The Liberty County Board of Commissioners turned down a request to rezone property that would allow the resident to provide transitional housing for probationers, parolees and the homeless at an Aug. 2 meeting, but commended the applicant for his efforts.
Commissioners upheld a recommendation from the Liberty Consolidated Planning Commission to disapprove John and Soon Woodard’s application to rezone 2.52 acres off of Tibet Road from AR-1, agricultural residential district and A1, agricultural district, to R-3, multi-family residential district.
John Woodard and his family moved to Liberty County from Long County where he was housing ex-offenders at his home. He said prison chaplains and probation officers asked him to house people and help
them get back on their feet. They recommended people who deserved a second chance, Woodard said.
The Woodards are the founders of Immanual Vision Center LLC, a ministry that would have operated the transitional housing program. Members of the program would take various classes, and attend church and bible studies with the Woodards.
Woodard, who said he has two ex-offenders staying on his Liberty County property, created a dormitory in his garage for up to 10 people and converted an apartment into a kitchen and dining room. Woodard has paid for the changes on his own, but members in the program who obtain employment would have to pay a percentage of their earnings, no more than $125 a week, to go towards their food and clothes.
His facilities have been inspected by the Liberty County Sheriff’s Department and a representative from Atlanta, Woodward said. He did not say which agency or department in Atlanta.
The Woodards planned for their program to be part of the Transitional Housing for Offender Registry under the State Board of Pardons and Paroles, through which the state would send people and possibly some funding to the Woodards.
The people he housed in Long County included sex offenders. Woodard said he is in compliance with regulations for housing sex offenders in Liberty County, such as being 1,000 away from a church or daycare.
Woodard said the two people with him now have already completed the program and are considered to be family.
Commissioner Marion Stevens asked Woodard who supervises the residents in his absence. Woodard answered his wife and daughter, along with volunteers from his church.
Commissioner Gary Gilliard told Woodard it seemed he has been operating this facility and is now requesting rezoning.
"We were just taking people in and got behind the eight ball," Woodard said. He said they were taking people in and realized they needed to get licensed and rezoned.
Commissioner Eddie Walden called his idea "noble" and thinks the county also needs to inform Long County about this type of petition, since his property is close to the Long County border.
Several people attended the meeting to oppose the rezoning, and spokesman L.C. Williams, who said he lives about 200 feet away from Woodard’s property, claimed he been housing people since March and there were three, not two.
"The guys who live there, three sex offenders—two child molesters and one for aggravated sex," Williams said. "They don’t live in his garage. They live in a shed, 15-by-20 out in the backyard. I have seen them urinate in the backyard because maybe they didn’t feel like going to the bathroom or the bathroom is locked. He set his garage up, I’ve seen it and talked with him, for 10 people. The thing is, if we vote yes for this we’re looking at 10 to 20 sex offenders living next door to me."
Williams told commissioners the recidivism rate for criminals is 60 to 66 percent.
"So if you take 10, you got four that may commit the same crime that they did prior. We haven’t had a crime in that neighborhood in the 19 years that I’ve been out there and I’ve been living in Liberty County since 1988. When my grandkids visit, I don’t want to have to be watching the guy to see if a guy jumps over the fence."
Stevens then made a motion to follow LCPC’s recommendation of disapproval.
Board of Commissioners Chairman Donald Lovette told Woodard he appreciates the service he is providing.
"We do believe there is a place and we do believe we should have compassion for those who deserve a second chance," Lovette said. "Speaking personally, that place is not in the neighborhood where you have set it up. There is a place somewhere and I’m thankful for the service you are willing to give for the people to give that second chance"
Lovette said he is sorry that Woodard got that far in preparing his property before realizing he needed to rezone the property.
Commissioner Justin Frasier commended Woodard for his efforts and asked him to rethink leaving his wife and daughter alone to supervise the residents.
The commissioners then voted to uphold LCPC’s recommendation of disapproval.
In other matters, the commission approved the Special Purpose Local Options Sales Tax referendum for the general election in November, and approved the intergovernmental agreement between the county and municipalities about how SPLOST funds will be allocated.
Commissioners rejected a bid by Sykes Brothers, Inc., to do road improvements on Bill Carter Road.
Commissioners approved a list of county employee salaried positions that are exempt from receiving overtime compensation according to the Fair Labor Standards Act. The positions include county administrator, chief financial officer, public works director and building maintenance superintendent.
David Smiley was appointed to the Liberty County Board of Assessors, in a 4-3 vote, with Stevens, Frasier and Lovette opposed.