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Sea of Galilee replica proposed for Troup County

By Alicia B. Hill
Times-News

There may soon be a piece of Galilee in Georgia, if Biblical History Center founder Dr. James Fleming receives approval from the Troup County Board of Commissioners on a rural tourism permit.

On Tuesday, the Troup County Board of Commissioners considered a request to allow Fleming to open an educational, tourism business at 5656 Hamilton Road. Residents from everywhere from LaGrange to Pine Mountain shared their feelings on the proposal during the meeting, with some neighbors in favor of the proposal’s educational elements and others opposed due to concerns for traffic and the potential attraction’s tax status as a 501(c)3 — meaning that it likely would not pay property taxes.

“Our main concern is location, location, location,” said Ellen Parkhurst, who lives on Oak Grove Road. “If this Sea of Galilee goes in under a 501(c)3 non-profit and is approved and doesn’t have to pay property taxes, then how will the county recoup that revenue because we all just received our property tax bill, and I don’t think there’s a happy camper in any of those.”

The commission was presented with a petition with 147 signatures opposed to the attraction at that location. However, the petition also listed opposition to a Georgia Department of Transportation road widening project that would not be impacted one way or another by the center, and it was unclear how many of the signatures were from residents who lived near the proposed location. One of the individuals who spoke in favor of Galilee in Georgia at the meeting said that she had signed the petition before learning what the project was, and she requested that her name be removed from the petition.

Several of the owners of land neighboring 5656 Hamilton Road spoke in favor of the proposal during the meeting, and many of the Troup County residents opposed to the project lived more than 3 miles away. At one point, Commissioner Richard English questioned why people who would see no impact from the property’s use were opposed to it being used as a tourist attraction.

A number of residents also spoke in favor of the permit.

“This is definitely the highest and best use of that property,” said Patricia Stribling, who lives about 5 miles away.

“It has been vacant for so long, and this would really put it to good use and get people who are transients — always looking for a little place to stay — it would get them out of the whole area. It is I think 2 miles from the interstate, so I think it is highest and best use. I know some of my neighbors are against it, but I have to say I’m for it, and I think it is really a good thing for Troup County and for education.”

The property has a 3.5-acre creek-fed lake that Fleming said will be contoured to look more like the Sea of Galilee. The attraction would be expected to take advantage of existing structures on the property, and Fleming said there would be activities including tours, lessons to teach children how to cast a net and Biblical meals, as well as replicas of historic artifacts.

Fleming said a civil engineer is looking at creating an entrance that will be safe for visitors and meet Georgia Department of Transportation standards. Even if the county commission approves the permit, the project would be unable to move forward if those standards are not met.

Based on the number of visitors to the Biblical History Center, Galilee in Georgia is expected to attract 12,000 to 15,000 guests a year. Fleming said the center would likely see six cars a day on normal week days, but it could see as many as 300 visitors in a day during special events, which would occur only once or twice a year. He said that the attraction would have little noticeable impact on traffic in the area.

“I have gone out to Highway 27 counting vehicles, and usually, within 10 minutes, we have the number of people we average a day at the Biblical History Center,” Fleming said. “So, I don’t really think we are talking about huge amounts of traffic, and my feeling is if the Georgia Department of Transportation approves the entrance, that means it would be safe.”

Commissioner Lewis Davis asked for information on the economic impact of that tourism in terms of offsetting property tax revenue to the county. The county commission expects to have a rough estimate of that impact before its next meeting.

According to information released during the meeting, Fleming plans to purchase the property if the special use permit is approved. Commissioner Ellis Cadenhead asked if the property would be allowed to be used for any other purposes, and Anderson said it would be limited to operations listed in the request by the group making the request.

The board of zoning appeals and planning condition and county staff approved the plan for rural tourism use with conditions including a buffer, certain signage styles and GDOT approval of the entrance.

The Troup County Board of Commissioners is expected to vote on the proposal on May 21 at 9 a.m. at 100 Ridley Avenue.