DEMOREST, GA - There is a North Georgia water war brewing between neighbors on both banks of the Chattahoochee River.
On one side is Ken Cronan. He is the powerful vice chairman of the Georgia Ports Authority and Governor Nathan Deal's former business partner.
On the other side are neighbors who believe Mr. Cronan has stripped the riverbank to improve the view of his proposed wedding venue.
“We have a history with this owner,” says riverfront landowner John Villines. “The history is they have no respect for the neighbors.”
To some living along this river, the current dispute started years ago. In 2010, Chattahoochee River Keepers, acting on a complaint, took a picture of this boat ramp built on Ken Cronan's property. They filed complaints with the county and state. And according to their internal emails, "the property owner says he will have the ramp removed." It was.
“They have not shown any regard for anything, the way it is supposed to be done,” says another property owner Kathy Luker.
Then there was the late night noise, from fireworks, loud music, even helicopters buzzing overhead.
“I can hear the loud parties and the fireworks, when we call the sheriff’s department there is nothing done to stop it,” says Villines.
But the final straw was November of last year. Neighbors looked up to see bulldozers pulling up vegetation, and tearing down trees across hundreds of feet of Cronan’s property.
“I'm still angry. I'm angry on many levels,” says Villines.
Turns out, back in 2011 Ken Cronan applied for a variance with the state Environmental Protection Agency to cut trees and vegetation inside the 50 foot buffer set by the state to protect Georgia rivers.
The permit said the reason would be "laying back of the river bank to prevent additional sloughing" Sloughing is when water erodes a river bank, causing the land to slide into the river.
“I don't get it, says Villines. “I don't know what it was for. I don't know why that request was worded that way. Can't imagine who would approve it.”
The State EPD, under the new Governor Nathan Deal, approved the project, telling me it was routine. But, they demanded that Cronan plant "436 trees per acre" and "774 shrubs per acre" after clearing the land.
No work was done for 5 years. Then, last November, Cronin began clearing the land. He had his EPD approval, but he needed a County land disturbance permit as well.
But, Habersham County's new planning and development director, Mike Beecham, says he didn't realize the county had to approve the project, so he let Cronan go ahead without the proper permit.
“By the time I had discovered my mistake the work had been done, said Beecham.
But this is where the waters get murkier. Neighbors soon discovered what Ken Cronan wanted to do with the 13 acres above the riverbank.
“It was in a later document,” says Villines, “we learned he wanted to put a 6000 square foot wedding venue there.”
He's right. Ken Cronan wanted to build a "6000 foot barn to hold weddings, events" His neighbors were stunned.
“One only needs to think a little bit to infer the view is enhanced for a wedding venue if one clear cuts the entire bank, said Villines.
“If I had a wedding venue,” said Luker, “I'd want a clear view of the water.”
So, those angry neighbors and Chattahoochee River Keeper's Dale Caldwell appeared before the Habersham county commission asking them to say no to the wedding venue.
Ken Cronan also spoke saying everything he’s done so far was in compliance with the EPD ruling. He promised he'd replant the trees and vegetation that his state permit requires.
The commission said they needed more time to think about the application. They plan to take it up again later this month.