Walker County Sole Commissioner Shannon Whitfield is puzzled why construction at Corinth Baptist Church has not resumed since the permit was issued seven months ago; meanwhile, church officials say they would have rethought their construction plans if they had known how many hoops they would have had to jump through to satisfy Whitfield’s administration.
The Walker County Inspections Department issued a stop work order on construction at the church at 2524 Corinth Road, LaFayette, on Oct. 8, 2018, citing no building permit had been obtained, no plans had been submitted, no water flow assessment had been performed and environmental health staff needed to check the back septic system.
Over the next year, county documents record meetings and correspondence the county officials had with Rossville-based architect Jack Killian, pastor R.D. Wallin and church leaders Bruce Coker and Jerry Day, former Walker County magistrate judge, regarding the requirements for the church to resume construction. Oct. 18, 2019, the necessary building permit was issued.
“We don’t know what’s got them held up,” Whitfield said.
Coker said spraying the required fire-retardant material in the building is among the issues that have stalled the project that church officials plan to discuss with the state fire commissioner’s office once government operations return to normal after the COVID-19 outbreak.
What apparently could be chalked up to differing interpretations of state and local jurisdictions and laws, mixed messages as administrations changed, and inflamed political passions have escalated to dozens of Facebook posts characterizing the county’s administration as overreaching its powers and stymieing church construction efforts.
In July 2015 a faulty circuit board in an ice maker in the kitchen caused a fire at the church. After settling with the insurance company for $1.7 million, the church received permission to rebuild under a “blanket permit” from then-sole Commissioner Bebe Heiskell’s administration, said Coker, a school resource officer at Ridgeland High School.
The church initially intended to “rebuild” the burned portion of the building, approximately one-third of the structure; however, the fire compromised the structural integrity of the steel in the remaining portion of the building, so the church had to demolish it, Coker said.
Whitfield’s administration took office in January 2017.
The church purchased a slightly larger metal building to erect on the existing concrete slab site and worked with then-county Fire Marshal Waymond Westbrook to locate firewalls and on other steps Westbrook required to ensure the construction would remain within compliance with the permit received in 2015, Coker explained.
Church officials said incoming Fire Chief Blake Hodge characterized the cooperation and professional courtesy they had received under the previous administration as allowing them to get things done under the “good old boy system.”
When county building officials became aware that construction of a “new” building was underway, without required permits and inspections, the stop work order was issued, county Planning Director David Brown said.
Walker County officials said they found no record of the permission from Heiskell’s administration to which Coker referred.
Coker reached out to Jeff Hogan, state fire marshal, who advised that his office could not go against the local jurisdiction, he said.
Coker said the building falls under local jurisdiction, but he believes because he asked the state fire office for help that the commissioner’s office handed off jurisdiction to the state.
State Fire Inspector Jeff Goodwin with the state fire marshal’s office determined that the church falls under state, not local, jurisdiction.
“They (church representatives) are asking the county to do something we don’t have the power or legal authority to do,” explained Whitfield.
The problems seem to have originated with the distinction between whether the building fell under the requirements for new construction or if it was literally a “rebuild” because it was being built on the original slab.
Existing buildings are generally grandfathered in for codes compliance, but construction of a new building is required to meet current requirements. County officials said construction of the new metal building required stamped drawings prepared by a licensed architect and hiring a licensed contractor to oversee the construction of a new building.
Whitfield’s administration required a full set of architectural drawings that cost almost $70,000, hiring a structural engineer at a cost of $30,000, installation of a commercial type sprinkler system at around $140,000, spraying a fire retardant material throughout the inside of the structure for about $140,000.
“So if you do the math, they are costing this community of believers around $380,000 and we still can’t get anything going even though we finally got a permit, due to the structural engineer putting in unachievable requirements before we sink another nail,” Coker posted on May 11 on Facebook.
Coker said the building’s capacity is less than the state has determined, and the church is actually exceeding many of the state fire safety requirements.
The church had to hire an architect to prepare drawings of a building that was essentially already erected. Pastor Wallin, who himself had previously been a general contractor and had been managing the build, stepped aside so that Killian would act as the project manager to oversee contractors and to communicate with the county to ensure compliance.
After reviewing the submitted plans, the state fire marshal’s office determined the building’s total occupancy to be 1,602 people; state fire safety codes require the structure be sprinkled, Walker County Fire Chief Blake Hodge said.
While the church membership may be smaller than the building’s total occupancy, the church could host revivals and other events that draw more people, and the congregation could grow in the future, county officials said.
According to a permit, the state fire commissioner’s office estimated the building has 22,756 square feet. For sake of comparison, the four-unit shopping center at 311 N. Main St., LaFayette, that includes Dollar General on one end and Workhorse Fitness Center on the other is a total 22,024 square feet, according to county tax records; this total does not include the Food City building.
As of May 15 at 5 p.m., Coker’s Facebook posts had received more than 150 responses. The string includes banter about fee and permit requirements, exemption from fire safety requirements, accusations that county officials accept kickbacks and endorsements for Matt Harris, a county candidate for commission chairperson.
Harris waded into the Facebook fray, posting “I’ve seen all the documentation. They can start building the day I take office.”
Coker said the church never intended to become involved in politics over this issue. He has become a Harris supporter because “he’s somebody you can talk to,” he added.
Whitfield is competing against Harris and Perry Lamb in the June 9 Republican primary to seek the county commission chairperson’s seat.
Amanda Babb posted, “Different codes for new builds and existing structures. I am not disputing that the previous authority were letting churches slide without meeting code when rebuilding, but obviously the new administration are not.”
Whitfield said contrary to Coker’s assertions, his administration has not treated Corinth Baptist Church any differently than other church. Sunnyside Baptist Church met all requirements for an addition, including providing plans.
Coker equated the plans supplied with Sunnyside Baptist to a diagram of the floor plan on a sheet of paper, rather than a full set of architectural plans as Corinth Baptist was required to supply.
Some comments support the county’s position.
Babb, in another post, wrote, “Just because this establishment is a church does not give the right to violate building/safety code. The irony is that the church already burned once. Yes, it is a lot of money, but safety is more important.”
“I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say if Shannon (Whitfield) gave you permission without being up to fire code that could make the county liable if something bad happen. Then again he would be the bad guy,” Tony Vidalez posted. “These codes were in place for a reason. If he let you guys bypass the system he would have to do it for everyone.”
The vast majority of comments offered encouragement to Corinth Baptist and said the county should have done more for the church.
Sandy Wise Lee reminded church members about David’s triumph over Goliath the giant.
Others offered their prayers and blessings to Corinth Baptist’s members.
Angie Moore Parcell wrote, “Sorry for all your troubles. Whitfield should have went to bat for your church.”
Whitfield said he feels his administration has helped the church and neighboring residents. The water main that serviced Corinth Road lacked sufficient water pressure to supply the sprinklers that state law required.
LaFayette had planned in a few years to upgrade the main to an 8-inch main; the county split the $80,000 cost for the city’s water main upgrade with the city to fast track the upgrade, thereby shortening the church’s construction timeline.
“We have a $40,000 investment in that community,” Whitfield explained.
In addition to enabling the church to have properly functioning sprinklers, the increased water capacity allowed fire hydrants to be closer to the houses near the church, lowering the ISO rating and insurance costs those residences, Hodge said.
The codes have been written this way because people have been killed in fires, the fire chief stated.
“To ignore that (fire safety risk) is not logical to me,” he said.
The only remaining permitting hurdle is to submit a sprinkler plan, which the church can do when reaching the appropriate point in construction, he said.
“It’s going to be a beautiful building,” Whitfield said.
Construction has hit another wall, according to church officials, not only because of the fire-retardant material requirement, but also because the engineer is requiring the footings be exposed from 4 feet down and then filled with concrete.
Church officials lament the fact that Corinth Baptist once had 17 thriving ministries. Now the church is cramped into a much smaller building that will not accommodate all of those activities, and a lot of the youths who had been involved with the church are no longer participating.
The financial and emotional toll this issue has taken on the congregation “has been absolutely devastating to this ministry,” Pastor Wallin said.
“I think absent that fire chief, we’d be in the building by now,” Coker concluded.
Wilson Road in Rossville and a few other nearby locations in Walker County will soon be lined with light.
Commissioner Shannon Whitfield and Sheriff Steve Wilson unveiled the county’s first community street light project Wednesday, May 13, following a grassroots effort to improve public safety in northern Walker County.
The county contracted with EPB to install 110 street lights along Wilson Road and sections of Happy Valley Road, James Street and Glentana Street. The public safety enhancement will cost Walker County about $1,000 a month and includes installation and maintenance. The LED lights will illuminate nearly 3.7 miles of heavily traveled roads where people live, work, shop and attend school.
“The recently released audit verified Walker County’s financial position continues to strengthen, putting us in a position to make modest investments in public safety initiatives,” said Whitfield. “It has been a pleasure working with David Roden and the Wilson Road Neighborhood Group to address public safety concerns in their community. Public safety will continue to be one of our top priorities as we move Walker County forward.”
Sheriff Wilson and his staff reviewed crime, traffic and other data before recommending the Wilson Road corridor as the best location to receive additional resources. “We have a lot of people who live in this area who may not have the means to drive, so walking to a store or somewhere else is their only means of transportation,” said Wilson. “This will certainly enhance the safety of pedestrians and improve our crime stats, because the lights will illuminate the entire roadway.”
The community street light project will also directly benefit students, parents and teachers traveling to and from Rossville Elementary and Stone Creek Elementary schools. The lights will be photo-cell activated, so they will turn off and on automatically with the sun. The paving of Happy Valley Road from Battlefield Parkway to James Street this summer will provide an additional complement to this project.
EPB started installing the new street lights during the week of May 3-9 along Happy Valley Road, with a goal of having a majority of the lights up and operational by the end of July. This marks the third public safety enhancement covered under the fiscal 2020 budget, following the planned reopening of Fire Station 7 in Fairview and fully funding the Sheriff’s Office budget.
Organizers for LaFayette’s annual Honeybee Festival made the decision to cancel the 2020 event back in April amid uncertainty surrounding the festival due to COVID-19-related issues, but the fate of the city’s 2020 Freedom Festival is currently still up in the air.
May 11’s scheduled City Council meeting, held via video and phone conference because of the continued regulations put in place by local and state governments, saw the council and Mayor Andy Arnold discuss possible COVID-19-related issues associated with holding the annual festival this year.
However, the council ultimately decided to postpone making a decision on the festival as they await further word from the state and Gov. Brian Kemp on what restrictions might still be in place and which ones might be rolled back by the time the festival arrives. The Freedom Festival is held each year on the Friday before July 4, meaning July 3 would be the date of this year’s event.
Kemp’s executive order of a public health state of emergency due to the virus is set to expire May 13 at 11:59 p.m., unless renewed. That executive order included things such as government-operated public pools and live performance venues, among other locations and businesses, where large crowds would gather.
The council chose to wait until the next regularly scheduled meeting on June 8 to make a decision, though leaving open the possibility of calling a special meeting before that date to decide what to do about this year’s version of the popular event.
The annual Freedom Festival is free to the public and generally begins at 5 p.m. and concludes with fireworks around 10 p.m. Last year’s schedule included vendors, an old timer’s baseball game, a cornhole tournament, an eating contest, a pro wrestling card, free swimming at the Recreation Department pool and concerts.
The Honeybee Festival, which had drawn tens of thousands of people to the city in its three years’ of existence, had been slated for June 13.