Gwinnett commissioners under fire over trash stations

After a decade in the trash business, Steve Edwards thought he knew what kind of site would work for a waste transfer station.

Gwinnett County planners thought so, too.

Three times they signed off on his company's requests for rezoning, only to have the Gwinnett County Commissioners reject each plan.

The developers of the two transfer stations the commission eventually did approve had something Edwards' company didn't: personal and political connections to county commissioners.

Neither developer has any experience with solid waste, but both were linked to commissioners through family members, friendships, political appointments and campaign contributions.

The string of waste transfer projects — six in all — has generated much controversy, including two lawsuits filed against the county over the past five years.

Trash is big business in Gwinnett, which has a privatized collection system. Twenty-three trash companies picked up more than 1.3 million tons of trash last year.

Waste transfer stations offer trash haulers a local spot to dump trash instead of more distant landfills.

Edwards' employer, Advanced Disposal Services, tried to get the county's approval for a transfer station in 2004, 2006 and 2007. Each of the three locations had varying degrees of industrial activity but all needed to be rezoned from light to heavy industrial use.

The planning staff favored all three proposals, the first because it was on a road with "intense industrial and commercial" uses, according to county records. The second had "light and heavy industrial uses" nearby. The third was "bordered by industrial zoning on all sides."

The commissioners rejected all three, saying they were not suited for such an intense industrial use.

Over the next year and a half, as residential real estate market sputtered, the waste transfer business attracted the attention of three developers. Two of the plans they proposed were approved.

It was a notable string of votes for the commission. Of the six, five went against the advice of the planning staff. Overall, the commission has followed the recommendations of planning staff and the planning commission on 92 percent of all projects since 2007.

The first residential developer was J.C. White, a 69-year-old homebuilder from Flowery Branch. White's partner is Jay Mikolinskiof Suwanee, on the project. White owns the 9-acre tract; Mikolinski plans to develop the $4 million transfer station.

The property, off Interstate 85 and Beaver Ruin Road, sits near the mouth of an office park dotted with buildings bearing names like Gwinnett Corporate Center. It's a 1-1/2 mile stretch of road where one is more likely to pass sedans than garbage trucks.

The original plan for the land was a mixed-use development with upscale condos, shops and restaurants. But that changed when the real estate market soured.

The county's planning staff opposed White's proposal for a transfer station, saying it was "not consistent" with the recommended land use for the area, records show. The planning commission voted unanimously to deny the plan.

Of all the projects, it has the most complicated web of political connections.

White describes Gwinnett Commission Chairman Charles Bannister as a friend, though Bannister called White an acquaintance.

White's daughter, Jodie Rosser, helped Bannister on his 2008 re-election campaign. Rosser, a real estate attorney, also serves as Bannister's appointee on the county's Zoning Board of Appeals. Rosser set up the project's company and helped her father buy the land.

Bannister wasn't the only commissioner with ties to the project. White's real-estate broker on the $2.2 million land deal was Theresa Kenerly, a cousin of Gwinnett Commissioner Kevin Kenerly. She has worked as his campaign chair and treasurer for all four of his elections.

Theresa Kenerly made a commission, but said she did not remember how much. She also said she does not believe she told her cousin.

Kevin Kenerly, who voted in favor of the project, said he did not know about his cousin's involvement.

Both White and Mikolinski, or companies associated with them, have contributed to the campaigns of county commissioners, including both to Bannister and Kenerly.

Most of the money went from White to Bannister. White, his wife and his companies contributed a total of $11,300 to Bannister's election campaigns in 2004 and 2008.

White said that his contributions were not meant to influence votes. "If you don't participate in government, you deserve whatever kind of government you get."

County Commissioner Bert Nasuti, who voted against the project, said it generated the strongest opposition he has seen in 18 years. At least eight local businesses opposed it, saying the transfer station did not belong in the area.

A nearby 4,000-member Vietnamese Catholic church came out in force. Members packed the commisson's chamber during hearings, begging the board to deny the request over concerns about traffic, noise and odor.

The project, however, was approved, with the votes of Bannister, Kenerly and Lasseter. The commissioners placed 33 restrictions on the development to address neighbors' concerns.

"It's baffling," said the church's attorney, Edward "Skip" Kazmarek. "On its face, it would seem to be a violation of every recognized principal of planning and zoning that I can think of."

Bannister said he thought the project was in the best interests of the county. He said he didn't even know it was White's until after he voted for it.

Bannister, Kenerly and Lasseter all cited the light industrial zoning of surrounding property as the main reason they supported the project, though the most of the existing businesses are not industrial, nor is the county's long-term plan for the area.

Bannister and Kenerly also pointed to one other nearby industrial business, a rock quarry. The quarry is not in the office park — it's off Beaver Ruin Road — and is not visible to passing motorists.

Bannister said the restrictions, such as the requirement that the dumping of trash occur inside the building, would help the facility fit in with the office park. "The building will look like any other building — maybe even better," he said.

A month after the board's vote, the Catholic church filed a lawsuit against the county and White's company, stating that the board "abused its zoning power" and accused the county of "spot zoning." It has asked for a judge to review the case.

Advanced Disposal also sued the county, alleging commissioners "abused their discretion" and had "no substantial evidence to support its decision" to reject its first project, court documents show. The lawsuit has not been resolved.

The second successful transfer station project, southwest of Dacula, met with less controversy but was pushed by a politically connected developer.

Mark Gary's Lawrenceville-based development firm Gary Holding Group specializes in housing developments for senior citizens.

Gary described Lasseter as a family friend; his wife grew up across the street from her. He worked on her 2008 election, campaigning door to door and holding a fund-raiser for her at his home. He donated $2,000 each to the campaigns of Lasseter and Bannister in 2007.

Gary submitted his transfer station request in October 2008. Lasseter appointed him to the planning commission five days after taking office in January.

The land Gary plans to build the $4 million transfer station on was already zoned for heavy industrial use — a rare find in Gwinnett. It required only a special-use permit. Located off Winder Highway, the property is on a dead end road that also includes a Home Depot distribution center.

The planning staff gave the project its blessing. The planning commission could not vote to recommend it because three members, including Gary, abstained.

On April 28, the board of commissioners voted 3-1 to approve the project. Lasseter, Bannister and Nasuti voted for it.

Kenerly abstained, saying his mother resides in a senior living facility owned by Gary.

Though her connection to Gary was closer, Lasseter said she did not stand to benefit from the project and never considered abstaining. She said she handled it the same way as she does all decisions.

"I don't look at personalities. I look at projects," she said. "I don't look at it as Mark Gary's. I look at it as the project that is up in that area and I weigh it on its merits."

That same day, the board also rejected another transfer station proposal. Commissioners cited concerns that the trash would attract birds to a nearby airport, creating a hazard for the planes.

Developer Eric Johansen's plan had the approval of the planning staff and commission. Johansen, a partner with Norcross-based development firm Inland Group, had connections, too. But not to current commissioners; he had supported candidates who ran against Bannister and Lasseter.

Johansen served on the planning commission from 2005 to 2008 as the appointee of then-Commissioner Lorraine Green, who ran for chairman but lost to Bannister.

Johansen also worked on the 2008 campaign of Carole Hassell, who ran against and lost to Lasseter.

Johansen said he was disappointed the vote didn't go his way, but wouldn't comment on whether he believed politics played a role.

Bannister and Lasseter both said they treat all requests equally.

"Anybody who contributes to my campaign, anyone who is my friend, anyone who is an enemy, will get the same result, if it is in the best interests of Gwinnett County," Bannister said.

Advanced Disposal, meanwhile, has moved on. After spending at least $300,000 on the three projects and legal fees, it recently began leasing a transfer station near Lawrenceville, said Edwards."I thought we had three great locations for transfer stations," Edwards said. "When it came down to it, it didn't go our way....The [vote] that counts is the one by the Board of Commissioners. And we didn't get that one."

The votes

J.C. White's transfer station project — The commission voted 3-2 to approve it on Feb. 3. Commissionsers Charles Bannister, Kevin Kenerly and Shirley Lasseter voted for it; Mike Beaudreau and Bert Nasuti voted against.

Mark Gary's transfer station project — The commission voted 3-1 to approve it on April 28. Bannister, Lasseter and Nasuti voted for it; Beaudreau voted against it. Kenerly abstained.

How We Got The Story

The story grew from a tip about political connections involving one of the controversial waste transfer stations.

While reporting on that project, the AJC began looking at two similar projects of other developers with political ties, as well as three earlier transfer station projects put forth by a garbage company.

The AJC reviewed the planning department's files for all six projects, interviewed all five county commmissioners, the developers and other involved parties, reviewed campaign contribution documents dating back to 2004, retrieved property records, obtained documents from two related lawsuits and viewed video footage of recent and past commission hearings.