ST. SIMONS ISLAND — Liberty County leaders met to discuss how much progress has been made on communitywide topics and to choose new initiatives to pursue at the annual communitywide retreat.
Among the nearly dozen topics offered for further exploration, three were chosen to be worked on for the coming year — creating, funding and identifying cultural and historic places, a collaborative effort for summer youth employment and internships and an effort to mark the nation’s 250th birthday, which takes place in 2026.
As part of the retreat, the nearly 100 participants also reviewed how much progress had been made in the three issues identified at last year’s retreat — countywide water and sewer availability, affordable housing and mental health.
Liberty County, County Administrator Joey Brown pointed out, is in a yellow zone, meaning the state Environmental Protection Division has capped future withdrawals.
“The group last year realized if we were going to be able to handle the growth and development, handle the event center, handle whatever it is going to come with restaurants,” Brown said, “to somehow look for a way to pool our resources to come together for applications for what we need in water, wastewater and storm water, which is also important.”
It led to reviving a Liberty County Water Committee, which has a policy side of elected and appointed officials and a technical side of engineers. The technical committee has met and is working on developing short-term solutions to handle immediate needs, Brown said.
Longer-range plans may have to include neighboring entities. Hinesville has an agreement with Long County to place a well in that county, which is in the EPD’s green zone and has no restrictions on water withdrawal. Riceboro and McIntosh County, also in the green zone, have had an agreement for several years on water.
“Water is a hot commodity,” Brown told the retreat group. “If we’re all going to survive, we’re all going to have to work together. That makes the technical work a lot easier.”
Jeff Ricketson, executive director of the Liberty Consolidated Planning Commission, said the local housing market is strong, evidenced by the 2,000 single-family housing permits issued in the last 10 years. There also have been about 400 units considered to be affordable housing.
The Hinesville Housing Authority oversees four properties with 225 units and also has 205 units that are known as Section 8 housing.
“They do have an extensive waiting list,” Ricketson said.
The HHA has undertaken an $8 million renovation of its Regency Place complex.
Ricketson also said the Cedar Walk redevelopment project could return in an amended form. A proposal now calls for a lower density than previously put forth, cutting the number of planned units from 150 to about 110.
Ricketson also said the builders are trying to address the concerns of the neighboring property owners in the Arlington subdivision. The timeline on that project is about a year-and-a-half.
The city’s Azalea Street redevelopment project, which has built 32 single- family homes in 12 townhomes in the first phases, is about to embark on its final phase of seven lots. Those lots, City Manager Kenneth Howard said, will be set aside for low-to-moderate income families.
“There are other initiatives we are implementing to address affordable housing in Hinesville,” he said.
The recently adopted Unified Development Ordinance also has provisions that could help, Ricketson said, as it now has allowances for tiny homes and for accessory dwellings, such as cottage houses.
“That’s a popular trend in the country,” he said.
Solutions to the mental health problems, though, remain difficult.
Seventy percent of the inmates in the Liberty County Jail have a drug history, Sheriff Will Bowman said.
“It’s something we don’t like to talk about. But it hits you,” he said. “It hits your family, if you have a family member going through it.”
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 22.8% of adults in the U.S. experienced mental illness in 2021. Of that total, 47.2% received treatment. One in 20 U.S. adults has what is deemed a serious mental illness, according to NAMI.
Sheriff Bowman pointed to Fulton County breaking ground on a behavioral crisis center that will have 24 beds for urgent care and 16 observational beds.
Sheriff Bowman also said patients whose medications are expensive may turn to other, cheaper, illicit drugs.
Sending mental health patients to the hospital also isn’t a viable option, the sheriff said.
“The hospital can only hold them for 72 hours, and at any point that person can get up and walk out,” he said.
“We see some of the same people over and over again,” added Liberty Regional Medical Center CEO Tammy Mims. “The elephant in the room is there is no local facility for them to receive treatment.”
Mims said they built a facility in Jeff Davis, where she worked before coming to LRMC. A 10-bed facility would have a $4 million price tag for construction and cost about $2 million to run each year.