’s recommendation for approval and in time, the opposition fell away, with county commissioners giving their OK later that month.
“It’s a matter of education, if you can get out ahead of the social media,” said Gainesville lawyer Steve Gilliam, an Eagle Ranch board member, of the change of heart.
“And back then, there was no social media. If there were rumblings, it was easier to have neighborhood and one-on-one meetings.”
Today, Eagle Ranch sits on 270 acres off Union Church Road, where it houses 42 boys and 22 girls. The property features residences, a chapel, multipurpose gym, school, general store, equine therapy center and a lodge.
“To me, it beautified the landscape around there,” Robson said.
He envisions a similar bucolic setting for his campus on 50 acres off Weaver Road, a hilly area off Poplar Springs Road in southeast Hall County.
Straight Street is looking to eventually build 17 houses for the women, as well as an administrative building, barn, chapel, activity field, garden and meadow.
“We don’t want a compound-looking thing. We want a beautiful entrance to the place, maybe a nice fence that makes it look like farmland,” Robson said. “When we do the ministry offices, we want it to look like a lodge ... not a commercial building.”
Mike Klukaszewski, one of the opponents to Straight Street’s proposal, noted the similarities to Eagle Ranch during remarks to the Hall planning commission last month.
“Look at what it turned out to be,” he said.
“But ... Eagle Ranch is a separate facility unto itself with access to a (main) throughway,” Klukaszewski said. “It’s not in the middle of a neighborhood like this.”
He went on to say that Straight Street’s mission isn’t the issue.
“Does it belong in a residential neighborhood with children? I don’t think so,” he said.
Neighbors also said they worried the development also would raise safety concerns and lower property values.
Several people spoke in favor of the proposal at the meeting, including Chase Thomas, who lives 2 miles from the proposed site.
“I praise Jesus for people like (Straight Street) who want to love even when no one else will,” he said.
Ultimately, the planning board recommended denial of the project.
“I do not feel that this is the correct location for this ministry,” Planning Commissioner Bo Brooks said.
Straight Street is asking to rezone its property to planned residential development from agriculture-residential, which allows homes, churches and “minor subdivisions.”
The requested zoning allows for a mixture of single-family and multifamily housing and should “conform to the existing character and development pattern of the surrounding area.”
The Hall commission’s decision will be the final vote on the matter.