The Fayette County Board of Commissioners approved a master plan to build a $1.65 million training facility for the Fayette County Sheriff’s Office which will include a gun range and driver training course among other facilities.
Sheriff Barry Babb said he considered this facility to be the most important development in his roughly three years as Sheriff, and laid out for the commission why he felt the county needed such a facility.
“I believe today may be one of the most significant days so far in my tenure. I know that’s a bold statement. In your first term, you have a lot of those days because you’re doing things for the first time,” Babb said. “I feel this is important for the future of the county.”
To underscore the importance of officer training, Babb referenced a series of major, national incidents that had occurred during his nearly three decades in law enforcement.
“Rodney King, the Oklahoma City bombing, Eric Rudolph, Columbine, 9/11, the D.C. Beltway snipers, Hurricane Katrina, the Occupy Movement, Boston Marathon bombing, Ferguson, and now this year Baltimore,” Babb rattled off the list. “These are a few of the game changers law enforcement has experienced in my short career. You look at it and say how do you prepare for these, and in some cases how do you prevent some of these? You train.”
The new facility is planned for a roughly 200-acre plot of land that used to be The Links golf course in east Fayette County. The county purchased the property, partly because the extension of the East Fayetteville Bypass will pass through it.
The proposed FY 2016 budget, which got its first public hearing Thursday, includes $625,000 for the project with another $725,000 budgeted for the following year, in addition to $300,000 that was already included in this fiscal year’s budget. The total price tag of $1.65 million was part of the county’s five-year Capital Improvement Plan.
The master plan for the property includes a training facility which will be created by converting the existing clubhouse building. This will include classroom space, as well as an area for physical training, among other facilities. A driver training course, shooting range, and live “shoot house” are also planned for the property. In addition to those facilities intended for the use of county law enforcement, there are smaller facilities intended for Fire/EMS training as well as a storage facility for public works. A passive park is also planned for a 15-acre portion of the property, and parcels totaling around 65-acres to the west end of the property could potentially be used for future development.
Babb said he saw the need for improved training facilities when he was elected as Sheriff. He referenced his successful run for Sheriff, which he said came as somewhat of a surprise and gave him a feeling he had not expected.
“I walked away very humbly, feeling that I have a debt to the people of this county because they went to bat. They made a statement. That debt is to get up everyday and do the best of my ability for this county, and give it 110-percent. My main goal was to prepare our agency to face the challenges I saw coming in law enforcement,” Babb said.
He said the driver training course, in particular, would be very useful. He said there are few tracks for this training around the state, and, because of their scarcity, they are frequently booked as new recruits must undergo 3-day driver training. Babb said there is a federal course in Glynn County and a state-run course in Forsyth, and he believed Cobb County had its own facility, but other than those he was not aware of another agency with a similar training facility to what is proposed for Fayette.
Babb emphasized that the cost of an upgraded training facility would ideally be offset by reduced liability.
“I’m sure that the county attorney here could tell us that the money that’s spent on this can be erased really fast with one really bad lawsuit,” Babb said.
He noted that liability lawsuits are typically lost when it can be shown that an agency failed to train its employees in some respect.
“When you lose liability lawsuits in law enforcement, most of the time it’s failure to train. When you show that you’ve done your due diligence, the courts look at that and realize things happen even when you’ve done your best to prepare,” Babb said.
The neighbors near the golf course have been a concern since the idea was raised. The planned shooting range is outdoors, and the county has done shooting tests to determine the level of noise disturbance that can be expected for the nearest homes. Additionally, the county is working with a sound engineer at Georgia Tech to design the range in such a way to minimize that disturbance.
“My promise to you is to be a good neighbor,” Babb said to residents at the meeting. “We know that the sound of the range is going to interfere with the lifestyle for you folks.”
He said he had learned a lot about acoustics from his visit to Georgia Tech, and consulting with the experts there should help reduce the noise disturbance.
The facility is intended for use by county law enforcement, including Fayetteville, Tyrone, Peachtree City, and the Marshall’s Office. It was discussed that other agencies would likely have interest in using the facility. Both Rapson and Babb said they intended to “start slow” with allowing those opportunities for other agencies. Rapson has noted that Pinewood Studios expressed interest in using the driving course as well.
“In terms of renting [to other groups], I’m sure there will be debates in the future. We’re going to start out very slowly,” Rapson said. “Primarily what we want to do is create a public training facility for Fayette County. It would probably be a year or two before we find out if there’s excess capacity.”
The commission voted for the master plan 4-0, with commissioner Steve Brown absent.
Commissioner Pota Coston, who had a career in federal law enforcement, was very supportive of the plan.
“The opportunity that we have to do this is tremendous. Sheriff Babb made the comment that training is the key, and he is absolutely right. It is so critical for our law enforcement officials to get adequately trained,” Coston said.
Commissioner David Barlow said he felt the facility could also help with recruitment.
“This facility would allow you to recruit the finest officers in the state of Georgia. I think people would be lined up to join a department that offered that kind of training,” Barlow said.
Commissioner Randy Ognio expressed doubt at a prior meeting over a facility of this scope, saying the plan exceeded the county’s needs. He had nothing negative to say about the plan on Thursday.
“I think the Sheriff is doing an excellent job. The facility will be a definite benefit for the county, not just once it gets built but from that point on,” Ognio said.
Chairman Charles Oddo said he had weighed the cost of the project and determined it was worth it given the current climate surrounding law enforcement around the country.
“Spending this kind of money doesn’t make me comfortable, but there is a point at which you say can you afford not to? I’ve been looking around lately at what’s going on in this country and it makes you squirm a little bit. In light of everything going on, this is the time and opportunity to do exactly what we can do to make it better,” Oddo said. “I hate to say sometimes I feel like the world is falling apart and Fayette County is an oasis that’s getting smaller and smaller. We need to do whatever we can to protect the home turf here.”