The big, bright signs and neon green ribbons are just about everywhere along Ozora Road these days. The signs stand in front of homes and businesses. The ribbons are tied around the signs and on fence posts.
They’re a constant reminder of the battle that’s currently brewing in the eastern Gwinnett community, one that has thousands of neighbors pitted against Southern Sanitation — the company that wants to build a new solid waste transfer station near their homes and parks and schools.
But the signs and ribbons serve, too, as reminders of contentious events from the not-so-distant past.
Gwinnett County has a difficult history of dealing with these types of waste stations, warehouse-style facilities used to store household garbage before it’s picked up again and taken to the landfill. That history involves questionable political connections, casino-chip bribes and federal prison time for an elected official.
Several waste transfer stations were denied in the late mid- to late-2000s, leaving those developers wondering if their proposals were doomed by a lack of political connections to the Board of Commissioners. Two other proposals that the commission actually approved helped trigger local and federal investigations that uncovered shady dealings with developers.
By the end of it all, three commissioners would resign — two under criminal indictment and the third under the threat of one.
In 2019, Gwinnett’s government has different leaders and, by all outward appearances, a different set of ethics.
But the fact remains that facilities like the one currently up for debate played a central part in the systemic corruption a decade ago. And it’s not lost on the folks from Ozora Road.
“I know there’s been a history of questionable decisions,” said Larry Rose, a local homeowners association president. “But we believe that, given the right information and evidence put in front of planning commission and the Board of Commissioners, that they’ll make the right decision for the community.”
Gwinnett planning commission chairman Chuck Warbington recently met with concerned residents and the would-be developers.
“I assured both of a fair hearing,” he said.
There are currently four solid waste transfer stations in Gwinnett. But it’s the two that were approved and never built that helped expose the corruption — and that have added to the anxiety currently festering along Ozora Road.
Ten years ago, a politically connected developer named J.C. White proposed building such a waste station on a nine-acre site off I-85 near Beaver Ruin Road. The county’s planning department and planning commission both recommended denial, saying it was inconsistent with the recommended land use for the area.
The Board of Commissioners got the final say, and voted 3-2 for approval. The approvals came from commissioners who would later leave office amid scandal: Shirley Lasseter; Chairman Charles Bannister, whose election campaign had been aided by White’s daughter; and Kevin Kenerly, whose cousin was the real estate broker on White’s purchase of the land.
A handful of businesses and the sizable congregation of the nearby Holy Vietnamese Martyrs Catholic Church had already expressed their vehement opposition but were ignored.
The church filed a lawsuit against both the developer and the county, claiming the board abused its power and participated in “spot zoning.”
After about two years, the ligation was settled — with the church agreeing to buy the property where the waste station would’ve been built.
The site now holds a massive, 17,500-square-foot pavilion where the church welcomes tens of thousands of revelers for a festival each fall. There’s talk of building a retreat center and more.
“They are exceptionally happy with the fact that there’s not a waste transfer station there,” said Dennis Kelly, senior project manager for Catholic Construction Services Inc., the development arm of the Archdiocese of Atlanta. “And they have utilized that land to the utmost.”
The vote on the church property prompted both journalists and authorities to start asking questions about impropriety within Gwinnett’s government.
By the end of the subsequent corruption scandal, Bannister would resign to avoid a perjury charge threatened after he purportedly lied to a grand jury investigating questionable land deals.
Kenerly would be sentenced to 10 years probation for allegedly taking $1 million in bribes related to the county’s purchase of potential park land.
Lasseter would land in federal prison, in part thanks to her role in approving another waste station proposal.
‘On its merits’
Across the county, on the south side of Ga. 316 near Dacula, lies a sliver of land that could’ve been yet another solid waste transfer station. This proposal wasn’t hotly debated, didn’t draw outcry from the few neighbors nearby.
This transfer station was approved by county officials but never built for very different reasons. As federal investigators would eventually discover, its passage was the offspring of bribery consummated in an out-of-state casino.
On April 28, 2009, the Gwinnett County Commission approved the special use permit requested by Duluth-based developer Mark Gary, who wanted to build the $4 million facility on 10 acres off Alcovy Industrial Boulevard.
Kenerly abstained, saying his mother lived in a senior living facility owned by Gary. Commissioner Shirley Lasseter was among the three “yes” votes, despite Gary being a family friend who had worked on her campaign.
“I don’t look at it as Mark Gary’s,” Lasseter told the AJC after the vote. “I look at it as the project that is up in that area, and I weigh it on its merits.”
By 2012, it would become public that Gary had discussed the waste transfer station with Lasseter and her son, John Fanning, prior to the commission’s vote — and a bribe in exchange for Lasseter’s vote had been arranged.
About three weeks after the vote, Gary met Fanning at a casino and handed over $30,000 in poker chips.
All three participants — Lasseter, Fanning and Gary — would ultimately serve federal prison time, as would another business associate named Skip Cain.
Lasseter took another bribe for her support of a project dreamed up by undercover FBI agents. She was sentenced to nearly three years in prison.
The waste station off Alcovy Industrial Boulevard, meanwhile, was never built. It remains an undeveloped wooded lot neighbored by a pair of distribution centers, a strip mall and a popular Stars and Strikes bowling alley.
A real estate agent’s sign still stands at the roadside, screaming “available” in capital letters.
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