Special thanks to the AJC for this interesting dual – what you think?!
Voters could get a preview next month of the upcoming fight for chairmanship of the Cobb County Board of Commissioners.
In one corner, Sam Olens, chairman of the county commissioners for the last five years.
Teresa Stendahl, standing near her home with son Timothy Cannon, opposes plans by Johnson Ferry Road Baptist Church to create a huge sanctuary and a proposal by WellStar Health System to build a medical complex on the same land in a fast-disappearing rural area of Cobb County.
In the other, Bill Byrne, chairman from 1993 to 2002. He wants the title back.
The forum: A rezoning request.
At issue is whether the county should rezone 65 acres in a fast-disappearing rural corner of Cobb to make way for a multistory building with nearly a million square feet and about 3,000 parking spaces.
Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, with 7,000 members, and WellStar Health System, a major Cobb employer, want to build a 3,000-seat church and medical complex on the land, near Bartow County.
Byrne plans to argue against the rezoning, possibly at the commissioners’ May 15 meeting.
Olens will preside then, as he does at every meeting of the commissioners, but it’s unclear where he stands on the rezoning. Elected officials can run afoul of ethics laws if they take a stand on rezoning cases before public hearings and weighing both sides.
Olens and Byrne — both Republicans — downplay the importance of politics in the upcoming hearings.
“I am not in a campaign season,” Olens said, “No one has even qualified.”
Olens said a decision in one rezoning will not accurately represent either man’s position on growth.
Byrne ducked, then feinted.
“This is not political, but there are those who may perceive it as so because of my campaign against Sam Olens,” he said. “But it will be reflective on the different viewpoints between Sam Olens and myself.”
A neighbor who opposes the rezoning, Teresa Stendahl, hired Byrne in an attempt to preserve the bucolic way of life around her 10-acre farm.
“I was looking for someone who knew the history of the area and issues,” she said.
She chose Byrne, she said, because he was chairman when the county created a district surrounding her farm that calls for low-density development. She said she hired Byrne before he announced his run for office.
Byrne is keenly aware of the rezoning controversy’s wider political subtext.
He said he recommended that Stendahl or another concerned neighbor argue the opposition’s case before the commissioners because of that. People in eight neighborhoods have joined Stendahl in opposing the rezoning request, but they decided that Byrne should address the commissioners.
“So I will be doing it on their behalf,” he said.
Those in the political bleachers can’t help but notice when powerful rivals appear in the same forum.
Kerwin Swint, a professor of political science at Kennesaw State University, has taught Cobb politics.
“It might be Round One in their face-off,” he said.
He noted that Byrne has a history of aggressive politicking.
“I’m sure Byrne is going to look for opportunities in his campaign, and this may be an opportunity,” Swint said.
David Wilkerson, chairman of the Cobb County Democratic Party, said the zoning case could let Byrne try to cast Olens as a friend of big development.
That could score points in Cobb County, where everyone lives with growth’s effects, such as idling in traffic. On the other hand, WellStar and the church represent a lot of votes and potential contributions that could work for or against either man.
“I think Bill Byrne will try to paint himself as the people’s man,” Wilkerson said. “But knowing him, that will be a tough sell.”
Byrne is not shy about stating his position.
The commissioners should deny the rezoning, he said, because of a lack of supporting infrastructure, environmental sensitivity, preserving rural Cobb County and the speculative nature of the hospital plans. Building may be as far as 10 years off, he said.
“No one is fighting for the little person, the rural person, and somebody has to. And I’ve chosen to be that person,” he said.
The Planning Commission is scheduled to discuss rezoning the 65 acres on Tuesday.
Rezonings typically land on the first commissioners’ agenda after a Planning Commission recommendation. If that pattern holds true, the commissioners would hear the case in a meeting that begins at 9 a.m. May 15 at the county government offices on Marietta Square.
Wilkerson said the meeting could provide the first skirmish in a battle for chairmanship of the county commissioners, a fight that voters in the Republican primary will decide in July 2008.
“I am sure they will have a contentious primary,” he said.