Year in Review: Growth an underlying storyline in Forsyth Co.

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This year, Forsyth County made national headlines on many fronts, and local stories of achievements struck a chord with the county.

As much progress has been made in the county this year, growth in the years to come appears to be an underlying storyline that will take many forms. This is not a prediction of the future, but with transportation concerns front and center, can the county’s infrastructure continue to support its rapid growth? In the years to come, this story will likely be unfolding as new residents are welcomed into our bedroom community with a great school system, low unemployment rate and comparably lower cost of housing and robust public safety.

Brewers, distillers, growlers, we got ‘em

The year kicked off with some real cheers! Local brew enthusiasts rejoiced, and the changes just kept rolling.

The county, which overwhelmingly voted to allow Sunday alcohol sales in 2011, probably didn’t expect the influx of alcohol code changes that followed. There may be even more in the new year, county leaders expect.

Two years ago, the county tweaked its law to allow growlers, a 64-ounce glass jug designed to be filled with beer fresh from the tap and taken home for later consumption. This change sprouted several new businesses.

Then, local brew enthusiast Nick Tanner approached the county with a novel idea — a brewpub.

Tanner wanted Forsyth County to mimic the state in regulation. After receiving the county’s blessing, Tanner’s Cherry Street Brewing Co-operative kicked off in high gear in January.

The business is doing its best to keep up with demand and has already garnered several awards for its local offerings.

By the summer of 2013, breweries were allowed to operate. A yet-to-be announced brewery is in the works. But don’t expect to walk into a brewery and buy a six pack. Breweries in the county will only be allowed to sell wholesale.

Forsyth County continued to work on its alcohol laws, soon allowing wine tastings, growler samples and even clearing permits to open distilleries.

Spirits of the USA, makers of flavored vodka, gin, tequila, rum and an energy drink, announced plans and obtained all local permits to open a facility in downtown Cumming.

Forsyth ranks No. 1 healthiest in state

In March, Forsyth County was named the healthiest county in Georgia. The county ranked first out of 159 counties in the state, according to a report ranking the health of all 50 states.

The annual report — County Health Rankings — was published by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Behind Forsyth is Fayette, Oconee, Gwinnett and Cherokee counties. Fulton County ranked 29th.

The rankings are based on 25 factors including residents’ access to medical care, physicians and dentists. It also examined factors that influence health, including rates of childhood poverty, rates of smoking, obesity levels, teen birth rates, rates of high school graduation and college attendance, access to healthy foods, levels of physical inactivity and percentages of children living in single-parent households.

‘See Rock City’ sign permanent

Ben Morris can say he fought the government and won.

Morris got to keep his “See Rock City” barn sign after all. In April, the Forsyth County resident was in a legal squabble with code enforcement, which prohibits signs being painted on rooftops.

Morris claimed all he did was restore the rooftop after one of his handymen discovered the rusty sign, 1237 Atlanta Highway (Ga. 9) next to the Lakewood 400 Antiques Market.

His case, which made its way to Forsyth County’s Magistrate Court would not be prosecuted, “nolle prosequi.” That’s after Forsyth County Board of Commissioners chimed in, saying the issue needed to be re-examined because several longtime residents remember the sign being painted on the barn. This would have grandfathered in the sign.

The issue unfolded when Morris repainted the rooftop sign on his 90-year-old barn with “See Rock City.” Soon after, he was told by county officials to paint over it, and he refused. Instead, Morris took his fight to the public arena, where he received overwhelming support from the community.

Morris said he was grateful to the thousands of supporters and news organizations that took notice of his cause and fought for him to keep the iconic sign on his barn.

Courthouse, jail begin construction

In July, community leaders were invited to participate in the groundbreaking for the new $100 million judicial and public safety facilities in Forsyth County. The structures — a new Forsyth County Courthouse and a new detention center — being built in downtown Cumming, are expected to be completed by December 2014.

In addition, the facilities, which will include two parking garages, are expected to draw new businesses and revitalize downtown Cumming.

The projects were narrowly approved by voters during a November 2011 vote to extend the 1 percent tax on consumable goods, better known as the special purpose local option sales tax (SPLOST VII).

SPLOST VII is projected to collect $200 million over six years from 2013-19.

The new Forsyth County Courthouse will be about 158,000 total square feet, with 120,000 square feet being finished and space shelled that can be finished in the future to add courts and meet future population growth.

SPLOST will also fund road improvements, bike paths, new truck replacements for the fire department and expansion of Sharon Forks Library.

In addition, SPLOST money will go toward a new 13,700-square-foot animal shelter. The animal shelter broke ground in March. The facility is being built in North Forsyth on County Way off Ga. 400 and is expected to be completed in the spring of 2014.

Camera fight with city continues

As the state and city debated the first open meetings act prosecution under a new Sunshine Law on July 25, Superior Court of Forsyth County Senior Judge Robert W. Adamson urged city of Cumming attorneys and the Georgia Attorney General’s Office to find common ground before a final ruling.

In November, the two parties got together and entered mediation talks, but the mediation went nowhere.

Now the issue of whether the city of Cumming violated the state’s Sunshine Law on April 17, 2012, will head back to court.

While state law says that a person is allowed to make visual and audio recordings at a public meeting, the new law that went into effect the same day provides for visual and sound recordings of public meetings and authorizes the attorney general to sue violators and seek penalties.

Roswell resident Nydia Tisdale, an About Forsyth blogger, and her camera were escorted out of Cumming City Hall chambers in April 2012, after Cumming Mayor H. Ford Gravitt told Tisdale to stop recording their regular meeting.

The city’s defense is that it has “sovereign immunity” under the state constitution and they have sought to have the case dismissed.

 

School goes back in session with thousands of newcomers

In August, Forsyth County Schools added 80 new teachers. This was to handle 1,820 new students. The district had about 38,969 students in 2012-13, and this school year had 40,789 students.

As the third fastest-growing school district in the United States, Forsyth County Schools has added 8,000 new students in five years. However, the district’s operational budget has not increased in those five years and there are no funds available for capital improvements, such as renovations and modifications, additions and new school construction.

FCS is home to 35 schools: 20 elementary, nine middle schools and five high schools.

Noise variance for quarry denied

The Sept. 3 Forsyth County Zoning Board of Appeals meeting saw the most attendees when it voted 4-0 to deny a sound variance to allow Bluegrass Materials Company to operate at a level of 75 decibels, instead of the county’s 60 decibels.

The issue arose after the Board of Commissioners approved 88 Daves Creek, a 247-home development on 83 acres adjacent to the quarry. Under agricultural zoning, there are no sound levels set, but because the property was rezoned residential, the quarry would have to comply with noise ordinances set by the county’s development code at 60 decibels.

“I just feel like this needs to go on to the Board of Commissioners and have them work the codes,” said Bettina Hammond, a Zoning Board of Appeals member. “I don’t know if this is the board for the specifics.”

Bears spotted in Forsyth and North Fulton (SPT 18 photo)

On Sept. 17, Jeff Adler snapped a picture that went viral of three black bears out looking for food at the Polo Fields Golf and Country Club subdivision in Cumming.

Authorities said the bears didn’t hurt anyone and told residents to just leave the bears alone.

The bears then climbed the wooden fence to a home’s backyard. Later that week, sightings of the bears were reported in Milton and even Johns Creek neighborhoods.

A Georgia Department of Natural Resources spokeswoman said it’s common for bears to wander down from the North Georgia Mountains. In addition to not feeding the bears, state wildlife officials suggest you slowly back away and don’t run or make lots of noise.

Forbes puts Forsyth County on fast-growth list

In September, Forbes, for the second time, named Forsyth County the seventh fastest-growing county in America.

Williamson County, Texas, was No. 1. Forsyth County saw a 78.4 percent growth in population from 2000 to 2010 and a 7.07 percent growth from 2010 to 2012. The population in the county is nearly 190,000, according to U.S. Census data, making the county the fastest-growing in the state.

Transportation summit addresses county’s growth

In October, county leaders held a transportation summit to address the congestion on Ga. 400 and other local transportation needs. The Cumming-Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce, Forsyth County government leaders and local Rotary clubs joined to host the 2013 summit.

Still, there’s no long-term plan to deal with the county’s traffic woes.

 

United Way celebrates new home

The United Way of Forsyth County welcomed the community to their new 8,000-square-foot facility, 240 Elm Street in Cumming, during an open house and ribbon cutting in October. The facility opened to staff in January and had been operating without a permanent home since 1991.

 

Ga. 400 toll comes down

Just in time for Thanksgiving, commuters were able to save their change instead of paying a 50-cent Ga. 400 toll.

The toll plaza, which opened 20 years ago, had collected $300 million in toll revenue and $11 million in fines, according to the State Road and Tollway Authority. The Ga. 400 bonds were retired and the toll booths will now be a distant memory for commuters. The Nov. 22 closure also scored Gov. Nathan Deal a popularity point.

Demolition of the toll plaza begins next year, SRTA announced. That is slated to cost $4.5 million.

The three left lanes will be open to Ga. 400 traffic north and south. Cones will direct traffic away from the toll plaza until demolition.

Forsyth schools top state in graduation rates.

Forsyth County Schools had the highest graduation rate among state’s 20 largest districts

In December, Forsyth County Schools received news that students topped the state for graduation rates among the state’s 20 largest school districts, with 89.5 percent.

This was a 1.72 percent increase from the district’s 2012 graduation rate.

The state’s 2013 graduation rate is 71.5 percent.

Additionally, all high schools in Forsyth County had graduate rates higher than the state average. Lambert High School’s graduation rate is the highest among metro Atlanta high schools, and is also the highest in Georgia for non-magnet schools. Among all Forsyth County high schools, West Forsyth High School had the highest percent increase (5.05 percent) in one year.

That’s to add to news in October when Forsyth County high schools earned the highest Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores for the state for 2013 and surpassed the national average score, too. This was the first time the county placed first in the state. The county scored a collective SAT score of 1580, or 82 points higher than the nation’s 1498. South Forsyth High School took the No. 1 spot in the district with a 1668 score, 50 points higher than second place Lambert High School.