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Compromise reached on Rucker Road mosque

The City of Alpharetta and the Islamic Center of North Fulton have reached a compromise in their three year battle. This story was first reported by WSB-TV’s Mike Petchenik but thus far has not been covered by local media.

ICNF 2013 front elevationThe ICNF operates a small mosque on Rucker Road in Alpharetta. In the Spring of 2010 they petitioned the city to expand their facility. Local opposition was immense, overflowing public meetings. Neighbors claimed that ICNF broke a promise made years earlier to not expand. Alpharetta’s Council unanimously rejected the mosque’s request.

ICNF sued the city, going straight to federal district court. This court ruled in favor of the city in a summary judgement. The case was then appealed to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. The Department of Justice took an interest in the case, as did the Jewish Anti-Defamation League who sided with the ICNF.

Arguments were heard in February and the two sides were sent to mediation this Spring. A compromise appears to have been reached from that mediation. The result comes in the form of a second request from the ICNF sent to Alpharetta’s Community Development Department. This proposal calls for a facility smaller than the one sought in 2010. It will measure in at 7,900 square feet (down from 15,000 square feet) and would contain their mosque and community hall. The buildings will feature brick construction rather than the more modern look of the 2010 plan.

Where do we go from here? Alpharetta’s Planning Commission will hold a rare executive session this week, presumably to discuss this matter. It will then be voted on by this group followed by City Council.

Will there again be local opposition? In his story Mike Petchenik interviewed a neighbor who seemed fine with the compromise. It’ll be interesting to see if others feel the same way. One would think that Alpharetta’s Council wouldn’t agree to this without a strong feeling that the community was behind it. Keep in mind that this case will hit the Council’s calendar at the same time election season begins. The last thing incumbent Councilmen want is a controversy to boil over at election time.

What’s this blogger’s take? I sided with the mosque back in 2010, something that put me in a huge minority here in Alpharetta. My personal feeling is that land use plans should bend over backwards to accommodate houses of worship. They’re vital to any community.

That being said, I’m excited to see both sides work together towards this compromise. It is a good plan that allows the mosque to serve their congregation while also minimizing impact to the surrounding area. I hope we can put this ugly controversy behind us.

Will Alpharetta criminalize homelessness?

Tonight Alpharetta’s City Council will consider an ordinance to prohibit unauthorized “camping” in public and private spaces. If enacted the ordinance would essentially criminalize the act of being homeless in Alpharetta. Police would have the authority, after one warning, to arrest these unfortunate people for simply sleeping or preparing a meal.

It didn’t used to be this way for the homeless of Alpharetta. As many as a dozen sites exist around the city where homeless have lived. Most are out of sight in the woods or along flood plains.

Alpharetta always showed compassion for these hidden homeless. A great example can be found in an article by Revue and News reporter Jonathan Copsey. He describes a clan of homeless living in temporary structures in the woods off Mansell Road. The article talks about how police kept in close contact with this homeless community and how local churches responded.

But now things are different. What’s changed? First, Alpharetta’s homeless are no longer hidden. A new group has taken up residence in downtown Alpharetta. Their belongings and sleeping bags are visible at the abandoned gas station on Main Street next to Smokejack.

Homelessness on display is something we’re not accustomed to Alpharetta. It makes some feel uncomfortable or not safe. Additionally, this particular group of homeless is directly across the street from Alpharetta’s proposed City Center project.

Alpharetta’s Council is laser-focused on downtown right now. They’ve demonstrated they are not willing to let things stand in the way of their $29 million investment – be they specimen trees, liquor laws or now the homeless.

It’s also been reported that some of Alpharetta’s homeless have become aggressive when in the past they were mostly peaceful. However the wording of this proposed ordinance doesn’t address such behavior. It levels the sights on homeless who decided to just lay their heads here, regardless of their temperament.

Alpharetta shouldn’t take the extreme step of criminalizing homelessness. And to consider this on Thanksgiving week? Many choose to extend hospitality to the less fortunate on this week, not the other way around.

But no matter how you cut it, this is a most difficult issue to address. My views may be in the minority but I feel strongly about them. I welcome your comments, as always, so long as they remain civil and respectful.

Photo credit: Jonathan Copsey, Appen News

Alpharetta Community Thanksgiving Service

Each year during the week of Thanksgiving several Alpharetta church congregations partner to offer a community Thanksgiving worship service. My family and I attended the service last year at St James Methodist. We found this ecumenical service to be meaningful, relevant and the host congregation very hospitable. I encourage you to attend this year at St. Aidan’s and bring your family. Here are the details:

What: Alpharetta Community Thanksgiving Service

Where: St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church, 13560 Cogburn Road

When: Tuesday November 20th, 7:00pm

Clergy from several congregations will share in worship leadership with Dr. Don Martin of Alpharetta First Methodist delivering the sermon. Dr. Martin is a great speaker with a humorous and down-home approach to his sermons. I look forward to hearing his Thanksgiving message to the community.

A special offering will be collected to benefit North Fulton Community Charities. A time of fellowship and refreshments will follow the service.

Deny FSA’s state charter?

Yesterday saw yet another setback for the embattled Fulton Science Academy Middle School. The Georgie Department of Education recommend the state deny their application for a charter. At this point the best coverage of this issue can be found at this article on The Patch. Also read the four page letter that outlines the reason for the negative recommendation.

Here are a few random thoughts on this continuing saga…

It’s time to resign - Hatcher Hurd over at the Revue & News wrote a great column on the FSA shortly after the county rejected the FSA charter. His opinion was very close to mine. At that time he called for the board to resign, something I thought was overkill. I’m beginning to think Hatcher was right.

This is a touchy thing to say but… FSA’s administration and board are inept. They have bungled this entire process. They’ve also bungled the construction project. Look at the BOE notes as well as Fitch’s latest bond downgrade and read between the lines. It might be too late to make a difference, but heads should roll. Parents should demand it.

Approve or reject the charter? - I don’t know. Before yesterday I would have said yes, renew it for a short duration with a ton of oversight stipulations. This would be least disruptive to the students, parents, staff, and bond investors. However, after reading the letter it seems that FSA hasn’t made any progress towards better governance and oversight in the last several months.

Charter Schools - I continue to support the concept of charter schools. They are the closest thing we have to school choice right now. Don’t view my criticism of FSA as a rejection of the charter school idea.

Gulen Movement - Some people feel called to help educate children as a response to their faith. For centuries people of my faith have done so, as have Gulen followers. I’ve read about the movement and don’t have a  problem with it. Seriously, I don’t.

I think a few (but certainly not all) FSA opponents are influenced by xenophobia. I see it in the blogs that have linked to my articles. So let me be clear… I don’t have a problem with the Gulen Movement.

Alpharetta’s bond approval - Prospect Park 2 is here. Just drive by the FSA’s now-stalled construction project near Westside and Encore Parkways. It’s a pile of dirt.

The city has some explaining to do. The Alpharetta Development Authority approved the issuance of FSA’s bonds last year. Now before I throw them under the bus let’s remember that we have hindsight that they didn’t at the time. But it would be interesting to learn more about the process the authority follows before approving bonds. Is it a rubber stamp? Did the city check on the charter renewal process? What other due diligence did the Development Authority perform prior to approving these bonds?

I’m going to nominate Michael Cross to answer these questions. He chaired the Development Authority last year when the bonds were approved. Today he’s an elected official – a City Councilman. The citizens deserve an explanation, especially those who live adjacent to FSA’s stalled construction project.

Regrettable - No matter what happens to the Fulton Science Academy, I think we can all agree that this is a most regrettable situation. It has also been a preventable situation. The students deserve better treatment than this.

Fish Tacos in Alpharetta

Every Friday Roots in Alpharetta features an article on food and dining in a series called Foodie Friday.

We’re in the season of Lent, a period for some believers to reflect, prepare, offer penance and practice self-denial. For many this includes eating only fish and vegetables on Fridays.

So I got to thinking… I write about food on Fridays. An observant Catholic might stumble upon my blog during this season and read about delicious and smokey barbecue. He or she might have been tempted by Mike Christensen’s description of lasagna bolognese in last week’s review. I don’t want to be the one who tempts you in your faith journey, so today I’ll offer something that better conforms to your theology – fish tacos!

Fish tacos are on a lot of Alpharetta menus these days so there’s no way to review them all. I like fish tacos because a chef can pack a lot of contrasting flavors and textures into a small package. Some were successful in this regard and others were not. Here’s what I found. Please let me know your favorite fish taco!

Boga Taqueria

Boga will do tilapia in their tacos either fried or grilled. My preference is fried. Their slaw is fair but the spicy mayo makes this taco. I wish there was a little more of it. All in all, Boga’s fish taco is fair. They offer far better alternatives elsewhere on their menu.

Pure Taqueria

Pure also offers fried and grilled fish tacos. The fried fish is tilapia. I liked the crisp batter which was almost tempura style. The mayo and slaw are good but the corn tortilla is awesome.

Pure’s grilled fish taco is the best in town. They use swordfish grilled with lime which comes deconstructed on the plate like a fajita. You assemble with grilled pico and fresh avocado slices. The fish is amazing with powerful grilled lime flavor. The grilled tomatoes in the pico stand out and the avocado acts as a cream sauce. If I had to nitpick about anything here it would be that it lacked a crisp texture for contrast.

BW Tavern

BW uses the most obscure species of fish in their taco – panga. I was not familiar with the panga but it has a white flesh not unlike a lot of fish in tacos. They rub the fish in ancho chili powder before cooking. It gives BW’s fish taco the spiciest bite of any in this list. They top it with cabbage, black bean salsa and a cream sauce. It is a decent taco but is a little wet and drippy.

Bite

The first thing that hits you is the pungent smell of cotija cheese. A little dusting of this Mexican parmesan cheese goes a long way. The guys at Bite are experts at layering flavors and they certainly do that with their fish tacos. Their pickled jalapeno slaw is amazing all by itself, as is their street corn. Both find their way into the taco. There’s so much going on that the flavors completely blow away the delicate taste and texture of the grouper.

Bite’s fish taco is good. But sitting right next to it on the menu is their highly-touted mole-braised pork taco. Order that. (oops, did I mention red meat? Sorry.)

Azul Agave

I’ve not been impressed with this Mexican newcomer to Alpharetta. Their fish tacos have been inconsistent on the two occasions I’ve had them. On my first try the mahi was overcooked and dry. A second chance turned out better. A generous application of Azul’s spicy cream sauce greatly helps these tacos. The cole slaw is decent but overall these fish tacos don’t stand out.

Photo credit: Cory Voglesonger (creative commons)

Pure Taqueria on Urbanspoon

Fulton Science Academy – Transparency and Accountability

This is the second of two articles about the charter renewal of the Fulton Science Academy.

Last week I talked about how both the Fulton County School Board and the Fulton Science Academy acted poorly when negotiating the school’s charter renewal. Today I’ll discuss why the FCSB was justified to insist on a shorter charter term. But first let’s reveal the elephant in the room…

The Gülen Movement

This is a loosely organized group of followers of a Islamic theologian from Turkey. Here in the states they are heavily involved in education including the formation of dozens of charter schools. Many believe that the Fulton Science Academy is under Gulen influence.

If you search the internet you’ll find a lot of websites and blogs critical of the Gulen movement. Most of them have a heavy conspiracy theory tinge to their writings.

It doesn’t bother me that people of the Islamic faith from Turkey want to open schools here. However…

Gulen opponents earned a boost of credibility when a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist penned a story in the NY Times about the movement. Gulen-run schools have been accused of operating without financial transparency, offering contracts to Turkish-owned businesses without competitive bids and a lot more. Read the NY Times story for yourself.

Fulton Science Academy doesn’t seem to be nearly as shady as the schools outlined in this article. For example, I don’t see a Turkish connection with the contractor they selected to build their new campus. However there are a few conflicts that concern the Fulton County School Board.

Grace Institute

FSA spends taxpayer money on services offered by the Grace Institute. It isn’t clear to me how Grace consults the school except that they are an Educational Management Organization. According to tax returns the school continued to spend more and more money on Grace’s services each year. The FCSB insisted that the relationship with Grace end early in 2011. At this point it isn’t clear if all ties have been severed.

Transparency and Accountability

The relationship between FSA and Grace isn’t clear nor are how funds are spent. The linkage is unusual and makes many wonder who is the ultimate governing body of the school. And to make the waters more murky, some FSA board members also served on Grace’s board.

And speaking of boards… The FSA’s board should be made more diverse to include parents, school board officials, or possibly distinguished members of the community.

There are other potential issues but these strike me as the most severe. It isn’t appropriate to offer blanket waivers and maximum contract extensions to a school with such unresolved issues. The Fulton County School Board acted reasonably and responsibly when they insisted on a shorter charter. I believe the Fulton Science Academy is a terrific school. They have the opportunity to be a truly exceptional school if they will do the right thing and operate with more transparency.

The debt and building

And one final note on this issue… I believe the city of Alpharetta’s Development Authority dropped the ball. Here was a group that had the opportunity to question FSA’s dealings yet failed to do so. They failed to notice the conflicts of interest and they didn’t consider the rocky relationship between the school and the school board. The city approved the issuance of revenue bonds and construction on the new campus began. If the charter impasse continues, the school will shut down and default on the debt. And while the city and school board are not on the hook for the debt, a default might create an ugly new problem… another stalled development project in Alpharetta.

Fulton Science Academy – A game of chicken

This is the first of two articles about the charter renewal of the Fulton Science Academy.

It’s been difficult for me to get my hands around the issue of the Fulton Science Academy’s charter renewal. Most issues like this involving children or faith are pretty easy to grasp. Start with something like land use then combine some NIMBY sentiments and a pinch of xenophobia. But FSA’s situation is entirely different with a lot of influencing factors coming into play. Those on both sides of the issue are not afraid of employing emotional appeals or hyperbole to make a point. And in issues like this the truth usually is found somewhere in the middle. So after spending many hours of my Christmas break reading up on this fiasco, I’ve come to the conclusion that FSA’s charter renewal is really just…

A game of chicken

Yep, both sides were plowing ahead at full speed, waiting to see who would swerve first. Unfortunately those along for the ride include several hundred children, their families, taxpayers and a few bond holders. And all of these groups stand to lose big because of it.

“Increasingly volatile and combative relationship”

That’s how the credit rating agency Fitch described things between the FSA and the Fulton County School Board. They made this comment as they were downgrading FSA’s credit rating on their $19 million building bond. The relationship was volatile because each side had a big club to bring to the fight. FSA’s club was their recent Blue Ribbon Award from the Department of Education. Surely the school board would not deny a request from a school with such a high distinction. Armed with this, they asked for a ten year renewal on their charter, the maximum allowed. Additionally they requested a full waiver of Title 20 rules.

FCSB’s big club was a Georgia Supreme Court decision in 2011 that found that the state could not approve charter schools. That authority, according to the court, rests only with county school boards. It makes FSA’s appeal process more difficult. This is the FCSB’s chance to flex its muscle under the new ruling. As such, the Title 20 blanket waiver was off the table and they would only consider a three year charter renewal.

Neither side moved much after months of discussion. The FSA reduced their proposal to eight years but the FCSB made it clear that they would only consider three. Nevertheless, only the eight year proposal was brought before the school board. And at the end of this game of chicken, the FCSB didn’t swerve. Crash! They unanimously voted down FSA’s eight year request.

Both sides have acted poorly. Supporters of the FSA have been out in force claiming that the FCSB wants to shut down an award-winning school. It’s hyperbole pure and simple. It’s clear to me that the FSA wanted to force the school board into making such a vote even though another offer was on the table. Nobody desires to shut down this school.

On the flip side, the FCSB has not acted in good faith since the vote. FSA has relented (finally), agreeing to the three year term. However, the FCSB now will not consider it, saying the matter is closed. I don’t understand why they cannot move to amend or reconsider a matter that was before them. Most deliberative bodies easily have this option available under their rules. It would be best for all parties involved to approve the three year charter renewal and move on.

Tomorrow I’ll talk about why the FCSB is justified in wanting a shorter charter term for the Fulton Science Academy. And as always, there’s an elephant in the room that needs to be discussed. Stay tuned.

The Drake House and Miss Mary’s Ice Cream Crankin’

Every Friday Roots in Alpharetta features an article on food and dining in a series called Foodie Friday.

I used to be a Drake House doubter. I recall sitting in a pew at Alpharetta Presbyterian Church listening to our minister talk about the need for transitional homeless housing in north Fulton. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” I thought. Surely this kind of program is needed in Atlanta or elsewhere. There’s no way our affluent suburb would have a housing problem for homeless women and their families. Right?

The weeks went by and I listened to our preacher get more and more excited about the program. Soon a few big donors came to bat. Next came some leaders who facilitated the purchase of an old apartment building in Roswell. I continued to doubt.

Before long our church was sponsoring an apartment and participating in its renovation. We were also kicking in mission funds to the charity, something we continue to do today. But I really didn’t begin to believe in the mission of the Drake House until I started to hear success stories. Unfortunately it took all that work to convince this stubborn doubter of the need for such a project.

Today, amidst a prolonged economic downtown, the Drake House plays a critically vital role in this community. Since their founding in 2006 they’ve helped over 200 single mothers and their families get back on their feet. I encourage you to spend a few minutes on their website and make yourself more familiar with this remarkable local charity.

So why am I talking about the Drake House in my Foodie Friday column? Because they sponsor one of the coolest (ha ha), most unique foodie festivals around. Miss Mary’s Ice Cream Crankin is the Drake House’s premier fund raising event, bringing in tens of thousands of dollars. It is also your best chance to sample genuine homemade ice cream. With today’s absurd proliferation of frozen yogurt joints, I appreciate a bowl of honest-to-goodness ice cream. And I challenge you to find ice cream better than the stuff they’ll dish out at this event on Sunday.

At only five bucks for all you can eat, this event is an exception value. The fact that it benefits this awesome local charity is like having whipped cream and a cherry on top! There’s a ton of other activities for kids and families as well.

If you’re there for the ice cream, take this advice… get there early! The event starts at 2:00. There never seems to be enough crankers to meet demand. If there’s anything left by 3:00, the chances are good that the August sun will have turned it into goo. I’d suggest getting there a little before 2:00 with spoon at the ready.

Here are the details:

What: 7th Annual Miss Mary’s Ice Cream Crankin’. A fundraiser to benefit The Drake House.

Where: The Roswell Square

When: Sunday August 28 from 2:00 to 4:00

Cost: $5 per person, $15 per family

A Racist and Anti-Muslim Flyer in Alpharetta?

Here we go again.

Wednesday night 11 Alive news lead off their late newscast with a story of a racist, anti-Muslim flyer being passed around Alpharetta. It comes from a group calling themselves the Milton County Tea Party Patriots and they are opposed to the planned Amana Academy school. Amana’s proposal for a school on Windward Parkway will go before the Alpharetta Planning Commission Thursday.

I have not seen the flyer. The racist and anti-Muslim nonsense that 11 Alive quoted is disgusting and isn’t something I want to reprint on my blog. The Tea Party of Georgia is condemning the flyer and says they have nothing to do with it.

It’s disappointing that this happens in Alpharetta. I continue to worry about the reputation our community is earning when it comes to issues surrounding the Muslim faith. Enough already!

The Youth Service Project

I recently hired a baby sitter, an eighth grader that goes to my church. She seems to be a responsible young lady. I also know her mother and family so there’s some trust built in. This in and of itself is nothing worthy of writing about. More on the baby sitting later.

The mission work my baby sitter performs is very much worthy of a story. This summer she will join many other youth from our congregation to travel to one of a handful of service projects. Our youth work their tails off in challenging environments including the Katrina-damaged Mississippi and Louisiana coasts, various destinations in Appalachia and some inner-city work. A typical project might be to help remodel a home. This trip ain’t Club Med. It’s valuable work to those on the receiving end of the generosity, but there is something more valuable to be taken away from this.

I often worry about the children that grow up in very affluent suburbs such as Alpharetta. It’s easy for adults to realize how fortunate we are to live here, yet kids raised in this lifestyle may have a jaded sense of reality. Our kids attend amazing schools, get cars when they turn 16, have iPhones and $300 hand bags. Atypical? Of course but if you were born and raised here, it’s normal right?

It’s why I’m a big fan of youth service projects. I want these kids out there, working hard, sweating and learning to be servant leaders to someone in great need. They need to witness destruction, poverty and despair; words we don’t say much in affluent Alpharetta. More than anything, they need to learn to respond to God’s love and grace by helping those in need.

So how does baby sitting play into this? Not only do our youth work hard on these projects, they take on some of the cost themselves. It would be easy for our church to pick up the entire cost of the trip (we pay for a lot of it). But the kids will find themselves invested in the project before it even begins if they are footing some of the costs. So here in the Spring they are serving our congregation with projects to raise a few bucks. I won the baby sitting in an auction and am looking forward to using it on a date night with my wife. I’ve got the easy part in all this.

If you’ve chosen Alpharetta as a place to raise your kids then you made a great choice. If you’re not getting your kids plugged into a youth program with service projects like this then shame on you!

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