BOC dives deep into Nash Farm issue
By Monroe Roark
The group that has operated a museum at Nash Farm Park for the past several years, which recently closed its doors amid controversy over Civil War artifacts, was never given official authorization to operate there in the first place.
That was the finding announced Tuesday during the Henry County Board of Commissioners’ regular meeting, a marathon session that included three hours of public comment by those for and against the recent removal of a Confederate flag at the property.
A total of 55 citizens signed up in advance to speak to the board during the meeting. All but a few included the Nash Farm issue. Some of those did not speak, choosing to leave the meeting during a recess that was called three hours after the meeting started.
No action was taken by the board on the issue, but county manager Cheri Hobson-Matthews said she and her staff are working to review policies and procedures regarding all parks, especially programs where third parties have been authorized to operate.
Matthews and county Patrick Jaugstetter both said they could find no record of any board action authorizing the operation of the museum by Friends of Nash Farm Battlefield, which closed June 1. A master plan for the park created in 2009 was produced as well, but Matthews said the board never approved it, either.
Museum organizers claimed they were closing because Commissioner Dee Clemmons told them to remove all Confederate flags from the site. Clemmons disputed that, stated several times publicly that she only asked for the removal of the flag flying outside of the building — a flag she said the county didn’t even own.
Matthews, who said the issue first came to her attention via social media, gave a brief history of the board’s actions over the years regarding the property. The commissioners approved the creation of a master plan for the site with a number of specific items to be located there, and they also passed a resolution calling it Nash Farm Park. The master plan was prepared in 2009 at a cost of $42,000, but Matthews said the board never voted officially to implement it.
The plan “did not contemplate that the entire park would be treated as a battlefield,” she said. A military museum was part of the plan, but there is no record indicating that the museum was to be limited to the Civil War. Also, there is no record of any board action authorizing the raising or removal of the Confederate flag that was on the property until recently.
There has never been any memorandum of understanding or any formal agreement between the county and Friends of Nash Farm Battlefield regarding that group’s activities at the park, Matthews said. Clemmons said she was told in December that the group never had authorization to be there.
“We want to ensure all operations are fully lawful and meet the needs and desires of the community,” said Matthews regarding her staff’s inventory of the parks. “I will be evaluating policies and procedures to be sure situations of this type do not happen again.
Jaugstetter was asked by Commissioner Bruce Holmes to give background on the county’s purchase of the Nash Farm property. Holmes made the request earlier in the meeting but Chair June Wood said it would be appropriate for those comments to come after the public comment portion of the meeting.
The 200 or so acres of land was initially connected to another 100-plus acres just across the Clayton County line, Jaugstetter said, and a rezoning application for the Henry County property was filed in 2005. The request for R-3 zoning was met with “great opposition,” Jaugstetter said.
During the rezoning process, the commissioners voted to acquire the property. Jaugstetter, who was serving an earlier stint as county attorney at the time, said that was when he first learned of any issues or questions regarding the potential historic significance of the site.
The land was originally purchased by a developer for $3 million according to deed records. The county acquired it through eminent domain with a Superior Court judge appointing a special master to decide the price. The county’s appraiser valued the land at around $4 million, while the developer’s appraiser came up with a number closer to $12 million.
The special master’s ruling of $8,077,000 was appealed by the county in late 2005 or early 2006, but a few years later the county dropped the appeal. Jaugstetter said he believes the initial payment came from the county’s general fund, with a subsequent loan of about $6 million obtained through the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia and serviced by impact fees.
“The county is still paying on it today,” said Jaugstetter.
The county attorney said he found no official action taken by the Board of Commissioners at any time to authorize Friends of Nash Farm Battlefield to operate on the property. When the site was originally purchased the county hired a part-time caretaker whose compensation include the authorization to live in one of the buildings there, but that action was not in any way connected to a museum.
After the staff presentations, Holmes said that neither he nor any of his fellow board members has brought up race during the discussions surrounding the issue at hand.
“The question is whether the Confederate flag should be flown on county property,” he said. “We should be considerate of everyone in the county and not just a few — many of whom came today from outside the county to complain about a historical site that has never been proven historical.”
Holmes was referring to the question of whether the Nash Farm site was ever actually a Civil War battlefield, which has been debated throughout the last decade.
Clemmons said her initial research on her district after taking office led her to discover that “squatters” were operating in the park and they have recently claimed they did not know the rules and regulations.
“I think the citizens elected me to make sure their tax dollars are spent properly,” Clemmons told the audience, some of whom held up signs throughout the meeting calling for her resignation. “I am doing my job.”
Questions were raised in the community prior to the meeting about whether Clemmons acted lawfully with regard to county regulations that prohibit commissioners from giving directives to county staff and department heads without going through the county manager. That issue was not addressed at this meeting.
Wood closed the discussion by saying that the entire experience has shown where certain processed should have been followed but were not.
“We’ve got some work to do,” she said. “If we had vetted this in the beginning we would have been able to discuss it and get public input. I’m glad the county manager is moving forward to review where we stand with all of our parks.”
Wood thanked the citizen speakers who honored her request to respect each other’s First Amendment rights no matter where they stood on the Nash Farm issue.
“I heard pain, I heard passion, but I also heard a deep desire for our county to work together,” she said. “We are growing and we are changing. We are a diverse community.”
The June 6 meeting can be viewed in its entirety by going to www.henrycounty-ga.org and clicking on the "Government" and "Meetings/Agendas" tabs.