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Two sides of South Hall collide in commission primary between farmer, developer
Board of Commissioners District 3 race
Incumbent Kathy Cooper, left, faces challenger George Thorndyke in the Republican primary for the Hall County Board of Commissioners District 1 seat.

In Hall County’s District 1 primary pitting a farmer against a former Gwinnett professional, it’s a battle of South Hall identities for the Hall County Board of Commissioners seat.

The incumbent, Kathy Cooper, has run a cattle, egg and Christmas tree farm off of Union Church Road for more than 30 years with her husband, John. Her challenger, George Thorndyke, is a private investigator and security consultant who developed property in Lawrenceville and Suwanee at the height of the county’s rush about 15 years ago.

Election 2018

Early voting begins: April 30

Primary: May 22

Election: Nov. 6

Searching throughout North Georgia for a new home, Thorndyke moved to South Hall with his wife four years ago after deciding to leave sprawling Gwinnett. He told The Times this week he’s well-equipped to manage the economic and population growth coming into Hall County from the south.

Meanwhile, Cooper is part of a shrinking class of Hall County residents: The small-scale farmer managing acreage the way it’s been done for years and years in what was once rural South Hall. She says she knows the district, the people who live there and their concerns.

She was first elected to the commission in 2014 and is closing out her first time in District 1, after she edged out Ken Cochran with 51.6 percent of the vote in the previous election.

Cooper touted transportation accomplishments and said that as a first-term commissioner, her work is just beginning.

“When you first start your term you don’t know if it’s something that you’ll enjoy and want to continue, but the more I did, the more interesting it got to me,” Cooper told The Times on Thursday. “I’m involved in some things right now I’d like to see get finished up and (I have) some things I’d like to get started.”

Cooper said she’s proud of improvements made to intersections in her district like Jim Crow and McEver roads near Flowery Branch, which was a snarled four-way stop for years but is being upgraded with traffic lights and turn lanes, and Spout Springs Road and Lake Sterling Boulevard, which was upgraded to include a traffic light at the entrance of the massive South Hall subdivision.

“I’d like to start work on reducing the debt (on sewer) so that we can move forward and do some new work. I think service delivery went really well this time, and we had the comprehensive plan we just got finished,” Cooper said. We’re looking at doing a master parks plan coming up, and I was involved in the new strategic plan for Hall County for the next 10 years — which I hope we’ll put out in May.”

In private industry, the Coopers manage a 250-acre farm in South Hall that, in addition to raising cattle and growing Christmas trees, sells organic eggs that at first were mostly sold to Whole Foods but now are on the shelves at Publix and Kroger as well.

Thorndyke lived in Gwinnett County for about 20 years and, at the time, developed property in the metro Atlanta county. He still holds his real estate license in Georgia but doesn’t use it, he said on Thursday.

It’s his second run for public office in North Georgia, having put in an unsuccessful bid for a Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners seat in 2004.

“I ran for commissioner there as a developer, which was not a good time in Gwinnett County to run on that — I’m not sure they still like developers in Gwinnett County,” Thorndyke said, laughing.

Thorndyke developed two public shopping centers in the county but now works as an investigator and security consultant.

“I work a lot of places,” he said, adding that he specializes in negotiations.

But it’s his development experience in Gwinnett he says he’s bringing to the table for Hall County, saying that he knows “how they did it right and how they did it wrong” in Gwinnett County.

“What they did wrong is they overloaded the infrastructure in certain places. I’m talking roads, sewer, everything,” he said.

The million-resident county has struggled with moratoriums on development to help both government employees and infrastructure catch up with the workload and strain on the system.

Taxes are a live issue in the South Hall race after the Hall County commission voted in 2017 to raise taxes for the first time in years after the market collapse and recession a decade earlier.

Cooper said the new judgeship in Hall County and its accoutrements cost upward of $1.8 million to the county and she noted the commission had avoided raising taxes during the recession, while dipping into county reserves and laying off employees to cover costs and help relieve the burden for taxpayers while the economy was slow.

Cooper also said she voted for the 2017 tax increase with the idea that it would cover the county’s costs for the next few years when combined with economic growth in the region.

“I think we felt like that would be something that would carry us for a while,” Cooper said. “That’s what I’m hoping for.”

Cooper said she’s been frustrated by the idea that commissioners have a hand in spiking property value assessments.

Groups of property owners have been shocked in recent years by increasing property values from the Hall County Tax Assessor’s Office, which has been focusing on different sectors of the county each year to update the tax rolls. In 2013, it was Lake Lanier homes.

This year, Cooper said commercial properties went under the microscope — hers included.

“It happened to me this year too, so I’ll be doing an appeal,” Cooper said. “It’s fair game, and I’ve never done an appeal before so I’ve not been through that process, but I feel like even if it’s justifiable to get it all at one time, nobody’s budget can afford that kind of stuff.”

Given that a large increase in an assessment can drive up a tax bill by thousands of dollars, Cooper said she would prefer some warning for taxpayers instead of an out-of-the-blue notice.

Meanwhile, Thorndyke is coming out strong on taxes: He’s pledging to “not vote to raise taxes on the citizens throughout my term.”

Instead, Thorndyke said he wants to manage and promote South Hall growth through impact fees and a system that incentivizes developers to lay their own utilities during a project.

“Gainesville is doing this now. If a developer really wants to do a project, if it’s a good project, the developer will do a lot of the infrastructure, which saves the county a bunch of money,” Thorndyke said, noting that for one of his own developments the company laid a mile of sewer pipe at its own expense to get a project done. “There are ways to give back to the developer — Gwinnett County had impact fees. You use them in one place and you give them in another place.”

The Republican primary is set for May 22. Voters can find their polling places at the Georgia Secretary of State website.

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