County commissioners vote to reject Safer Human Medicine tax abatements

Published 6:05 pm Tuesday, February 13, 2024

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The Decatur County Commissioner’s Chamber was packed on Tuesday morning, with many locals present with signs to protest Safer Human Medicine’s primate research facility, hoping to hear the commissioner’s vote on the legal issues raised with the projects tax abatements.

Following the invocation, pledge and approval of the agenda, members of the public were allowed to come forward and address the commissioners.

Owner of First & Main Real Estate Lacey Shepard took to the podium first, briefly recalling her personal history with Bainbridge, and the reasons she feels people want to live here.

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“But all this is rapidly changing, as I hove spoken to other realtors who have lost offers and contracts because of this monkey breeding facility that is rumored to be heading this way,” she said, “although not one single person I have spoken to is for it, not one. The real estate market is already responding negatively.”

Another citizen that spoke was Elise Boyd, a resident of Leon County, Florida, and co-owner of L2 Bainbridge LLC. She emphasized the small businesses that have moved to the town in recent years, and the impact the primate facility has had on attracting business. “We are not huge companies, we are individuals, and we count. We fell in love with your community,” she said. “We saw the trajectory of Bainbridge, we did our research before we bought here. You all are poised to be better than Thomasville, you’ve got the square, but this monkey issue is pushing people away.”

Steve Sykes, a resident of Thomasville, spoke. Sykes is related to Johnny and Penny Reynolds, as well as Chad and Kerri Dollar, whose properties are next to the facility site, and spoke on their behalf. He briefly brought up his prior experience of 35 years working in city government  with planning and zoning. Sykes asserted that three site requirements were requested by Safer Human Medicine for the facility site: that the sight be zoned for agriculture, that the site not require re-zoning, and that it be secluded and not within one mile of residential properties.

“First of all, the city doesn’t have any Agricultural Zoning Districts and, by their own ordinances, are not allowed to have any Agricultural Zones in the city limits,” he said. “Secondly, re-zoning a property requires a public hearing, and it seems apparent that the company and those making decisions did not want it brought to the public’s attention.”

Lastly, Sykes pointed out that almost 200 residential properties are within one mile of the facility site. Sykes also brought up that the Reynolds and Dollar families filed an appeal against the planning commission’s zoning, believing it violates existing ordinances. This appeal was denied.

“We are being told by the City that the Development Authority is not required to follow the same zoning laws that everyone else is required to follow,” he said. “Why would they want to violate community standards that they enforce on other people?”

Neil Fleckenstein, planning coordinator at Tall Timbers Research Station, also spoke. Fleckenstein stated the group had two major concerns, namely the potential wastewater impacts on the Flint, as well as the potential for the primates to become an invasive species, citing invasive populations in Florida as an example.

“The idea of 30,000 monkeys in our ecologically rich area is just deeply concerning,” he said.

Several other citizens spoke at the meeting, the full livestream of which can be watched on the Post-Searchlight Facebook page.

Following the public participation, the commissioners considered a vote to reject the proposed abatements and terms set out in the Project Liberty PILOT agreement, as well as a vote to disavow the agreements signed by the commission on December 11, 2023. They unanimously voted to do both.

Following the vote, Dr. Lisa Jones-Engel, PETA Senior Science Advisor for Primate Experimentation, addressed the commissioners.

Dr. Engel recounted her prior experience working in the primate industry, and took aim at one of SHM’s claims, that the primates at the Bainbridge facility would be purpose-bred, not wild-caught monkeys. She asserted that facilities in foreign countries that breed primates do catch wild monkeys for their breeding stock.

She also asserted that the facility would not be able to effectively breed the monkeys, and would serve as a “way-station”. She asserted that international monkey farms in Asia and Africa require buyers to sign agreements that buyers will not breed the monkeys, in order to prevent competition.

Following Dr. Engel’s presentation, the commissioners heard an Emergency Medical Services update in regards to the upcoming split between Decatur and Grady EMS. Grady EMS informed the commissioners in August that they do not plan on renewing their contract with Decatur. EMS has since found four companies willing to work with the county, and has worked to narrow that down. The commissioners voted to schedule a specially called meeting next week on the matter, next Tuesday morning at 9:00 AM.

Next the commissioners heard from Jamie Earp with Decatur County Fire and Rescue, who presented a consultant agreement for assistance to firefighter grant applications. The consultant group, JMCM Consulting, would aid in acquiring grant funds, which would go towards AEDs. Earp said the total scope of this project was $37,700, with consulting fees being $3,770. The commissioners approved.

Next, the commissioners considered approval of an administrative consultant and engineering firm for the 2024 CDBG Application, the consultant being Sunbelt Consulting, LLC, and the engineering firm being Watkins & Associates, LLC. This was approved, as were the agreements with those firms.

Next, the commissioners considered approval to remove trees south of Runway 14/32; this was approved.

Lastly, the commissioners approved the week’s errors and releases report, after which they gave closing remarks and adjourned the meeting.

The Post-Searchlight received the following comment from Safer Human Medicine after the commissioner’s meeting:

“The Decatur County Commission’s decision to withdraw support for this project today is a reflection of PETA’s ability to sow division and misinformation in the Bainbridge community. It is no coincidence that the attempted reversal of these decisions occurred in the days and weeks following the arrival of the Seattle-based lead for PETA’s Primate Experimentation division. Recall that this same organization protests the use of bulldogs for the UGA mascot, and has entire divisions focused on attacking the meat and egg industries, sport fishing, and hunting. While we share their concern for animal welfare – their tactics of sensationalism and character assassination are well-known in our industry as well as many others.

When the County Commission and Development Authority Board initially voted to approve this project, it was a decision made on the facts of the project and the benefits it would bring. These retroactive decisions are based on fear and fabrication from a smear campaign propelled by voices outside this community. The facts of this project still stand, and our decision to move forward stands with it.

We look forward to sharing more information about this project and its many benefits for Bainbridge.”