Moratorium shuts down unlicensed teen parties

Henry County officials have put a halt to the unsanctioned gatherings of teenagers, often in vacant buildings. Their massive numbers, which have ranged from 400, to 600 youngsters, pose a threat to their safety, and the safety of others, officials said.

At the recommendation of the head of planning and zoning for Henry County, Cheri Hobson-Matthews, along with public safety officials, the Henry County Board of Commissioners agreed to a 60-day moratorium on such gatherings, which became effective Feb. 9.

“The teen center moratorium is to implement some safeguards for future establishments,” said Elizabeth "BJ" Mathis, chairman of the Henry County Commission. “Impromptu parties are cropping up with over-crowding, teen drinking and illegal drug use. Regulation of these centers will assure the safety of our teens and our community.”

“We are concerned about gang violence, along with the risk to our young people being at an establishment which is not properly zoned to house several hundred teenagers,” said police Lt. Scott Gray, of the Henry County Police Department’s Special Operations Division.

“The buildings that these events were housed in provided very limited emergency exit access, and did not have the proper sprinkler systems in them. This created a dangerous combination, which could have resulted in a tragic ending,” Gray emphasized.

At two teen gatherings this past summer, Gray said, police made arrests for marijuana possession, and fighting, and “the [police department’s] gang unit was able to identify members of the Crips, Bloods, and Gangster Disciples ...” said Gray.

The moratorium prohibits: “... the use of properties zoned commercial, office-Institutional, and industrial within the county ... for dance halls, dance club activities, party centers or party halls for teenage gatherings ... throughout the 60-day moratorium period ...”

Some of the teen parties have been held in large, rented, warehouses. Some of the spaces house legitimate businesses during daytime hours. Other warehouses are empty and do not house any businesses, said Lt. Gray.

Henry Police Maj. Jason Bolton said police have determined that adults are sponsoring the teen events in an attempt to profit from them. “Also, due to social media postings of these parties, we were getting teens from other counties, and this was creating a potential for turf battles,” said Bolton.

There are other businesses throughout the county that provide teenagers a legitimate place to go, added Gray. However, he said, county officials are combining their resources to prevent the enormous teenage gatherings.

“The Henry County Fire Department, the code enforcement department, planning and zoning, and other forms of county government are all engaged in determining the whereabouts of these events,” said Gray. “... To ensure that these illegal events do not go on as planned.”