Small crowd attends Denby family vigil

COVINGTON - A reserved gathering of about 15 people stood on the Square's inner ring in front of the Newton County Historic Courthouse on Tuesday evening to protest the county's condemnation of Emmett and Rhonda Denby's property for construction of the Bear Creek Reservoir.

Though termed a "candlelight vigil," there were no candles lit and no speeches given. The Denbys' supporters simply milled about and spoke quietly to one another.

Roxanne Hay, a friend of the Denbys, said she was there "just to see justice served."

"We're all binding together in support," she said.

Joel Thomas, another Denby family friend, said he believes eminent domain by local governments is "out of control."

"Big government is too big and too powerful and has too much rights to take anything they want, even if they don't need it," Thomas said. "They're saying they are more important than the average citizen."

Glenn Fell Sr. and his wife Linda are residents of Jackson Lake who say they worry Bear Creek will drain the Alcovy to the point that it will be dry by the time it reaches the lake.

"We're pulling from our resources, but we're not putting them back," Glenn Fell said, adding that he believes there are alternatives to the reservoir, including drawing water from the South River.

"Public apathy is at an all-time high. People have got to get involved in how we do things. Otherwise, people sit at home and complain and they don't do anything about it," Fell said of why he attended the vigil.

The Denbys and their two children were also present.

"I'm glad people came out to support me in this. A lot of people really think it's wrong and eminent domain should not be used as a weapon of retribution," said Emmett Denby, who claims that the county is rushing to condemn his property because he opposed former Board of Commissioners Chairman Aaron Varner in the 2004 and 2008 elections.

Denby said he had a letter and other documentation to present to commissioners, who were meeting inside the courthouse. But he left the meeting long before the citizen comment portion.

The Denbys live at 3124 Henderson Mill Road on a tract that will be under water when the reservoir is completed. Commissioners approved a resolution to condemn the property in December.

Ken McMichael, a member of the Jasper County Water and Sewerage Authority who is opposed to the Bear Creek project, said he organized the vigil to "put some pressure on commissioners to reconsider their actions."

The letter from Denby and his wife to the county, which he said he already sent to commissioners, but isn't sure they received, states, "The condemnation of any family's home should not be done unless and until it is necessary. Since the proposed Bear Creek Reservoir will not be built for many years, we request that the new commission negotiate with us fairly and allow us to live in our home until the county is ready to begin construction. Then we can move out of our home knowing that the proposed reservoir is actually going to be built and that our rights have been preserved."

According to officials, the reservoir will not be needed to meet water demands until around 2018. A beginning construction date has not been given.

Attorney Scott Peters, who is handling the condemnation on behalf of the county, said the Denbys' property is the last substantial piece of property needed for the project.

Peters said the county has made numerous attempts to negotiate with Denby.

In December 2008, the county made a formal offer to Denby for $405,000 - the full amount of the appraisal performed by the county on the property, which is slightly more than 4 acres, according to Peters.

Denby's counter offer was between $1.3 million and $1.8 million, he said.

Denby's latest offer was $975,000, "not within what we believe to be close to fair market value," Peters said.

Denby said Tuesday night that "those numbers were not my numbers. Nobody interviewed me."

The Citizen has attempted to contact Denby several times in the last few weeks, but he has not returned phone calls.

When asked if wanted to correct the numbers, Denby said, "No." He added that he is hiring an independent appraiser.

A judge signed the condemnation order on Jan. 26, which by law gives 60 days for the owner to be off the property.

However, Peters said the county is willing to allow the Denbys to stay longer.

"Given that his children are school age and other personal situations, an agreement could be reached entitling them to remain at the property for a reasonable period of time, and we certainly have no desire or intent to go out there and immediately remove him from his home," Peters said.

County Attorney Tommy Craig said Tuesday night that a permit has not yet been obtained for the reservoir.

Craig said he and his staff had met with the Army Corps of Engineers recently to discuss some remaining issues, including the environmental mitigation plan, which he said may need to be revisited.

"That occurs on every project I've been associated with. I've never seen a project where the proposed environmental mitigation was accepted," Craig said.

Craig said obtaining a permit is a long process. The county held a public meeting on the project in March 2008 - at that time, Craig said it could take another 12 to 15 months to obtain a permit.

"I think we're making good progress," he said Tuesday.

Crystal Tatum can be reached at crystal.tatum@newtoncitizen.com.