News roundup: Street preacher arrested, Linnentown walk progress, planning rebellion squashed

A far-right street preacher disrupted an ACC Commission meeting when he launched into a hate-filled tirade at city hall targeting Mayor Kelly Girtz and the police officer on guard that night. When the officer tried to escort the man out of the commission chamber, he pushed back and the two began wrestling. The policeman eventually gained the upper hand, used his taser and took the man into custody.

In the regularly scheduled part of the meeting, commissioners blocked two controversial developments, funded the Linnentown “walk of recognition,” extended the eviction prevention program and squashed what they perceived as a minor rebellion on the ACC Planning Commission.

Table of Contents

Far-right preacher arrested
Developments denied
Linnentown “walk of recognition” and eviction prevention program funded
Planning Commission mini-rebellion squashed

Far-right preacher arrested

The man, who identified himself as “Rabbi” Camden Pace, is the founder of yeshuanation.org, a messianic group who consider themselves Jewish although they believe in Jesus (called Yeshua) as savior. 

Pace used aggressive language throughout his speech. For example, he called out the police officer in the commission chamber, Sergeant Alex Leder, by name, accusing him of not taking seriously an alleged assault he says he experienced. Pace reserved his sharpest criticism for Girtz, who was not present at the meeting. “He’s a liar,” Pace said, seething with anger. “He’s a paid off, Satan-worshiping communist child-trafficking Democrat!

At this point, Mayor Pro-Tem Ovita Thornton informed Pace that his time to speak had expired, but Pace refused to stop ranting. “Shame on all of you who put up and condone this,” Pace said, referring to anti-genocide protesters who were holding signs right behind him. Pace grabbed one of their signs and ripped it up, causing Leder to begin escorting him out. Pace resisted forcefully. After a struggle, Leder managed to subdue him with his taser and then placed him under arrest.

The Clarke County Republican Party defended Pace after this incident on social media. Referring to the Flagpole’s recent reporting, they asked, “Why does the Flapole [sic] mention nothing about the hate speech leveled on this man and the verbal terrorism he experience [sic] at College Square[?]” In fact, the Flagpole article does describe that incident. It also includes the perspective of witnesses who say Pace was harassing passers-by and that the “terrorism” he experienced may have been that someone grabbed his wrist.

Pace was arrested for the armed robbery of Premier Bank in Forsyth County, Georgia in 1998 and served 10 years in prison.

Developments denied

The ACC Commission voted to deny proposals for two controversial developments earlier in the meeting. One of these developments was for a gas station and convenience store at the intersection of Moss Road and Spring Valley Road. The other was for a group of townhouse-style homes in the Green Acres neighborhood off Barnett Shoals.

Public comment in opposition to these developments took up the bulk of the meeting. Numerous community members commented on the gas station for a total of thirty minutes, with most saying that a convenience store was not needed in this area with so many nearby. After hearing from these residents, the commission shot down the plan unanimously.

The proposal for a townhouse development in Green Acres was actually withdrawn by the applicant shortly before the meeting, but that didn’t stop a legion of neighborhood residents from showing up to demand its defeat. Residents were concerned about parking, increased noise and traffic, safety issues and the overall “sanctity” of their neighborhood, according to one speaker.

Commissioner Carol Myers
Commissioner Carol Myers

Commissioner Carol Myers, who lives in Green Acres and who often talks about the need for affordable housing, encouraged her colleagues to vote against the development instead of supporting the applicant’s request to withdraw. Myers says she got the withdrawal request “at the 11th hour” and had no indication that the developer would not just resubmit the same unpopular proposal that has “no unique design and no involvement of the community.”

Denying the proposal would mean that the developer would have to wait a year before submitting another design. Knowing this, Commissioner Jesse Houle made a motion to accept the developer’s request to withdraw the proposal instead of issuing a flat denial, but Houle’s motion failed for lack of a second.

Myers’ proposal passed 7-1, with Houle as the only ‘no’ vote. Commissioner John Culpepper was absent and Thornton was acting as mayor in Girtz’s absence.

Funding for the Linnentown “walk of recognition” and eviction prevention

The commission voted to approve an extra $25,000 for the Linnentown “walk of recognition,” a public art project designed to increase awareness of the former neighborhood of Linnentown and how it was destroyed. The extra funding brings the total budget for the project up to $75,000, paid for out of SPLOST 2011.

The Athens Justice and Memory Project made the recommendation to increase the budget, which was supported by the Athens Cultural Affairs Commission. The commission made the original $50,000 allocation in June 2021, but the project was delayed when the University of Georgia claimed ownership over the right-of-way at the intersection of Finley and Baxter Streets. In February 2022, the local government completed a survey of the area and was able to map out the exact portion owned by the public, thereby allowing the project to move forward again.

The Linnentown walk of recognition is scheduled for completion in the summer of 2025.

The commission also extended their eviction prevention program with an extra $102,000 paid for out of the federal American Rescue Plan. The extra funding will allow Family Promise of Athens, who runs the program in partnership with The Ark, to help 35 households avoid eviction through a negotiated settlement with their landlords. The program has prevented 425 evictions in total, including those prevented by the former program manager, Athenian First Development Corporation.

Family Promise reports having served 226 households from August 2023 to January 2024. All of their clients were under 65% of the area median income with the vast majority (72%) under 40% of the area median income. The nonprofit reports having spent $570,763 on the program so far, with 95% going to direct financial assistance to families currently facing or at risk of eviction.

Family Promise conducted a follow-up survey with clients and found that 70 of 73 respondents (95.9%) were still housed three months after receiving assistance.

The additional funding will allow Family Promise to continue protecting clients from eviction through October.

Planning Commission mini-rebellion squashed

The ACC Planning Commission, a body of knowledgeable Athens residents who provide advice on planning and zoning issues, recently engaged in what the ACC Commission perceived as a minor rebellion over the process of approving text amendments. 

Text amendments to the ACC zoning code were previously controlled by the planning commission, with the ACC Commission only able to approve or deny the planning commission’s proposed language. This tiny amount of extra power for the planning nerds had not caused issues until recently, when this interesting wrinkle in the code was first discovered (it’s unclear why no one knew this before). 

In February, the ACC Commission’s newly discovered lack of control made them sweat over a text amendment for regulating short-term rentals like Airbnbs. The ACC Commission thought that the language the planners presented to them on this topic might not hold up in court. They wanted to edit the language, but were unable to do so. 

After that high-profile vote, the mayor and commission asked the planners to allow them to make edits to text amendments in the future. This was perhaps a reasonable request given that that’s how they thought it worked all along. Yet, the planners refused.

Commissioner Melissa Link
Commissioner Melissa Link

That shocked the commission, who briefly flirted with the idea of disbanding the entire planning commission and reforming it from the ground up so that their will would be unchallenged.

“[The planning commission] being the ultimate decision-maker without having the input and the connection to the voters that we have is just really anti-democratic to me,” Commissioner Melissa Link said in March.

Planning Director Brad Griffin spoke up to defend the planning commission, telling Link he didn’t think they were making a power play.

“Often times, [the planning commission] spend[s] two or three months working with staff to prepare something, and then at the 11th hour right before the vote it gets completely changed and [they] don’t have the opportunity to provide any input. I don’t think [their refusal] was so that [they] can hold the cards,” Griffin said.

Members of the planning commission and other resident advisory boards sometimes say they feel as though their expert advice goes unheeded by the ACC Commission, who tend to make decisions based primarily on political expediency rather than on evidence or expertise.

In April, ACC staff discovered new information that completely changed everything, again. They informed the commission that they had the power to go around the planning commission on this after all. Armed with this knowledge, the commission voted unanimously to give themselves back the power to amend planning text amendments, putting an end to the planners’ minor rebellion.

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