UPDATE: As of 2/16/2023, a lawsuit has been filed in the Bulloch County Superior Court, Case Name: Hood, et al v. The City of Statesboro, to address numerous concerns regarding their dealings with Mr. Franklin and his redevelopment agents. It also appears that land acquired through annexation must legally remain in its existing zoning status.
In late 2022, elected State Representative Lehman Franklin of HD 160, including parts of Bulloch and Bryan counties, made an application to the City of Statesboro. It involved an aggressive plan for redevelopment involving Bel Air Estates, one of the twenty-one, mostly land-related corporations which he controls as lead corporate fiduciary officer and owner.
His owner application was for the annexation and re-zoning of 41 acres of his property off Beasley Rd from unincorporated Bulloch county into the City of Statesboro. And, his application appears to be receiving unprecedented special treatment that has crossed legal boundaries. By open records requests, citizens have found that the school district was not notified of the annexation to adjust their planning, and there is no indication of Franklin disclosing his personal financial interest as an elected state public official nor required record of any campaign contributions to members of the city council.
In the two years prior to his bilaterally unopposed election, Franklin obtained massive property and planned redevelopment assets through his family. This was unbeknownst to the public when he ran for office, and, through an ethics complaint filed in Oct 2022, he AMENDED his legally required 2021 personal financial disclosure to change the number from zero to TWENTY-ONE corporations. He has also yet to transparently disclose his role as the CFO and Secretary of the Georgia Automobile Dealers’ Association (GADA) lobby group in 2021. And, just after his primary election, he gained the role of Chairman of the Board of GADA, which many consider a strong conflict of interest far-exceeding lobbyist thresholds. Governor Kemp, who attended Franklin's GADA election, stands to benefit from this 'lobby fix' arrangement to bring in the Hyundai Metaplant, entirely disregard of the 60,000 good citizens of HD 160.
The Statesboro Planning Board, which is an advisory body of public officials, presented a proposal to the public as a combined annexation and zoning map amendment. It included a drawn plan to build a large multi-family, townhome complex on acreage zoned for spacious single family housing lots. Both matters went to the Planning Board on Jan 3, just after the holidays when most government matters would go unnoticed. However, nearly 50 community members came to the meeting with numerous arguments of concern, measuring a strong encroachment on their life, liberty, and property. With nearly unanimous adjoining neighborhood opposition and many logical concerns regarding community costs, the board denied both requests.
Just prior to the Statesboro City Council meeting on Jan 17, the city decided to pursue only a vote on the annexation of the land. This move appeared to entirely disregard the impact of the requested zoning change and city precedence for annexation procedures. At this meeting, the city gave no presentation of the proposed multi-family complex maps and supplemental development costs tied to a potential influx of 400-500 additional residents. Staff showed the council members only photos of trees and the adjoining road. Schools, public safety infrastructures, and roads were high on the list of issues that citizens presented, however, city council punted all of them, basing their decision only on a "desire" for more land.
In discussion, the city manager, Charles Penny, claimed that the city cannot "grow" without acquiring more land. Others, such as Mayor McCollar and Councilwoman Shari Barr claimed that they could and should do nothing to encourage the development of large numbers of existing depressed areas in the city with private developers. The Mayor asserted that the people truly "don't want" the city encouraging a movement of certain private redevelopment projects to better the existing state of the city. Barr stated that they just "handle applications."
Councilman John Riggs discouraged a vote on the matter based on the council's limited understanding of the Planning Board concerns, and another member vocalized concerns regarding area property values. Ultimately, the Mayor heard respectfully from all parties, gave an empassioned speech about how much he "genuinely cares" for the city to persuade the malleable women on the council, and then allowed a vote.
The council, in a 4-to-1 vote has now accomplished part of Franklin's request in DIRECT opposition to the nearly unanimous vote of its Planning Board. They granted the annexation, “claiming” they would handle the zoning map amendment later in “careful” consideration of the citizens, schools, children, and safety “next time.” A local report of the meeting can be see here, including an entire video of the testimony.
At the Jan 3 meeting and with initial application, the lot developers made public statements that redevelopment would not likely be financially feasible without city approval of their specifically requested rezoning. In the application, they stated "... If the City is not in agreement with the requested rezoning and subsequent redevelopment, the property owner is not in agreement to the annexation of the property at this time." This causes citizens to be wary of the circular process they witnessed.
Now, Representative Franklin's developers appear to be satisfied with annexation as they await the zoning city decision, likely in collaboration with county officials. Citizens believe that they have witnessed a shifty plan to entirely subvert the concerns of the adjoining citizens, amounting to over 40 families present at both public hearings. It appears that the government and owner applicant are now working together to arrange some "new" redevelopment plans behind closed doors. The city has also failed to directly answer citizen questions regarding the failure to notify the schools that should cause a delay on rezoning decisions, even in direct records and information requests. However, they did answer certain ‘city-favoring’ press.
Some Questions that Need Answers to Address Statewide Redevelopment Impacts:
Is fast-tracking redevelopment for State Rep Franklin, eager to benefit in "support" of his district’s Hyundai Metaplant, the new private exception? What other developers are benefitting from this possibly legally-riddled fast track here and throughout the state?
As State Chairman of GADA, a registered LOBBY GROUP, is Franklin satisfying his deep-pocketed members by showing that Bulloch county is preparing for Metaplant growth while collaborating with the city to disregard his constituents on adjoining land?
Is Governor Kemp, who attended Franklin's Lobby Chairman election at Sea Island in June 2022, relying on Franklin's GADA lobby efforts inside the General Assembly, while also ensuring that redevelopment in the county is going to Franklin’s advantage?
Why is the Bulloch County Commission moving so strongly and unilaterally to make major changes to the "comprehensive long-term plan" for the county without referendum, and then grant so many millions of dollars in ad valorem exemptions and inducement contracts to new companies with no approval of the people? Why does the county website claim that the comprehensive plan is just a "policy document," and not an ordinance, when it was signed by formal resolution of Brooklet, Portal, Register and Bulloch County with zoning maps?
Why is local press continually failing to report on the open ethics case and investigation of Lehman Franklin by the Georgia Government Transparency and Finance Commission, yet they report on numerous other open cases? Is his omission of over TWENTY-ONE mostly redevelopment-oriented corporate interests, not relevant to local citizens, or not politically appropriate to report on Franklin? Is withholding his 2021 lobby fiduciary positions as the CFO and Secretary of GADA not concerning, considering he has all access to deep internal lobby information needed to leverage the lobby power inside the General Assembly and other local authorities? Is Franklin Automotive advertising money so valuable to the local press that it is "hush" money?
Reporting potential government corruption is American. The 60,000 citizens of each Georgia House District deserve fair representation under the GA Constitution.
Community Speakers in Opposition, among over 70 present on Jan 17:
Mr. Raybon Anderson - former Bulloch County Commissioner Chairman, former member of a state-level board to establish best policies for local redevelopment under Gov Sonny Perdue, directly adjoining property owner to subject of redevelopment, business owner of Anderson's General Store within a quarter-mile of the proposed redevelopment
Dr. Susan Riley - former 8-yr member of the Bulloch County School Board and partner in a local, family medical practice within a quarter-mile of the proposed development and directly across from Anderson's General Store, perseverant community advocate
Mrs. Sarah Thompson - former military officer, constitutional advocate and impacted neighborhood community stakeholder
A prominent heritage neighborhood in Bulloch continues to defend their life, liberty, and property as Georgia leaders. The Georgia Record will provide updates as the story progresses.