HAMILTON, Ga. -- After six hours of debate, Harris County commissioners rejected a rezoning application Wednesday, blocking plans for a $250 million center to house abused, neglected and orphaned children in west Georgia.
Commissioners voted 3-to-2 against the request by Donald Whitney, a Smyrna businessman spearheading the project. Afterward, he said the battle for the World Children's Center isn't over yet.
"Unfortunately, we have no other choice now but to let the courts decide, which will be time-consuming and costly for the county and the taxpayers of Harris County," Whitney said. "I feel very strongly that I've been called to do this project - not only for the children but for the county to benefit from."
Wednesday's decision denied a request to rezone 541 acres of land from agricultural to planned commercial development. Whitney had already purchased the land in Pine Mountain.
The 10-year project would create a planned community for about 500 children, ages 2 to 8. Children would begin arriving after the first of three phases, which would be completed in two years.
More than 200 people packed the Harris County courthouse Tuesday night. The meeting began at 7:30 p.m. and ended around 1:30 a.m.
Supporters have said the community would bring in significant tax revenue as well as facilities, including a school, medical clinic, and worship center, that would be open to county residents.
"Most communities spend thousands, even millions, trying to attract clean industry," said Hank Arnold, executive director of the Pine Mountain Tourism Association, who supported the center. "We, on the other hand, are fortunate enough to have one knocking on our door."
Opponents wore stickers identifying them as "Friends of Harris County." Many of them questioned the project's economic viability, its ability to care for abused and neglected children and Whitney's personal character.
"Last time I heard, this was a democracy," said Pam Avery-Yielding of Pine Mountain. "One man's dream and vision should not take precedence over the dreams and visions of the people of this community."
Others spoke out against the potential noise, traffic and pollution, which would disrupt the quiet area, 75 miles southwest of Atlanta.
"I like children. I think he has a vision. But I don't want it in my front yard," said Irene Sturdivant Freeman, who owns property adjacent to the land.
While many residents celebrated a victory, supporters of the center planned their next move.
"There's been no decision about filing anything or filing anywhere in particular at this time," Whitney's attorney Simon Bloom said. "We'll obviously look at all our options.
"But we are where we are, and we'll go where we have to go."