The Trail of the Wolf

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The headline could read like this: “Residents’ uprising swamps water park plan.”

In a showdown at City Hall last Thursday, the City Council vote was 5-to-0 against locating a Great Wolf Lodges indoor water park tourist attraction on Peachtree City’s signature wooded lane, Aberdeen Parkway.

Well-prepared and unemotional residents schooled the council on what city zoning ordinances actually say. Ordinary citizens shredded the city planner’s rationalization for approving a variance.

The city attorney afterwards told a council member that he had questions about the city staff’s recommendation in favor of the GWL variance that would have allowed a 27-foot water tube intrusion into a residential buffer to adjacent homes.

It was clear the citizen outcry shocked GWL supporters, including those on city staff and City Council. Those advocates at City Hall were blinded by the novelty of a water park and its promised tax bonanza. They didn’t see the citizen tsunami coming at them until it overwhelmed them.

Don’t believe what that final 5-to-0 vote implies. There was no unanimity there. If feelings could be measured, the real vote was 2-to-0 against (Eric Imker and Kim Learnard) and an additional 3-to-0 reluctant negatives because councilmen Mike King and Terry Ernst and Mayor Vanessa Fleisch saw which way the hurricane was blowing.

Had not the citizens risen up in protest, the final vote would have been a victory for GWL, 3-to-2.

How do I know? The email trail tells the tale.

The Citizen made an open records request for all correspondence to or from city officials related to Great Wolf. We received more than 200 emails.

The first batch, chronologically sorted through the end of January 2015, will be posted online this week. The second batch will follow next week.

Read the email trail and draw your own conclusions. Here’s my opinion about some of what the written documents reveal.

• City Planner David Rast saw his role as greasing the water wheel for Great Wolf.

• Councilman Mike King became the water park’s chief water carrier, apparently irking Mayor Vanessa Fleisch at one point, mainly because she wanted a more direct role in the fait accompli.

• Some (not all) city department heads cooperated in the wheel greasing because it was obvious the project had a strong three-member council majority.

• The usual neutral city zoning and variance stance was altered to become outright advocacy in favor of an outsider.

• Before The Citizen’s online scoop about Great Wolf Jan. 18, there’s no record of anybody at City Hall raising questions about the political wisdom of surfing the Great Wolf wave. In other words, nobody in authority worried about what residents might think or whether they might object.

That’s my opinion; read the emails and see what your most generous interpretation might be.

I’m very disappointed in the performance of the city’s chief planner, David Rast. When our Citizen reporter Ben Nelms asked Rast in mid-January about Great Wolf before we broke the story Jan. 18, Rast lied to him.

Here’s what Rast told a GWL executive Jan. 14: “Will keep you guys posted if there are any questions. I can tell you that one of our local reporters has already been asking for a copy of the application — at the time, I told him I knew nothing about the project. David E. Rast, ASLA, Senior Planner” [Emphasis mine.]

But Rast knew everything about the project since Oct. 15, 2014.

I emailed Rast and his boss, City Manager Jim Pennington, this past Friday and asked the following question:

“So, a senior Peachtree City government official lied to The Citizen’s reporter about a major project like this? Under what Open Records exception do you claim the right to lie to the public as part of your official capacity?”

I have yet to hear anything from Rast or Pennington. I guess if the project promises to produce lots of new tax income, it’s OK for city officials to lie to the public as part of their official duties.

By the way, after the news hit the fan in The Citizen, here’s what Pennington said about a month after Rast’s lie: “Whether or not anything happens at Dolce, false information is unacceptable.”

Pennington was referring to residents’ inquiries about water runoff in nearby subdivisions. I wonder if his memo applies to Rast?

And what does ex-Mayor Bob Lenox call citizens who opposed the water park location? “Morons” and a “lynch mob.”

Our rich ex-mayor always did think he was the smartest guy in the county; he hasn’t lost any of his high self-esteem 15 years after leaving office. Women especially will want to study Lenox’s method of communicating with Councilwoman Kim Learnard. Really classy guy, our ex-mayor.

And there’s this intriguing Jan. 9 email exchange from one of the GWL agents to Rast: “David, is there any campaign/donation disclosure form that needs to be signed with the application, etc.?”

Rast replies (drily, I’m supposing): “We do not require this as a part of our rezoning application.”

The most important issue, I believe — especially for the city going forward — is this: The City Council and the city’s senior management team must decide whether they represent the citizens of Peachtree City or whether they intend to champion every “Big Idea” development that comes down Ga. Highway 74 from the airport, regardless of what residents think.

A little more bluntly: Will our elected and paid public servants have first allegiance to the people who pay their salaries and elected them, or to the next big bucks offer that swoops into town? Whose voice will they listen to?

If the city leadership intends to change the basic vision underlying Peachtree City — in effect, the city’s business model — the leaders are morally and politically obligated to have a very public and prolonged conversation with the residents of the city first.

Without that conversation and a widespread agreement, more uprisings are inevitable.

That conversation can begin in the run-up to this fall’s elections for two council posts.

More to come.

[Cal Beverly is editor and publisher of The Citizen.]