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Racetrack plans hit snag; debate rages on

By Sherri Ellington Permitting a horse racetrack and other farm-related activities at the old English farm on High Falls Park Road and Chappell Mill Road hit yet another snag. The Lamar County board of appeals, which had tabled the matter once, tabled it again pending land co-owner Arthur ‘Brutz’ English IV’s presentation of a detailed use plan. English is to have the plans ready by the Aug. 14 meeting of the appeals board, which will fall before the Aug. 20 Lamar County commission meeting when another public hearing will be held. No more advertising is required. Member Danny English moved to deny the special exception application at the July 31 hearing until the board learned doing so would mean Brutz English must wait a year before he could reapply. Member Trish Henry moved to table it pending receipt of a plan including sound barriers, hours of operation from gates opening to gates closing, the time the public address system will shut down and the proposed schedule of a rodeo arena construction. ’I think a conceptual master plan might be helpful,’ said Henry. ‘If a corn maze and berry fields are off site, you should include them too.’ Zoning administrator Danny Gunter noted the noise of the public address system ‘“ the major complaint ‘“ would fall under the county’s upcoming re-draft of its nuisance code. ’County commissioners are still wrestling with that,’ said Gunter. ‘He’s operating under the zoning rule that says the property is agriculturalresidential and he can sell what’s grown there.’ Since the last hearing before commissioners, English has received his state stable license. The barn being built on the facility has 17 stalls with more slated for construction. It will board horses seven days a week. ‘I have a copy of the license,’ said Gunter. He also noted the special exception is for 38.49 acres of the English property. Another 500 will supply pecans, honey and other produce to be sold at the site. ’We surveyed off the 38 acres to establish the agritourism venture. That’ll be the business area. The race track is only one small part of it,’ said Brutz English. ‘I’ve been working tirelessly with the county to get it under compliance with the new law. It’s more advantageous to us. I’m trying to come up with the least invasive way to use this land. I prefer this to chicken houses, hog pens or subdivisions. I want to be a partner and credit to my community.’ Rancho el Centenario has hosted six events with English working through a loophole that allows him to sell honey or pecans to a person who can watch training races for free. The track’s Spanish-language Facebook page notes a cost of $20 for men, $10 for women and children free. The next event will be Aug. 11. English said he hoped to have bilingual signs up by then. Under Lamar’s new agritourism law, with a special exception English could charge admission to races and sell pecans, honey and other produce. He also runs Liberty Hill Honey Company. Timber is marketed from the English farm but not through the agritourism area. ’We want to be charging admission,’ he said, although the loophole ‘is working pretty well. We’ve demonstrated the race track can work. There’s been no DUIs or other wrongdoing and traffic is going smoothly.’ Security was first handled by Mark Barry, a deputy with the sheriff’s office paid for off-duty work. It is now handled by out-of-town, off-duty correctional officers. The site has liability coverage. Emergency services are covered by Mid Georgia Ambulance, which is notified when an event is going on. ’I’ve had state department of agriculture inspectors, health department inspectors, three or four sets of inspectors from different departments,’ said English. ‘Everything I do is legitimate. From day one I’ve worked to do it the right way.’ In addition to the state stable license, he has a food service permit from the health department for on-site concessions provided by a vendor that handles sales tax, permits for restrooms and a USDA honey processing license. Future plans include U-pick berry patches, corn mazes, trail rides and primitive campgrounds, but no racetrack grandstands. Asked for a timeline, English said he had no financing in hand. ’It all depends on the racetrack,’ he said. ‘I’m trying to find some agricul­tural way to keep it. Right now I can barely afford to keep it mowed.’ He agreed to time limits on racing but noted much of the time people are setting up, socializing between races then loading up race horses that train here for parimutuel betting in other states. While racing would stop, traffic would continue to leave the site for a while afterward. Board member Trish Henry suggested running from 9 a.m. to sunset. Races are handled by promoter Andres Vargaras, formerly based in Covington, and the site has no affiliation with other similarly named venues in Alabama and other places, English said. Vargaras is an independent contractor and gets a percentage of gate money. The venue itself does not charge horse owners to race, encouraging them to use the track, though some may pool money for a winning purse at the end of the day. ‘A purse won is not gambling,’ Brutz English said. He did say the Facebook site did not have a disclaimer saying so and, ‘some lawyer needs to look at that.’ ’The number one issue seems to be the noise,’ he said. He is working with an area nursery to provide trees ‘“ eight to 10 feet high at first ‘“ for a sound barrier and a technician to set up the sound system so it does not carry over long distances. English, a GIS technician for Barnesville, provided a map of the site that showed parking areas, the track, restrooms and concessions along with two or three future pavilions. However, the appeals board wanted a conceptual master plan, including sites for a potential rodeo ‘“ which could need lighting if it was open past dusk ‘“ and future buildings. Member Trish Henry noted such plans are flexible and could include a proposed timeline. ’We need plans, not pie in the sky,’ said chairman Dean Gore. ‘We don’t have enough evidence of what you’re going to do. We’re talking about a business venture. I’d like to see a business plan and what it will do to property values across the road. If we approve it now you can do anything you want to.’ The two disagreed on whether the racetrack is grandfathered in under the new county law. ‘This board wants to understand the whole big picture,’ said Danny English. ‘We want a better, broader view.’ Other issues included 40-foot wide points of exit and egress and traffic density. ’We’re trying to get traffic off High Falls Park Road as quickly as we can,’ Brutz English said. Consumption of alcohol was another issue, with English saying he allows coolers and people to bring alcohol but he does not sell it since he has no permit to do so. He likened the activity to a Braves game. ’Drinking alcohol is a personal, moral choice. If someone has had too much I’d rather they sit there and sober up than put a dangerous driver on the road. We discourage gambling and try to stop it every way we can,’ he said. ‘It’s not legal and if we catch anyone we ask them to leave. This is a family friendly operation. I have a 7-year-old and a 9-year-old. I don’t want them seeing foolishness.’ ******** CITIZENS AIR CONCERNS: Three people spoke against a race track facility being operated on a loophole basis by Arthur ‘Brutz’ English IV during a second board of appeals hearing. They presented a petition with 182 signatures destined for the Aug. 20 Lamar County commission meeting. Here are their comments: ’¢ Shirley White: ‘I don’t believe this is a family oriented place like The Rock Ranch. Bringing your own bottle is awful for children. They’re going to see it.’ ’The sound can be heard from Highway 36 and they’re open from 11 a.m. until after dark. It should end by 6 p.m. at least. People don’t want to hear this going on. I don’t want to see stadium lights in the county.’ She also complained that the clientele is mostly Hispanic, not ‘local people.’ ’The last I heard this was still America,’ she said. ‘He has 600 people over there. In the future it could be thousands. They’re going to have to four-lane the road.’ ’Unsavory people are going to gamble. That’s why tracks like these are shut down in other counties.’ ’People are coming in from out of the state and out of the country. Agritourism doesn’t mean a racetrack. Keep it a farm.’ ’¢ Preston Thompson: ‘I have no problem with English doing whatever he needs to do to make that farm profitable or he’s not going to survive. I’ve had problems with the operations up until now. Keep things up front. He’s trying to push a rope. The business started before we had a plan. Using pecan sales for admission is more than a little deceitful.’ Thompson noted he called the sheriff’s office with noise complaints on race days. ’They leave, the volume goes back up and I can hear that Mexican screaming through the trees. It’s loud. People have been living in that old house for quite a while too.’ He said there are 23 families in the area looking for ‘a good country neighborhood. We’ve developed that and we’d like to keep it. I’ll go over and pick his blueberries but let’s keep it on the level.’ ’¢ Tonya Horton said English had only been under the Conservation Use Valuation Act for about two weeks before he withdrew his application and she did not believe he can use the agriculture sales loophole without CUVA. She also charged he stalled the appeals meeting until he could get his state license and did not fill out his forms completely ‘“ specifically not listing the horse track. ’If it was right next to I-75 none of us would have a problem,’ Horton said. ‘This doesn’t cater to locals or even people who were born in America.’ A state law has been proposed, possibly for the 2014 ballot, allowing parimutuel betting at race tracks. She alleged English would allow legal gambling if it is passed.

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