Variance denied, adult clubs discussed
By Tara DeRock Mahoney
Senior Staff Writer
Most of the discussion at the Monday-night Madison City Council meeting centered around an application by Van Duncan for a variance to the city's side-setback regulations in its building ordinance, for construction of a new building on the site of Duncan's “Wash Rock” commercial center on Hwy. 278 in Madison.
The council ultimately voted unanimously to deny the petition; the Morgan County Planning Commission also recommended denial two weeks ago.
“The [city] staff feels that the property overall does not fall into the variance category,” said Madison planner Bryce Jaeck.
The planning staff noted that the property owner had options—including moving a sewer line, reconfiguring the proposed building, or buying property from a neighbor—which could obviate the need for a 50-percent variance from local ordinance.
Duncan had presented as evidence in his case a number of other variances granted by the city for commercial buildings. But city staff members noted that in each of those cases, the variances were for extensions or modifications of existing buildings. The city has never issued a side-setback variance for new construction, said planners.
Morgan County resident Laura Butler spoke in favor of Duncan's variance request.
“If this has been granted to others...in fairness, his should be granted,” said Butler.
Council members noted that, in any case, previous variances had been granted by different councils, and this council is not bound by any decisions made by previous councils.
“But we do try to be as consistent as possible,” said Mayor Tom DuPree. The council determined that the variance requested by Duncan did not meet as many as four of the eight standards which are required to be reviewed when the council grants a variance.
In other business, the city approved a contract to re-survey its historic district. The district has not been surveyed in 20 years, and an updated, digital document is necessary for upcoming historic preservation grant applications, among other uses. The contract was advertised, but the city received only one bid, from Madison resident Ken Kocher, who currently advises the Historic Preservation Commission on a part-time basis.
“We'll have a first-rate survey, and be completely up-to-date,” said City Manager David Nunn. Council members noted for the public's benefit that Kocher is the husband of Madison Planning Director Monica Callahan, but since the project was duly advertised and Kocher's bid of $13,000 was considered well within the cost guidelines of the project, the city was pleased to accept his bid.
“I think it would be a disservice to the city not to allow a very qualified person to do this study,” said Nunn.
Council members also heard a brief report from Madison Police Chief Travis Stapp, whom they had asked to research costs associated with a hypothetical adult entertainment establishment locating in the city. The council had hoped to relate fees for such a license to the actual costs to the city of such an establishment, but that is unlikely to happen. Stapp reported that in Lavonia, a small city located on I-85 in north Georgia, city officials were eventually required to hire two new police officers to deal with a reported 75 percent increase in crime after an adult entertainment establishment located in Lavonia, said Stapp. In Madison, similar measures could cost $80,000-$90,000 annually. But a licensing fee of $450 for a business is likely to remain in effect, due to recent decisions classifying adult entertainment businesses as falling under freedom-of-speech laws. Inordinately high licensing costs could constitute restrictions on the freedom of speech, said City Attorney Joe Reitman. “That's not to say the law won't change,” said Reitman. “But we don't have this [ability to set high fees] at this point in time.”
Finally, the city will consider holding a public hearing or perhaps a town-hall style meeting to gauge public opinion on whether or not city officials should devote time and resources to establishing a second entrance to the Madison Cemetery off of West Jefferson Street in downtown Madison. Local resident Stratton Hicky urged caution before making a decision to install a second entrance.
“A second entrance on West Jefferson will just invite cut-through traffic,” said Hicky. “Those streets in the cemetery are narrow, one-lane...there are already damaged tombstones, damaged copings in there.”
Other city residents have urged officials to look into a second entrance because of the possibility of getting stuck on the west side of the cemetery when a train comes through town.
“There are citizens on both sides of the issue,” said DuPree.