Sunday, August 24, 2008

Oconee to Consider New Shopping Center

We Got Asphalt

The Oconee County Planning Commission, the staff report of the Oconee County Planning Department, and the regional impact assessment of the Northeast Georgia Regional Development Center all have raised questions about the proposed $76 million Epps Bridge Centre, which the Oconee County Board of Commissioners will consider on Sept. 2.

After a hearing on Aug. 18, the Planning Commission recommended, with only one dissent, that the Board of Commissioners approve the rezone for Epps Bridge Centre, proposed for vacant land between Lowe’s and Loop 10 on Epps Bridge Parkway, behind the current McDonald’s and Starbucks.

The staff of the Planning Department also recommended approval, with seven conditions, which were adopted by the Planning Commission.

The Northeast Georgia Regional Development Center, however, concluded that "the development is not in the best interest of the Region and therefore the State."

Among the questions raised about the project are the following:
  • How will the traffic generated by the project affect the already clogged Epps Bridge Parkway?

  • Has the developer adequately addressed issues resulting from the fact that it will alter and partially pave over wetlands on the site and thereby affect nearby McNutt Creek, which forms the border between Clarke and Oconee counties?

  • Has the developer created excessive amounts of impervious surface, including large amount of parking space?

  • Are the aesthetics and design of the development appropriate and, in particularly will the rear of the development be an eyesore to people traveling on Loop 10?

  • Has the developer done enough to protect green space?

  • What are the implications of creating what is essentially an entertainment center–with a 16-screen movie theater and seven restaurants–on a county that has struggled with the issue of alcohol sales.
Here are the basics of the proposal.

In 2005 and 2007, a company called Oconee 316 Associates LLC purchased five parcels on the north side of State Route Loop 10, west of Epps Bridge Parkway and south of the proposed Oconee Connector extension.

According to the Oconee County Board of Tax Assessors, Oconee 316 Associates LLC paid a total of $15.6 million for the five tracts. The tax records indicate the tracts total 79.5 acres.

While the Staff Report of the Oconee County Planning Department lists Oconee 316 Associates LLC as the applicant, the Northeast Georgia Regional Development Center lists The Bishop Company LLC as the applicant.

The Georgia Secretary of State Corporate records list The Bishop Company LLC and Oconee 316 Associates LLC as both being located at 6425 Powers Ferry Road, Suite 180, Atlanta. Both The Bishop Company and Oconee 316 LLC have the same registered agent, J. Parker Gilbert.

The Bishop Company purchased Georgetown Square on Barnett Shoals Road in Athens in 2004 and redeveloped it two years later, according to stories in the Athens Banner-Herald in 2005 and 2007.

The Bishop Company name appears on the signs at Georgetown Square today, and Frank Bishop was asked about that development when he appeared before the Oconee Planning Commission on Aug. 18 to answer questions about the proposed Epps Bridge Centre development.

Oconee Planning Commission 8/18/08.

Epps Bridge Centre, as proposed, is a long strip mall consisting of four clusters of building and 15 self-standing buildings, including the 16-screen movie theater. The four clusters are designated for anchor stores. The largest is 45,000 square feet in size. Three of the four clusters also include space for small shops.

The seven restaurants shown on the conceptual site plan vary in size from 1,860 to 7,000 square feet. The theater is 60,000 square feet in size.

At build-out in 2013, the project is expected to be valued at $76 million and produce just less than $752,000 annually in property taxes for the county, according to the Northeast Georgia Regional Development Center. The estimated annual sales tax revenue at build out is expected to be $11 million. The applicant estimates it will cost only $55,500 annually to provide community services for the project.

At present, according to the county tax records, the land is valued at just a little more than $9 million, but $1.5 million of that is for land that will be used by the state to build the Oconee Connector Extension.

A big part of the annual taxes will be paid to Oconee County from people outside the county, and particularly from people in nearby Clarke County. The retail stores in the Epps Bridge Center will collect seven cents on every dollar in sales tax, and Oconee County government and Oconee County schools get three of those. That is money that Clarke County citizens might otherwise spend at home to finance their own government and schools.

According to NEGRD, the applicant has estimated that 390 tempory jobs will be created during construction and 800 permanent jobs can be expected when the project is completed. Most, of course, will be retail clerks and other service works, such as kitchen staff.

Access to the development will come mostly from the proposed Oconee Connector Extension, which will be a continuation of the existing road between Lowe’s and the building housing Starbucks and Verizon. That extension will turn and cross Loop 10 and circle back to become part of the existing Oconee Connector.

The roadway is being built to open up land for development, including the land being used for the Epps Bridge Centre, and presently undeveloped land behind Lowe’s, WalMart and Kohl’s.

According to the NEGRDC report, Epps Bridge Centre will require 39,400 gallons per day of water and roughly that same amount in sewage treatment capacity. Oconee County's base water rate for residences is for use of 2,000 gallons per month. The assumption is a residence can stay at or near that level with conservation.

It also will generate just less than 2,000 tons of solid waste each year. The Centre will cover 70 percent of the land with impervious surface.

The site contains wetlands that are covered by the federal Clean Water Act that largely will be paved over in the construction of Epps Bridge Centre. Included are five perennial streams that are tributaries of McNutt Creek.

According to the staff report of the Oconee County Planning Department, the developer has received approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to "mitigate" the loss of these wetlands by creating approximately 70 acres of wetlands near the Oconee National Forest in Greene County.

According to the NEGRDC report, Epps Bridge Centre will generate 19,108 new Annual Average Daily Traffic units (AADT). In 2007, Epps Bridge Parkway near the development site had 27,170 AADT units.

Epps Bridge Centre is proposed to have a total of six entrances, one off Epps Bridge Parkway and five off the as yet unbuilt Oconee Connector Extension. The entrance off Epps Bridge Parkway will be between the McDonalds and Loop 10, across from the entrance to the Krogers.

Since the Oconee Connector Extension will be a loop from Epps Bridge Parkway at Lowe’s to SR 316 where the current Oconee Connector intersects that road, most of the traffic from the Epps Bridge Centre almost certainly will end up on Epps Bridge Parkway and SR 316. An entrance to Loop 10 is proposed where the Extension crosses the Loop.

Athens Transit does not provide service to the site, meaning all those employed at the Epps Bridge Centre as well as the customers are going to have to travel to their jobs by auto.

NEGRDC gave four reasons for opposing Epps Bridge Centre.

  1. The amount of impervious surface and the potential effects on stormwater runoff and water quality.

  2. The location of the proposed stream and wetland restoration site being used to mitigate the destruction of the wetlands for Epps Bridge Centre is "significantly downstream" from the project site.

  3. Because the proposed Epps Bridge Centre will be accessible only from Epps Bridge Parkway until the Oconee Connector Extension is built, the development has the "potential to significantly degrade the level of service" on Epps Bridge Parkway and "cause safety issues related to access management."

  4. The destruction of "tree canopy and vegetation" will "adversely impact water and air quality of the adjacent counties and the region." The Development Center said "Canopy and vegetation loss can be reduced through better site design."

The Oconee County Planning Department staff report recommended approval of the project but listed seven conditions, most of which are routine.

The final condition, however, stipulated that no more than one-third "of the overall building square footage of the site" can use Epps Bridge Parkway as the "sole access to the development." So the remaining part of the project–whatever the developer decides that to be–cannot be completed until the Oconee Connector Extension is built.

Bishop indicated at the August 18 Planning Commission meeting that he expects to start development with the theater, which is at the very rear of the property.

Mike Maxey, a member of the Planning Commission, said at the Commission meeting that he found that restriction to be overly burdensome on the developer. The county would be holding the developer "hostage" by the stipulation.

Maxey garnered no support for his position, however, and the condition was included as part of the Planning Commission’s approval of the project. Maxey actually seconded the motion.

Planning Commission member Bruce MacPherson, representing Bishop, led the discussion at that August 18 meeting. He was concerned about the amount of impervious surface, about the destruction of the wetlands, and about the possibility of mixed use development versus retail, and about the architecture.

Bishop said he would use white roofing to minimize the geothermal effect and use landscaping to minimize water runoff.

Bishop said he had looked for ways to mitigate the wetlands destruction but did not find land in Clarke County and found the land in Oconee County was not "affordable." So he purchased the land in the middle of the Oconee National Forest for mitigation.

Bishop also said mixed use was not a good idea, and that the architecture would be of a "high quality."

George Rodrigues, the Planning Commission member from Watkinsville, also was concerned about the amount of impervious surface and about the layout of the proposed strip mall.

Rodrigues even said (see video above) he wondered if Bishop "was invested in asphalt." He also said he didn’t like Bishop’s Georgetown Square, which he described as "confusing."

Bishop said the design was a response to the needs of the national tenants he hopes to have in the mall. He also said the narrow nature of the land available to him helped shape what he could do.

Planning Commission member Travis Marshall was concerned that the back of the restaurants facing Loop 10 wouldn’t look so nice. Marshall asked if it was safe to "assume" they would look good, and Bishop said it was.

In the end, only MacPherson voted against the motion to rezone the existing land from agricultural and agricultural-residential to a highway business district.

Bishop said his mall, with the theaters and the restaurants, is heavy on entertainment. It is doubtful that kind of entertainment mall would have been possible had the Board of Commissioners not voted earlier this year to allow the sale of beer and wine in restaurants.

Bishop wasn’t asked if his restaurants will also want to be able to sell liquor by the drink.

All of the documents referenced in this post as well as the audio links are at Oconee County Observations II.

Entrance to Epps Bridge Center

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