Commissioners' meeting heats up during normal business
Discussion became heated for a moment between Chairman Aaron Varner and District 2 Commissioner Earnest Simmons at Tuesday’s Board of Commissioners meeting.
During a run of the mill hearing on a zoning variance appeal, Simmons and Varner both briefly lost their tempers over a disagreement on whether to adjourn the board’s meeting to discuss the appeal with a county attorney.
After some back and forth with the board over a request by Ken and Sarah Portocarrero to deny a board of zoning appeals grant of a variance to their neighbor Mark Abram, that would allow him to park his commercial truck on his private property, Varner suggested the board briefly recess to discuss the variance with their attorney Jenny Carter.
Simmons objected to Varner’s suggestion, saying that he wanted to continue asking questions of the Portocarreros and Abram. Varner then interrupted Simmons mid-sentence by banging his gavel down sharply and then standing up abruptly, leaving the room, followed by Carter.
“What’s wrong with you,” Simmons yelled to Varner’s retreating back. “I don’t know what your problem is.”
Varner and Carter returned to the meeting less than a minute later and the meeting resumed.
District 1 Commissioner Mort Ewing made a motion to overturn the ruling of the Board of Zoning Appeals because he said Abram did not have the minimum of 10 acres required by the county’s zoning ordinance to allow him to park a commercial truck on his property on Avalon Road in District 1.
Ewing’s motion passed with District 3 Commissioner Esther Fleming and District 5 Commissioner Monty Laster voting in support. Simmons and District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson voted in opposition.
After the vote, Abram, confused by the vote, asked what he should do next. Varner answered that he would talk to him after the meeting.
On Thursday, Simmons released a statement regarding the incident with Varner.
“I was not clear on the information that was presented and as a commissioner I attempted to ask a question for clarification on the issue. At that point a spirited discussion between Chairman Varner and myself took place. At the end of the discussion most issues were resolved to both our satisfaction and the meeting moved on.
“I regret that things got heated between the chairman and myself, but sometimes in a political forum, emotions get the best of us and things are said. I apologize for the outbursts between us and I pledge to continue working to help the citizens of Newton County,” Simmons wrote.
Varner declined to give a comment for this article.
Since Simmons joined the BOC at the beginning of 2007 there have, on occasion, been moments of tension between him and other members of the board — although Tuesday night was the first time in at least two years that any member of the BOC publicly lost their temper with a fellow board member.
Sarah Portocarrero said she wasn’t happy with the board’s Tuesday decision, even though she was the one to raise an appeal to the board of zoning appeals decision in the first place. Portocarrero said what she really wanted was a legal assurance that Abram would erect a plant buffer between his property and hers to block the site of the truck, as was suggested by the county arborist.
“The problem we had was they had designated an area for him to park that was in full view from Avalon Road, that we were afraid was going to affect the resale value of our property,” Portocarrero said. (Full disclosure: Portocarrero is an occasional columnist for The News.)
According to Portocarrero, Varner, who lives on Henderson Mill Road, is a neighbor of both hers and Abram and had signed a petition for Abram that said it was all right for him to park a truck on his property. Portocarrero said Varner asked her to not file an appeal to the Abram variance after it was awarded in July.
“When I went up there to talk about filing an appeal [Varner] interrupted my meeting and said this does not need to go before the board,” Portocarrero said.
Marian Eisenberg, the county’s planning director, said she couldn’t recall whether Varner participated in the meeting she had with Portocarrero when she was deciding whether to file an appeal to the Abram variance in August.
“He may have spoken to her. I just really don’t remember that he had any true involvement,” Eisenberg said. “I don’t think that Aaron [Varner] really played much of a role at all. He just happened to have been in the office at the time that she came.”