Performing arts center gains momentum

The Johns Creek residents and business leaders who have worked to build a performing arts venue in Johns Creek have several reasons to feel encouraged as 2019 ends.

In January, consultants completed a study that helped shape the vision for what a fiscally sustainable performing arts center could look like, and in March, the City Council passed a resolution voicing support of the project.

This summer, Fulton County Commissioner Liz Hausmann secured funding for a financial feasibility study, and during this fall’s council election, the arts center project was one of the most discussed topics.

The initiative even got a new name this year: The Legacy Center, meant to convey that the facility would be more than a performance venue. 

The Legacy Center would bring the Johns Creek Arts Center, which has outgrown its current location, and performing arts groups under one roof. Plans for the venue include a visual arts gallery, classrooms, office space and a banquet hall, designed to function as a corporate event venue.

Such a facility is estimated to cost around $55 million, which the Legacy Center Task Force hopes to fund through a mix of private donations and public support.

“What was an uphill climb a couple years ago is close to the peak and hopefully soon it will be downhill,” said Wayne Baughman, chair of the Johns Creek Cultural Arts Center Task Force and director of the Johns Creek Symphony Orchestra.

For more information, visit JClegacy.org.

Cities reject state bill to deregulate home design

A state bill that would prevent municipal and county governments from regulating residential building design failed to pass either chamber of the Georgia Legislature this year but could come up again in 2020. 

Bills were proposed in both chambers that would have prohibited local governments from adopting or enforcing ordinances relating to building designs, such as color, material, roof shape or window or door style, on one or two-family dwellings.

The bill included a few exceptions, such as homes located within a historic district. It allowed the regulation of home design through private covenants, such as homeowners associations.

Proponents of the bill argued homeowners should have the freedom to design their home to their style, while opponents said it took power away from cities and could destroy the aesthetics of neighborhoods.

“This is a very dangerous precedent that they’re setting to home rule and to our ability to control the look and feel of our community,” Mayor Bodker said.

Johns Creek, Alpharetta, Milton and Forsyth County passed resolutions opposing the bill. The Georgia Municipal Association, a group that lobbies on behalf of Georgia’s cities, also opposed the bill.

In September, the Johns Creek City Council passed a resolution preemptively opposing the bill should it come up again.

New city hall catalyzes town center dreams

Johns Creek transitioned to a new City Hall this spring, bringing all city departments under one roof.

The complex is at 11360 Lakefield Drive, in the heart of Johns Creek’s business hub and adjacent to planned Linear Park.

Some hope the new City Hall will foster transforming Technology Park into more of a city center. Some city events, like Founders Day Parade, have already moved to that area.  

The city purchased 7 acres and an existing 75,000-square-foot office building in February 2017. The building was renovated for about $15 million. 

Johns Creek cuts ties with city manager

After five years on the job, City Manager Warren Hutmacher was ousted in June.

The announcement of the separation agreement was sudden, and the council reached the decision behind closed doors. According to the separation agreement, Hutmacher was given six months’ severance, about $110,000.

Police Chief Ed Densmore was immediately appointed acting city manager. Densmore has served as police chief since the department’s inception in 2008.

The city also lost two department heads this year. Fire Chief Jeff Hogan stepped down in February to accept an appointment to become Georgia Fire Marshall. Chris Coons, who had served as assistant fire chief since 2012, was promoted to the head position.

Community Development Director Sharon Ebert also left this spring, and Ben Song replaced her this fall. Song previously served as a community development director in Brookhaven and as the director for Real Estate and Records Management with Gwinnett County.

Vaping restrictions pass across North Atlanta

The Johns Creek City Council amended city codes in June to strengthen regulations on e-cigarettes — also known as vaping.

The new code requires vendors to check the ID of anyone attempting to purchase vaping products, duplicating state law, and prohibits the sale, manufacture and distribution of certain synthetic drugs.

The city also essentially banned any new vape shops from opening in Johns Creek.

Proponents of the proposed code changes argued the council needs to address the rising popularity of vaping among teenagers. According to the 2018 Georgia Student Health Survey, 12 percent of high schoolers and 4 percent of middle schoolers in Fulton county self-reported using vaping products. 

Council members Chris Coughlin and Stephanie Endres voted against the measures, arguing the restrictions would likely be ineffective at stopping teens from obtaining vaping products and were punitive to certain businesses.

Johns Creek is far from the only government cracking down on vaping. Alpharetta and Milton passed similar floor space requirements. Fulton County banned e-cigarette use in its public parks, and Forsyth County, Dunwoody and Milton are considering the same.

Several state legislators, including District 50 Rep. Angelika Kausche, who represents most of Johns Creek, have pledged to take up the issue when they are back in session. Other states and the federal government have looked at banning flavored vaping products and raising the tobacco age to 21.

Across the country, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed more than 2,400 cases of lung illness in patients with a history of vaping, including 52 deaths. In Georgia, there have been at least 36 cases, including four deaths, according to the Department of Public Health

Police agree to partner with security cams

In 2019, Johns Creek Police expanded its ability to use cameras as a crime-stopping and crime-solving tool, but the issue raised concerns about privacy and surveillance.

In July, the city approved a contract with Axon Enterprise, the manufacturers of Tasers, to bring body cameras to Johns Creek officers. Police Chief Ed Densmore said he spent three years researching different devices before he found a product he felt confident recommending.

“When I looked at everything across the field this was by far the leading candidate,” he said. 

The cameras begin recording if an officer pulls out their Taser, if they are near other cameras that are recording, if nearby police vehicle lights are turned on or if the officer manually turns the camera on. The camera only stops recording if the officer deliberately pushes a button for five seconds. 

By bringing body cameras, in-car cameras, interview room cameras and the database that stores the footage under one vendor, the Axon contract is expected to save the city thousands.

Proponents of body cameras say they increase police accountability, provide evidence for investigators and create training opportunities for officers. 

Then, this October the Johns Creek City Council approved contracts that allow police to more easily access footage from Ring doorbell cameras and Flock Safety license plate readers.

With Ring, the footage is owned by individual residents and is only turned over to police without their permission. The agreement, which passed unanimously, grants police access to an online platform to see which homes have Ring devices.

Flock cameras are installed in neighborhoods to capture still photos of cars and license plates entering the subdivision. The homeowners’ association owns the footage and controls police access. Council members John Bradberry and Stephanie Endres voted against the agreement with Flock, citing privacy concerns.

The agreement enables Flock Safety to alert police if stolen or otherwise suspect vehicles pass one of the cameras. This will create a more proactive approach to policing, Densmore said. 

Medlock Bridge repaving generates controversy

This fall, the Georgia Department of Transportation repaved Ga. 141, known as Medlock Bridge Road through Johns Creek.

When the state repairs a major thoroughfare at no cost to the city, it’s usually not a hotly debated issue, but it was in Johns Creek after the city Public Works Department asked GDOT to reduce lane widths to 11 feet.

The City Council overturned that request in August and the lanes stayed 12 feet wide.

The Public Works Department proposed the lane width reduction arguing that a wider shoulder would create a number of safety benefits. The department also planned to ask GDOT to lower the speed limit from 55 to 45 mph along the road, which could further improve safety, but would be unlikely to be approved without some change to the road.

Dozens of residents opposed the change asserting that a lane-width reduction would be a “backdoor” or “Trojan horse” for widening Medlock to six lanes.

The City Council has said it will not consider adding lanes to Medlock Bridge until it settles on a long-term solution for the intersection with State Bridge Road and coordinated plans with Forsyth and Gwinnett Counties.

Two new members elected to council

In a December runoff, incumbent Chris Coughlin was reelected to the Johns Creek City Council, while political newcomers Brian Weaver and Erin Elwood won open races.

This summer, council members Steve Broadbent and Jay Lin announced they would not seek reelection. In total, 10 candidates ran for the three at large seats up this year.

Weaver comes to Post 2 after retiring as Johns Creek Police Major in April. He said he loves to serve the community and after 37 years as a police officer, he is ready to serve in a new way.

Coughlin, the only incumbent in the race, came just shy of an all-out victory in November, but won reelection to Post 4 solidly in the runoff.

For Post 6, attorney Erin Elwood was the winner, running on a message of making progress on projects like parks and a town center.

After months of debate, gateway moves forward

In its last meeting of the year, the Johns Creek City Council narrowly approved plans to place an artistic gateway marker at the intersection of Kimball Bridge Road and State Bridge Road.

The final vote was 4-3, with council members John Bradberry, Chris Coughlin and Stephanie Endres opposed.

The project has been more than a year in the making. Last winter, the Johns Creek Convention and Visitors Bureau’s top request for hotel tax dollars was to place artistic monuments at entrances to the city.

After months of back and forth between the CVB and City Council, the council allocated $64,000 to create a single marker at State Bridge and Kimball. Throughout the summer, artist William Massey held public meetings to help determine the design. This fall, four designs were put to an online vote. 

The winning design features Rogers Bridge over the Chattahoochee River. Between the trusses of the bridge are images that represent eras of local history, such as Native Americans, farming, gold mining, education and technology.

The CVB has requested funding for a second gateway marker as part of the 2020 tourism product development budget, but that debate will stretch into the new year.

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