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Gwinnett's year that was 

Between growth, gangs and Gateway, Gwinnett had an eventful 2000

The year began with a Y2K bug that had no bite. All the stockpiled food, jugs of water, non-returnable generators and preparations for the computer-induced doomsday were for naught. Officially, Gwinnett County and its institutions, agencies and businesses escaped Y2K glitch-free.

Despite the forecast of an apocalyptic beginning, the new millennium -- or simply the year 2000 to the literal-minded -- brought more of the same for Gwinnett County. More go-go gonzo growth and its fallout -- more high-profile crime, crowded schools, traffic gridlock, threats of higher taxes, and water restrictions throughout an arid summer -- mixed with more political battles. And the county will be seeing more of a familiar face as result of the 2000 elections: County Commission Chairman Wayne Hill was voted back for an unprecedented third term November.

That's not to say Y2K was a snoozefest. It was a year of changes, growing pains, sad and shocking events -- and the plain old wacky.

Perhaps no local issue sparked more debate among Gwinnettians than the school system's controversial Gateway test, a standardized exam students must pass in order to be promoted to the next grade. After several trial runs, 2000 was the first year results counted. But some wondered what all the fuss and the expense ($6 million) was about when only 3.1 percent of fourth-graders and 1.8 percent of seventh-graders failed the test in April. The scores aroused suspicion that the test had been watered down from the pilot version that saw 32 percent of elementary school students fail the math portion and 27 percent flunk the math and social studies sections.

Critics called the test a major waste of money, while school officials argued it sets a standard that the rest of the state will eventually follow. Both sides condemned security breaches when a fourth-grade version of the test was leaked to local media just three days before it was to be administered.

However, once-alarmed parents appeared to chill out after the results of the exam were released, and anti-Gateway school board candidate Kevin Jennings was defeated handily by incumbent Mary Kay Murphy in the July primaries.

If you don't have school-age children and weren't concerned about the Gateway test, surely you got stuck in traffic somewhere, sometime this past year on Gwinnett's crowded labyrinth of roads, highways and interstates. To add to the usual rush-hour confusion, last summer the state DOT completed the project of renumbering all of the exits and exit signs on I-85 and I-985 through Gwinnett and across the state to coincide with highway mile markers.

As impossible as it may seem, some traffic relief may be in sight in the form of an $80 million county bus system expected to start up by the middle of 2001. New county transit manager Larry McGonagle, who started in February, will help Gwinnett shed its status as the most populous county in the nation not to have any form of public transportation.

Yet mass transit remains a divisive issue with racial and socioeconomic undertones. Snellville stirred up more dust when new Mayor Brett Harrell continued to support the city's 1999 resolution opposing bus routes running through the municipality's limits.

More traffic relief is supposed to come in the form of a $20 million, four-lane extension of Satellite Boulevard from Smithtown Road to Ga. 20, close to the gargantuan Mall of Georgia, which continued to unveil more stores in 2000, including another major anchor, Rich's. County officials, who signed off on the project in December, hope it will alleviate traffic buildup on I-85, I-985 and Ga. 316.

While commuters battled the throes of Gwinnett traffic, residents once again sparred with developers, city councils, planning and zoning boards and the county commission as bedroom communities in Snellville, Buford, Duluth and beyond continued to grapple with over-development.

In response to the constant development wars, the county commission placed a six-month moratorium on rezonings that became effective in May. The ban, set to expire Jan. 2, recently was replaced by a lottery system limiting rezoning requests to 14 per month and special-use permit applications to eight per month. Suwanee also toughened its development stance, rejecting two large mixed-use projects. However, the city gave the go-ahead for a 1.35 million-square-foot Motorola consolidated campus off Lawrenceville-Suwanee Road next to the old Atlanta Falcons training complex.

And nothing could stop a flurry of activity in the Sugarloaf area, as it continued to boom with commercial, residential and office development. The Sugarloaf exit off I-85 is turning into a high-density "edge city" on par with the Central Perimeter district on I-285 and the Galleria/Cumberland area in Cobb. The Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce moved into fancy new $6 million digs abutting Sugaloaf Parkway (courtesy of a sharply criticized, $1-a-year sweetheart deal from the county), an $88 million expansion of the nearby Civic and Cultural Center is on tap and some say a multi-purpose arena in the area isn't far off. Gwinnett's third regional mall, Discover Mills, and a major office park are expected to join the local landscape in 2001.

Explosive growth also prompted the need for the county to seek a permit to dump treated sewage into Lake Lanier, upsetting lakeside homeowners and environmentalists. In November, Georgia environmental officials issued the permit allowing the county to dump up to 40 million gallons of wastewater a day into the popular lake to enable Gwinnett to accommodate future growth.

Other signs of county-wide growth include the opening of additional post offices in Lawrenceville and Centreville, where the unincorporated community celebrated its first operational postal facility since 1903.

Residents still balked at over-commercialization, especially when it came to a beloved landmark. Plans to spend $75 million to transform Stone Mountain into a theme park by the park's private operator Silver Dollar City brought a firestorm of protest from longtime park lovers who vowed to oppose any proposal that would turn it into a Confederate-flavored version of Dollywood.

HILL STILL STANDING
Meanwhile, the man opponents tried to paint as the King of Sprawl, commission chairman Hill, survived a high-profile attempt to unseat him. The "Boot Hill" campaign took to cyberspace with a website devoted to dethroning the Republican; Hill opponents showed their solidarity by paying $20 for "Boot Hill" T-shirts, wearing cowboy boots and tying baby boots to their car antennas.

As the nation began its five-week wait to find out who the next president would be, Hill handily defeated Democratic challenger John Kenney in November.

To counter his pro-development image during the campaign, Hill pointed to the amount of green space the county has been able to acquire during his tenure, including 217 acres along the Chattahoochee River set aside in 1999. More is on the way. In 2000, Gwinnett was allocated $2.7 million from the Georgia Greenspace Commission to protect more land. Gwinnett cities Suwanee, Sugar Hill and Berkeley Lake also were awarded state grants to help acquire green space.

As it continues to evolve from its bucolic beginnings, Gwinnett finds itself the scene for an increasing number of urban-style crimes. Police linked the shooting death of a 24-year-old college student outside of a TGI Friday's restaurant in Duluth last January to gang members. A group of bank robbers known as the "Trash Can Gang" allegedly knocked over a Norcross jewelry store. And, in late October, two teenage girls associated with the Latin gang Vatos Locos were charged with shooting two other teenage girls, killing one, at the Pinckneyville Park Soccer Complex in Norcross. The incident represents metro Atlanta's first girl-on-girl gang-related slaying.

Another highly publicized crime saga involved a Gwinnett County baby sitter who was cleared of murdering a 16-month-old infant in her care. It was determined that the infant's fatal head injuries were sustained before the child was dropped off with the sitter. Still, a jury found Myhoa Hoang of Stone Mountain guilty of cruelty to and deprivation of a child, earning her two years and seventh months in prison.

A smaller sentence also was doled out to cop-killer Byron Fleming, who narrowly escaped the electric chair for the 1998 slaying of Gwinnett sheriff deputy Kenneth Lee Wemberly. The jury found him guilty of murder, but couldn't arrive at a unanimous decision on the death penalty. The final tally was 11-1, angering many officers in the sheriff's department as Fleming will be eligible for parole in 14 years.

To keep up with the upswing in crime, ground was broken last July on the county's new $21 million Comprehensive Correctional Complex at the corner of Hi-Hope Road and Swanson Drive. Set to open this fall, the new facility will be the largest county prison in Georgia, with the ability to house 800 prisoners, including 250 state felons -- for which the county will collect $3.2 million in state funds.

While serious issues, problems and events dominated headlines in 2000, Gwinnett County had its share of bizarre, "makes you say hmmm" happenings in the first year of the 21st century as well. Witness:

Plans to secure a minimum $50,000 bid for naming North Gwinnett High's new baseball diamond solicited on the online auction house eBay struck out when school officials said the booster club never sought permission to seek benefactors on the Net. The Suwanee school reverted to the traditional approach and named the field after former North Gwinnett coach and principal Kenneth "Coach Mac" McDaniel.

Snellville officials weren't keen on loosening their chastity belts even a little to allow Danielle Strumer to sell certain sexual stimulation devices from her dress and lingerie shop, Satin & Lace.

The items were kept behind a curtain in a dressing room labeled "Adults Only" in the back of her shop, but police sent Strumer an attorney's letter stating the devices she was selling were defined as obscene under Georgia law.

Although Strumer complied under protest with the order to remove the offending appliances, her spirited arguments for personal choice earned her outpourings of local support and legions of new customers.

An annual American Legion turkey shoot fundraiser was held in Duluth, despite protests from surrounding subdivisions and a 1978 county ordinance forbidding gunfire within 500 feet of a house or road. The legion decided to let bullets fly after its attorney uncovered a police memo to stop enforcing the law.

In yet another case of political correctness and separation of church and state gone awry, April Curry-Brown of Duluth objected to an African folk tale in her daughter's second-grade textbook that referred to a character as "the god of everything and everywhere." In March, a school district hearing officer recommended the textbook remain in the curriculum.

In its January 2000 issue, Atlanta magazine named Gwinnett the "Goober-est" county in the metro area. The dubious honor came in recognition of several incidents, including the flap over an ethnic slur in the North Gwinnett High yearbook, a fistfight breaking out at a "family" wrestling show in Loganville, the aforementioned dumping of treated sewage into Lake Lanier and the county zoning officials' unsuccessful attempt to restrict rabbit-raising to farms and homes on plots of land in excess of three acres.

It's a title, surely, Gwinnett will want to relinquish to another county in 2001.

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