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Staff Editorials

The scourge of traffic -- It's only the beginning

If you tried going from downtown to say Kroger or Dairy Queen over the past weekend you likely encountered some pretty heavy traffic with visitors to our Marble Festival. And the next two weekends with the Apple Festival in Ellijay will be similarly wretched up and down Hwy. 515. This is what Atlanta traffic is like all the time. And it's not pretty. 

In October with north Georgia festivals, Pickens County sees tremendous traffic flow from people trying to get away from the city for the weekend. They leave their crowded neighborhoods to trek north for open space, devoid of traffic and the anxiety that comes with it. Or so they think. If you noticed Hwy. 515 last weekend you saw they just brought their traffic north with them.

Atlanta ranks among the most congested cities in the world, according to a recent report by transportation analytics firm INRIX. That’s in the world, not just the United States. According to INRIX's 2016 global traffic scoreboard, Atlanta ranked eighth in the world for congestion with the average commuter spending 70.8 hours in traffic each year. The only ones who benefit from that much time spent in our cars are podcast producers and oil companies. 

Nationally, Georgia's metro area came in fourth and just last year Atlanta was No. 11 on the global list of most congested cities. While Bangkok, Thailand is the most congested city, five American cities rounded out the top 10 in the world, with Los Angeles,  leading the pack.

According to INRIX the top 10 are: Los Angeles with the average commuter spending 104 hours of their life annually stuck in cars; Moscow at 91.4; New York, 89.4; San Francisco, 82.6; Bogota, Columbia, 79.8; Sao Paulo, Brazil, 77.2; London, 73.4; Atlanta, 70.8; Paris, 65.3; and Miami and 64.8 hours.

With Atlantans spending 70 peak hours in congestion, the cost to each driver is $2,212. But the city loses out to the tune of $7.1 billion from lost productivity with workers sitting in traffic. That's a lot of money.

Economic opportunities in Atlanta come at a price and often  seem like a double-edge sword - we love the lifestyle offered by the expanding metro and how easy it is to get to the Fox Theatre for a show or Laughing Skull lounge for some comedy, but when we're stopped in traffic for hours on a Friday evening, it begs to be asked, is it worth it? 

For all the opportunity Atlanta and the metro area afford in terms of business, jobs, and entertainment, we hope the sprawl stops in Cherokee County. But we aren't holding our breath.

Rest assured, private automobile traffic is not going away anytime soon. While it's still largely kept at bay here in Pickens County, due to our mileage from Atlanta, the growth already coming to north Cherokee County in places like Ball Ground, will eventually spill over here. 

The folks down in Canton who spend exorbitant amounts of time on Hwy. 20 moving from the interstate to their cookie-cutter subdivisions will one day recognize they could just as easily drive another 20 miles north and reach the tranquility of Pickens County.

Reports say some 70,000 people moved into Atlanta last year alone. We should enjoy our mostly traffic-free peace for as long as we can -- sooner or later they will find us and our wide-open spaces.

Play to live better

In his 2008 TED Talk on play, Dr. Stuart Brown makes the astute, but widely ignored, point that “the opposite of play is not work, it’s depression.”

In Brown’s books and the works of a  number of researchers, the benefits of play don’t end with simple fun, they begin there.

A growing body of work shows that playing (whether it’s board games or rock climbing) leads to improvements in most every aspect of a person’s life and include:

• Reducing stress;

• Speeding up learning;

• Enhancing productivity;

• Creating or strengthening social bonds

• Improving communication skills

The recognized value of play is nothing new. Ecclesiastes 3 makes clear there has always been “a time to laugh” and “a time to dance” along with time for work and being serious.

This balance seems lost in a modern America trending ever more serious - too consumed with work and money and status and constantly stressed to the max. You can see it everywhere with  the “I’m so busy” crowd always itching for a fight, but not for a chuckle – unless it’s a sour, mean joke at someone’s expense.

The research points out that humans are hard-wired for play throughout their lifetime. It’s not only kids who need to cut loose. In some of the recent articles that will pop up in a multitude of Google results by searching play, whether it’s figuring out how to catch larger or more fish, hang-gliding or re-arranging your stamp collection, you are not wasting time – unless you choose play over showing up for work.

In Dr. Brown’s simple explanation, play is essentially problem solving and is a transferable skill. Figure out how to better play a guitar solo or grow bigger tomatoes and you will fare better the next time you face a roadblock at work.

An article by Michael Forman at wanderlust.com discussed how adults who don’t play get locked into a set-in-stone type mentality. “Adults get very set on who they are and the types of activities that we do and do not like,” Forman wrote.

Play in all forms keeps a mind flexible. Consider how many of our most divisive national issues come down to large segments of the people who are absolutely set in their ways to the extent they aren’t open to even hearing another point of view – a lack of play leads to lack of interest in exploring new ideas or activities. And besides these people are no fun to be around.

Dr. Brown goes one step further noting there may be a link with mass killers who grew up being deprived of play and the inability to control violent impulses. He cited “rough and tumble” play and sports as  means of establishing boundaries of what level of aggression is acceptable.

An article in the Washington Post, “Why it’s good for grown ups to play,” leaned heavily on the stress reduction. Fully concentrating on hitting the basketball shot or finding the right color for your art project let’s you get outside the daily grind of problems and may lead to looking at some nagging issue at work or home with a new perspective.

Researchers in the referenced materials often concluded that in the bigger scheme, having some element of regular play leads to more satisfaction with your life and that leads to better overall well-being and that lead back around to real health benefits and a longer life expectancy due to lower stress.

Dr. Brown defines play as most anything done for fun with no specific work purpose which could be as simple as jumping up-and-down, “How we play is as unique to an individual as a fingerprint” and could mean collecting stamps, tossing a football, reading a book or climbing Mount Everest, he states.

So, do yourself a favor if you are the nose-to-the-grindstone 24/7 type, lighten up/chill out/relax; maybe take up a new hobby or just goof off in the backyard. If you are always angry or busy, maybe it’s time to have some fun.

Your increased productivity and better health will more than offset the time spent playing.

 

Poor national mental health policies have real, local effects

There used to be the occasional jokes in this area about taking someone to Milledgeville – which back in the earlier 1900s, most people knew referred to the state mental hospital in Milledgeville, Ga.

Those jokes wouldn’t work at all now. Obviously they wouldn’t be politically correct and, secondly, there are virtually no mental hospitals anywhere in America.

According to national reporting on the loss of state mental hospitals, in the 1960s through 1980s, the government/experts decided that mental hospitals were cruel, barbaric and the patients needed more freedom.

Rather than fix the problems – perhaps with more treatment, better conditions and consideration of those housed there - they more or less just shut down everything.

The government still houses quite a few psychiatric patients. Unfortunately for most, especially those without good insurance, they are housed in county jails and state prisons.

The summer 2018 issue of Esquire magazine reported that “nearly 400,000 of the 2.2 million prisoners in the United States have a psychiatric diagnosis.” As a comparison the article reports that state run psychiatric hospitals house only 38,000 people. 

Other commonly cited figures say that half of all prisoners in America are suffering from mental issues and for women prisoners it is thought the rate of mental illness is higher (possibly reaching 75 percent), according to a New York Post article in July of 2018.

The Esquire article went on to cite a statement from the National Alliance on Mental Illness - “In a mental health crisis, people are more likely to encounter police than to get medical help.”

According to the reporting, in 1955 government run hospitals housed 560,000 patients. In 1980 the number of mentally ill people housed in state hospitals had dropped by 80 percent.

This is not some big city problem that we are immune to in our small town. In an August 2016 story, the Progress reported that jailers here routinely cite lacking resources to handle a growing segment of mentally ill prisoners as a major problem to keeping good jailers.

Several jailers and senior officers told the Progress during an extended tour of the jail at that time that roughly 10 percent of their 140 average population has a mental issue severe enough that they are a challenge to deal with. And that number did not include any prisoner suffering temporary mental issues caused by drug/alcohol in their system or withdrawal effects.

Among the challenges faced by jail staff is that they can’t force a prisoner to continue taking already prescribed medication; nor can they diagnose or offer medication to those in jail.

Jailers at that time described the additional stress caused by mentally ill prisoners resulting from unprovoked attacks, thrown feces, and constant yelling and screaming.

Officers said they can often place an inmate with insurance into a private mental hospital, but there were few resources for a mentally ill patient with no means to pay for treatment.

The local jail can refer them to state hospitals but prisoners are often sent right back as there is such a scarcity of beds.

Not only is there a moral duty for America to stop considering our jails the proper place to stash mentally ill people, there is an efficiency/financial incentive to address this problem.

It’s worth pointing out that taxpayers already pick up the tab for housing mentally ill prisoners in terms of jail space, beds and the additional manpower. It’s not that a better system would necessarily cost more. It’s that we are using the wrong institution (jails) to handle a problem that is already widespread, unlikely to improve, costly, and dangerous to the prisoners and those who are charged with caring for them.

With our nation’s mental health, we’ve chosen short term expediency over working for a solution of how to handle mentally ill people who can not afford private care, and that needs to change.

 

Talking trash

As readers may know, the city of Jasper has acknowledged they are losing substantial money with their garbage service and are considering changes, including scrapping the program altogether. 

Not only is this NOT unique to our small town, it’s a classic example of a growing worldwide problem: what are we going to do with all those shipping boxes, plastic bottles, food scraps and old clothing piling up at astonishing rates?

Consider the size of the garbage mound:

• Americans trash seven pounds of material per person every single day—that’s 2,555 pounds of material per American every year, according to a study by Columbia University. Another study by the World Bank had a much smaller figure, saying that the average American only produces 2.6 pounds of garbage a day. 

• The same World Bank study found a staggering 90 percent of all raw materials extracted in the U.S. are ultimately dumped into landfills or burned in incinerators. 

• Packaging is the single largest component entering the waste stream, so most of what we throw away was designed from the start to have a lifespan lasting only until a product enters a customer’s home. 

 

Often anything related to garbage, recycling and waste immediately gets brushed off as an environmental issue. “Oh, those wacky Greens wanting me to help the polar bears.”

But the business community and municipalities have recognized the conundrum of finding somewhere to put all that garbage is a tangible problem. As the Jasper council and garbage service customers now see firsthand, garbage is only out of sight, out of mind if you are willing to spend deeply out of pocket.

The World Bank study “What a Waste: A Global Review of Solid Waste Management” noted that the amount of waste is directly tied to the amount of commerce. The more stuff people buy, the more packaging, wrapping, and older products they discard.

The report cautioned this is a true threat to the sustained consumer economy.

At a much more local level, the World Bank report cited waste handling as one of the highest budget items for municipalities and also the most common source of local pollution. For Jasper, yes, it is a high dollar item and, yes, the garbage that doesn’t make it to the dump pollutes our roadsides, parks and natural areas. 

Locally and personally, there are several things that would make a dent in the problem, which can be summed up with the saying, “reduce, reuse, recycle.”

• Food waste is the largest component that ends up in the landfill (after recyclables are taken out). In America, we buy a lot of food only to let it sit in the fridge until it goes bad and then throw it away un-opened (some estimates are more than 30 percent of all food produced is thrown away). Leftovers may be a thing of the past as well, but they shouldn’t be. For your own financial health tackle this in your own fridge/grocery cart.

• Plastic bags constitute a sizeable waste problem. Simply quit using them and encourage retailers to follow the chain store Kroger’s lead and begin work to phase them out. In England a small mandated plastic bag charge cut their usage by 80 percent.

• Consider any time you purchase or use a one-time use item, you are quickly adding to the garbage problem. Reuseable plastic/metal bottles and coffee mugs are one easy place to start. The waste and cost of buying bottled water to drink in your home, when the tap water here is just as safe is the pinnacle of poor, short-term thinking. 

• Recycle – Pickens County operates two very convenient stations, one on Camp Road; one on Cove Road.

While the Jasper City Council wants to square their budget for garbage service, we encourage them to think locally to be part of a solution for a global problem.

 

From weddings to retreats, clear rules, standards needed

In what has become a trend, the planning commission most months hears a request for a special use permit from someone seeking to open a public venue – usually tied to the wedding business.

The appointed commission members then wring their hands over the lack of guidance in forming coherent and uniform decisions on these “special uses.” 

Then they either approve or disapprove, in a fairly arbitrary manner.

Last month, they tabled a recommendation on a permit for a property in the Henderson Mountain Road area presented with the unusual twist of tree house lodging.

The previous month, they approved a permit for a bed and breakfast to host small weddings, and the occasional meeting or fundraiser dinner in the Long Swamp Church area in a home where the owners would continue to live.

But, they voiced a negative opinion on a much larger wedding venue on Philadelphia Road. Different results even though a couple of their concerns (accessibility to emergency crews; limits on the venue’s growth; signage for out-of-area motorists; general traffic in the area) applied to both.

They have approved the special use permit for an eco-friendly farm-lodging operation in the Whitestone area, even though planning director Richard Osborne cited this as having a poor access road for emergency crews. They approved a wedding venue on Cove Road that backs up to Big Canoe, but this one led to a slap on the wrist for the county’s whole zoning appeals procedure from the Ga. Supreme Court.

During the July meeting, planning commission members Lee Thrasher, Clayton Preble and Bill Cagle all made similar statements about the lack of any “template” (Preble’s word).

And they appear to still be at square one for this template. The only hard and fast rule for a special events/wedding venue is to shut down live music/outside events by 10 p.m. (We’ll wager their sole rule will be a huge enforcement problem, trying to turn out a wedding barn full of paying guests that early.) 

Commission member Thrasher remarked in the July meeting that his “gut instinct” is they need something more. Thrasher’s gut is correct.

Among the template/ standard procedures that are needed:

• Categories - The commission could save a lot of time to formally recognize that a bed-and-breakfast in a private home and 300-person capacity venue need different levels of scrutiny from the start.

• Provisions to limit future changes/expansions – It never fails to come up that neighbors comment they don’t have a problem with the proposed plan/owner but what happens if the venue changes hands and it goes from a small yoga retreat to the next Burning Man Festival? This is a valid question. The commission needs a legal means to allow a business to move ahead with some plans without giving them carte blanche for anything they want down the road.

• Farms and festivals may both be good, but need to be judged differently.  The commission needs to go further to refine/separate agriculture versus agro-tourism. Agro-tourism has been targeted as a great way to spur commerce in rural areas. But, for land-use planning purposes, there is a vast difference between a pick-your blueberry farm and a winery that hosts festivals.

• Roads and infrastructure – Commission member Harold Hensley made the observation that it seems every road in the county is too crowded, with traffic moving fast. Commission members should be presented with actual vehicle numbers, crash reports and a professional opinion of the road condition. 

Similarly with water/infrastructure issues, there is either enough capacity or not, and a report from the water department should settle that.

The possibility of these agro-tourism venues developing  nice, unique settings, attracting out-of-town spending and creating jobs makes this discussion a worthwhile endeavor. But they can’t be allowed at the cost of sacrificing the quality of life of the neighbors. It’s a tough job to find the right balance. We do not envy the planning commission this task. Let’s hope that the county will better prepare them with a template to make good decisions.