Richmond Hill City Council didn’t take long taking care of city business Friday morning at Richmond Hill High School.
Council members approved a consent agenda, honored state cross country champion Memphis Rich and Gold Star Girl Scout Rebekkah Baccus and heard from Sarah Mckinney, who wants the city to look at ways to regulate pet sitters.
In between all that they approved the spending of $22,000 to buy 60 trees from Landmark nursery to plant in J.F. Gregory Park as part of a partnership with Coastal Bryan Tree Foundation – the money coming from the city’s tree fund and that money coming from developers – and tabled discussion of an agreement with architects for the recently purchased Henry Ford-era Community House project.
Then it was the students turn, as a handful took the podium to ask questions of council during a meeting held at the school to give students a first-hand look at local government.
Hayes Valentine was up first, and asked council what it was doing in preparation for the growth associated with Hyundai’s moving to the Mega-Site and the Belfast Commerce Park.
Councilman Les Fussell took first crack at answering that one. Fussell, a longtime member of the city’s planning and zoning commission and the city’s representative on Savannah’s Metropolitan Planning Commission, said the city “has been planning for growth for 20 years.” “We knew growth was coming,” he said, noting he attended a logistics summit March 8 in Savannah that was attended by Gov. Brian Kemp. “One of the things we’ve done as planning and zoning and also from a council position is to manage the growth as best we can.”
He said providing infrastructure such as power and sewer and roads was key, and acquiring right of way for roads in particular could take more time than people wanted. “Roads generally take the longest, and as soon as you say you want to buy a piece of property for a road then the price of that piece of property gets inflated,” Fussell said, giving one example of issues faced by council. But he added that the city annexed 5,000 acres in 2017 around the Belfast Keller Interchange and has been working with both Bryan County Commissioners and Bryan County Schools on roads and schools while also trying to meet the needs for workforce housing. And, he brought up HB 517, an effort by some state legislators backed by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and some developer and realtor groups to restrict how local governments can regulate builders.
“It’s a very tough challenge for us, we talk about it at just about every meeting,” Fussell said, encouraging students to “attend city meetings, planning and zoning meetings and also city council meetings. That’s where your voice can be heard.”
Councilman Robbie Ward, a 1993 graduate of RHHS, told students the city “has been growing since 1980.
“I don’t want to give all the credit to the Mega-Site,” he said. “The real credit goes to our phenomenal police and fire departments and our school system. My parents moved here in 1980 because it was safe and because of the school system and that continues to be the same reason for many today.”
Councilwoman Kristi Cox reiterated that HB 517, which didn’t get out of committee this session, is a reason students should stay engaged.
“That’s why it’s so important for each one of you to know what’s going on. Be engaged, vote, and let your elected representative know what your opinions are.”
Councilman Steve Scholar, who spent 13 years as the city’s planning and zoning director, also weighed in.
“I still get blame for some of the projects approved in the city,” he said, before bringing up Chick-fil- A.
“If you want those amenities such as a Chick-fil-A, it’s all based on rooftops,” he said.
Denay Riles asked councilmembers what the best part of their job was. Council members gave similar answers.
“I think the best part is being able to look out for each resident,” Cox said. “The decisions we make impact the people who live here, and a lot of work and a lot of time goes into it. But it’s not about what we think, it’s about what residents need.”
Scholar said he enjoys “the day to day contact with residents of Richmond Hill, letting me know what they want. It’s not what we want, it’s what we want and that back and forth conversation is one of the best things for me about being on city council.”
Fussell and Ward said they were proud of the job they did with taxpayer money.
“We’re good stewards of development,” Fussell said. “We don’t make these decisions by ourselves, and we encourage people to give us feedback. Each one of us is listed on the city of Richmond Hill website with our contact information and phone number, and I live in Mulberry. I invite you to come to my house and let me know what’s on your mind.”
Ward said it was important for students to know the money the city spends is “your money.”
“It’s not ours,” he said. “If you take a step back and look at it, there’s a problem across the country with boards forgetting they’re spending your money.”
Isabella Alvarado, a member of State School Superintendent Richard Word’s Student Advisory Council, urged the city to do something to make the crosswalk on Harris Trail between the school and neighborhoods on the other side safer for students after school hours.
She said there are almost daily incidents of students nearly being hit as they cross, and also noted “kids on bicycles have been hit and injured on the crosswalk in the past.”
That prompted a response from Richmond Hill Police Chief Mitch shores, who thanked Alvarado and promised to look into it.
“Everything we do is geared around you and your parents,” he said. “People think we don’t want to hear complaints, but the opposite is true.”
The last question of the day belonged to Liam Osgood, who said he had attended a council meeting recently and “the big issue was the lack of an undisclosed chicken restaurant.”
“I won’t name names,” he said.
That led to more discussion on Chic-fil-A.
“I think council will agree with me on this,” said Mayor Russ Carpenter, a government teacher at RHHS. “We could put a five star restaurant on the east campus lawn out there and we’re still going to get asked when Chick-fil-A is coming.”
He added that while there’s now a Chick-fil-A truck in Richmond Hill on Fridays at the Kroger parking lot, five years ago the city sent the restaurant chain “seven different sites that could be a possible location,” on Highway 144. None met the chain’s needs.
“Now that the new interchange has been built,” Carpenter continued. “The communication indirectly has been that they’re probably going there. I haven’t heard anything definite, no contract has been signed, but there are lots there that meet requirements and we are working with the developer and owner to bring said chicken restaurant to the city.”
More discussion of chicken restaurants ensued, and it gave Cox an opportunity to tell students the limits on city council’s power.
“I hear complaints we have three dollar stores,” she said, adding that all three are there because they meet zoning requirements in the area they are and chose to do business in the city. “We don’t choose which business goes into a site, as long as it meets zoning requirements. As a business owner you make the decision to come here or not.”
Ward said the city can control what a business looks like, “but until they can make money they won’t come.”
Scholar said Chic-fil-A’s presence in Richmond Hill is directly tied into the question of growth.
“I’d say with the growth we’re expecting to see in the next five to 10 years, you’ll see a lot of businesses that want to be in the city.”
Osgood ended by asking if he could make a chicken restaurant suggestion if Chick-Fil-A falls through.
“I nominate Church’s Chicken,” he said, then extolled the virtues of eating that particular chicken.
“Imagine it’s like riding a tiger that is like flying around through space,” he said.
The council meeting ended with a Happy Birthday serenade of student Hailey Chen.