A loud debate: Drag strip decision deferred until next year

Photo by Tori Boone

Photo by Tori Boone

SOCIAL CIRCLE -- A decision on a proposed drag strip in Social Circle will not be made until after the first of the year. The Social Circle City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to defer the rezoning request by property owner Donnie Clack back to the Social Circle Planning and Zoning Commission for further consideration on the special conditions to be placed on the 120 acres where he seeks to construct a drag strip.

City Manager Doug White told the standing-room-only crowd that gathered in the Community Room and out into the parking lot at the old City Hall that the Planning and Zoning Commission had appointed a committee to work with Clack on solidifying some of the special conditions that would have to be met should the property be rezoned from agricultural-use (AG2) to General Commercial.

Among those conditions, White said, would be days of operation, hours of operation and noise control. He told the residents in attendance that the special conditions concerning noise were still not finalized and, therefore, would need to be addressed by that special committee and the Planning and Zoning Committee. The earliest the City Council could take up the matter for vote would be in January, he said.

Even so, members of the public gathered at the City Council meeting -- which were roughly evenly divided between supporters of the proposed drag strip and opponents of it -- and were provided an opportunity to voice their opinions.

Clack, who lives in Walton County but who owns NASCAR Lanier National Speedway in Hall County, presented his plans to the City Council to construct a 1/8-mile drag strip that would be a part of a larger motorsports complex that will include a grandstands, parking area, possible campground/RV park area, playgrounds, motocross track, multiuse arena and staging area. The total acreage of Clack's land situated north of Interstate 20 and west of U.S. Highway 278 measures about 320 acres and is in both Newton and Walton counties, near Willow Springs Church Road. The property was annexed into the city of Social Circle in 2008.

"I'm trying to find something that will be useful for this community," Clack said. "I want to do something that is right ... If it's done right, that's good for everybody. If it's done wrong, that's bad for everybody."

Johnny Finn of Loganville is with Outlaw Racing Street Car Association and he told the City Council that drag racing could be a financial boon to the community. He said his organization, the largest drag racing association in the country, conducts races all over the country and that a large amount of money was spent in connection with that sport in 2008.

"These people come into town, they rent hotel rooms, they buy food, buy fuel -- and they all bought it in places other than Walton County," Finn said.

Louis Van Dyke, owner of the Blue Willow Inn in Social Circle then spoke in support of Clack's plans, saying the motorsports complex Clack envisions will be a positive activity for youth and would boost the tax base in Walton County.

Van Dyke offered one condition for his support: "If I lived nearby the property, which I don't, I may take a whole other attitude," to which the room erupted in applause and residents calling out that that's why they're opposed.

Most of the opponents who spoke against the drag strip said they were concerned about noise, pollution and what kind of industry it would -- or would not -- attract.

Hal Dalley, a Social Circle resident, said in his capacity as a member of the Downtown Development Authority and the Walton County Industrial Authority, those groups have put much effort into making the eastern side of the county attractive to high-end industrial and commercial development. But as a banker, he said, "I've seen that you put this kind of development in and it kills everything else."

Jenny Cole, who lives off Willow Springs Church Road, not far from the site of the proposed drag strip, also voiced concern about future development, particularly in Stanton Springs, the multicounty industrial development park located across I-20 from the site.

"I don't think a drag strip is the magnet to attract other businesses," she said.

Clack, who had an opportunity to rebut some of the comments toward the end of the hearing, disagreed.

"We don't have a drag strip there now, so what's been keeping people away (from Stanton Springs) for the last seven years? Nothing is being built over there now," he said. "I know a lot of people who want to come here. I own property over there, and I have no desire to devalue my property."

But noise control was the major concern of most in opposition to Clack's plans. Many residents said they can often hear crowd noise from baseball games at Georgia Perimeter College, which is located along Ga. Highway 11 across the Interstate in Newton County, and from Social Circle High School football games in the fall. Most of the property owners along Clack's tract of land said they have become accustomed to the constant rumbling from traffic along the I-20 and are getting used to the truck nose from the nearby General Mills distribution plant on Hightower Trail. But the loud bursts of noise from a drag strip would be too much.

"Don't let Social Circle go from 'Georgia's Greatest Little Town' to the 'Loudest Little Town," Cole said.

Many residents expressed frustration with the City Council for allowing these plans to get this far along, and reminded council members that they serve at the pleasure of the public.

"Our city, county and state officials are accountable to us," said Annie Crouch. "They are put in office by us, and they can be removed by us."

But for others, concerns about a drag strip are overblown. Dave Bradbury said when the Social Circle Car Club started up about seven years ago, he heard the same concerns about cars. But today, the organization raises money for toys to be donated to children through the fire department and helped sponsor the city's Fourth of July celebration.

"No one complained then," Bradbury said. "That's what cars can do. ... This is a golden opportunity."

Ralph Caruse agreed.

"I've watched this town grow and shrink and then grow and shrink," he said. "It's a struggle to keep things going. ... This is an opportunity that would be a shame if we missed it."

The Social Circle Planning and Zoning Commission will meet at 6 p.m. Dec. 28.