ELLIJAY, Ga. – After an impromptu speech from Post 2 Commissioner Karleen Ferguson at this month’s work session, citizens turned out in number to speak and support or defend their views on Gilmer County’s Rivers and the usage of them.
Most of the discussion focused in one area of the county, and people from both businesses Cartecay River Experience and Ellijay River Outfitters were present as well.
Ferguson’s original speech explained how she was making a video promoting the county’s rivers. She traveled to Blackberry Mountain where the county owns a piece of land that is being used as a take-out from the river. She said she came upon a sight that she could only call “chaos,” referencing the amount of trash, alcohol, and people ignoring ordinances.
Ferguson apologized to the community saying she felt she had not been the best steward of the county property and the resources of the county.
The county, on a previous commission, has discussed this topic in depth over the last two to three years as they originally moved to put regulations on the river banning alcohol, but also to regulate the usage of county property by private businesses using the take-out on Mulkey Road, at Blackberry Mountain. Since then, the county is still struggling to find an effective way to control alcohol and enforce some of the regulations preventing patrons from trespassing on people’s property along the river, drinking alcohol, and littering in the area.
Discussion returned this week in a Special Called meeting as citizens responded to Ferguson’s Speech and topics arose around how to move forward.
Some quickly noted the great lengths that volunteers, organizations like Keep Gilmer Beautiful and the local outfitters put into cleaning the river and going out to pick up trash.
Max Frady, a local businessman, said he volunteers at one of the outfitters. He said he felt the DNR should be the governing body, and that over-regulating and writing ordinances and pressuring regulations takes money out of local businesses and discourages people from coming to our rivers. Part of his volunteer work is cleaning the rivers. He said they have continued offering olive branches to local property owners and to the county as they have tried to be “ambassadors” for the rivers and the county because they send all their patrons locally for food and needs.
Frady also noted that other places put people on the rivers besides the outfitters saying, “Every airbnb you got up and down through there, they have tubes and kayaks at their airbnb. It’s part of the rental.” Yet, the volunteers and outfitters are those on the river every day, cleaning the rivers.
Pam Johnson spoke on the day saying that teaching ourselves to take better care of these resources and be more responsible with what we have. She asked the board to think long and hard on the subject about the best way to go forward and to increase that education for people. She acknowledged that there are both kinds of people who come into the county and are very conscious of what they do and how they use the river and those that come in and take advantage of the area.
Doug Colburn, a local police officer, said he and his wife live on the river and do see a lot of trash. Colburn said that the outfitters do a great job of bringing tourism here but he does see three areas of need for the county. Traffic, groups, and trash have come to the forefront of this year in particular. With the viral threats, he voiced concerns about large groups congregating together. He went to say that he does see trash in the area as the river carries it down from wherever it is dropped and it builds in areas.
Offering an option for solutions, Detective Colburn suggested creating a committee to work with representatives from all parties including the outfitters and the property owners. He said that taking the time to discuss and implement a workable plan by the opening of next season.
The option was echoed and supported by others who spoke including Jay Zipperman of Keep Gilmer Beautiful and Gilmer Sheriff Stacy Nicholson who said the Sheriff’s Office would also want to be a part of the committee.
One of the biggest concerns revolved around the alcohol on the river, from the bottles and cans littered to how to enforce the alcohol ban. Some suggested checking coolers at outfitters and the legality of checking coolers.
The topic was addressed by Jenny Janssen of the Cartecay River Experience, also questioning the legality of checking coolers and people’s rights. The topic spread to a later discussion in the meeting as people discussed demanding people wear masks and social distance and groups being separated for bus rides.
Janssen said that they don’t want to eliminate coolers altogether as the river ride takes a longer time. She spoke about the discussion and talks they have for people telling them about the river’s regulations.
Forcing masks was also addressed by the Ellijay River Outfitters as both outfitters said they would not force people to wear masks, but did have extra masks available for any who wanted one or needed one but may not have brought their own.
One of the larger disconnects is between the county and outfitters and enforcement of regulations. Part of the meeting came to addressing issue found in non-compliance in the area. Ferguson even made a motion for a 10-day suspension as she was at the county’s take-out and found nobody wearing the regulation wristbands required by the county. Ferguson said that as she was at the river speaking with people, most of them didn’t even know wristbands were required this year.
The motion died without a second, but the discussion continued on as Ellijay River Outfitters apologized saying they thought the wristbands were not required after the county waived certain fees for the outfitters this year in attempt to help them with what they expected, at the time, might be a slower season with people concerned over the Coronavirus.
The Cartecay River Experience also said they gave people wristbands and told customers that they wouldn’t physically put the wristbands on them with COVID-19.
Another topic discussed saw property owners and outfitters agreeing that they want a Deputy patrolling and watching the area. This item saw action from the commission as they, later in the meeting, approved the hiring of an off duty deputy to guard the area. The guard is to be paid from the fees collected from the outfitters through the wristbands.
Echoing the traffic issue, Nancy Foster spoke to the board saying she lives close to the take out. A big issue for her, she said, was people parking in front of her house, blocking her driveway and causing issues. She also reported that when she asks them to move, she has been cursed at and yelled at by people.
While these issues will continue to be discussed and debated in the Board of Commissioners for the River, some citizens like Susan Moreno are urging them to realize that litter and natural resources go beyond the rivers. Hiking trails and the lake are also county natural resources that suffer from similar issues.
Many other speakers joined during the meeting repeating issues and coming to the defense of those involved. No official action will force any major changes in these final coming weeks of the season, one common idea, many agreed that something akin to a committee could work. Seemingly, nobody is finished with this discussion yet. A common call for responsibility in the community has been given, and the coming months could dictate what that responsibility may look like.