Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Oconee Traffic, Permits and Epps Bridge Centre

It's the Shopping, Really

The Oconee County Commissioners were looking at a concept plan Tuesday night showing six entrances to the proposed $76 million Epps Bridge Centre and involving the destruction of streams and wetlands requiring both state and federal permits.

Only one of those entrances to the strip mall can be built until the state completes a major highway project for which it has not yet even let the contracts.

Neither the state nor the federal permits for stream and wetland destruction have been granted.

County Attorney Daniel Haygood reminded the Commissioners that the concept plan the developer presents has to show what the developer actually intends to do before a rezone can be granted.

For some, that might have been a good reason to either postpone action on the rezone or deny it, since what the developer intends to do is not doable at present. Several of the seven persons speaking against the rezone–myself included--suggested the Board do just that.

By a vote of 3-1, with Margaret Hale dissenting, however, the Board of Commissioners approved the rezone anyway.

They did include a condition patched together on the spot to cover for the fact that the submitted concept plan is only a dream without the roadway. The Board, however, ignored the issue of the state and federal permits.

They also ignored the fact that the sole entrance to and exit from the shopping mall will allow only right turns in and right turns out and is at a very congested part of Epps Bridge Parkway.

Attorney Haygood, who said he had not recognized a problem with the condition for the rezone proposed by the planning staff back in August until he looked at it during the discussion Tuesday night, offered the replacement condition.

Those speaking against the rezone included Brenda Rashleigh, president of the Upper Oconee Watershed Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring clean water for the Upper Oconee Watershed.

"We are opposed to this rezone because of the environmental impacts on the downstream waters," she said. Rashleigh said her group is concerned about McNutt Creek, which is near the development site, and "we believe that rezoning should not take place without the proper permits and variances."

The North East Georgia Regional Development Center also criticized the project because of its negative environmental impact.

According to the Aug. 8 staff report of the Oconee County Planning Department, developer Frank Bishop "has received approval from the Army Corps of Engineers to mitigate" the destruction of the streams and wetlands on the site through a mitigation bank he established in Greene County.

When I asked to see that permit, however, B.R. White, director of the Planning Department, told me the county did not have a copy of the permit.

When I filed a federal Freedom of Information Act request for a copy of the permit, I was told that none had been issued.

The state Environmental Protection Division also told me that the state has not yet issued a variance allowing Bishop to enter the 25-foot buffer of the streams on the site. Both the variance and the Corps permit are to be in hand before Oconee County issues a permit for disturbance of the site.

After I pointed out at the Tuesday rezone hearing that neither the Corps permit nor the state variance had been issued, Bishop acknowledged that fact.

"We have worked with the Army Corps of Engineers for approximately two years addressing mitigation concerns on this site to get this property rezoned," he said. He did not say why he had been unsuccessful in obtaining the permits before the rezone hearing or why he was going forward with the rezone request without them.

"Before any work could be done on this project, we would have to satisfy all the requirements of the Army Corps of Engineers," he did say. "No work would proceed on this project until all permits are in hand, which would include all federal permits, all state permits and all county permits."

That was enough for the majority of the Board.

Here is the language County Attorney Daniel Haygood offered the Board to cover for the lack of the $26 state roadway that is supposed to be built to the Epps Bridge Centre project:

"No development permits can be issued prior to the Georgia Department of Transportation signing a contract for construction of the Oconee Connector Extension, and, until the Oconee Connector Project is completed, no more than one-third of the overall building square footage of the site shall be issued COs (Certificates of Occupancy), or should be allowed to use the Epps Bridge Parkway as long as Epps Bridge Parkway is the sole exit."

Two people other than Bishop spoke up on Tuesday night for the project. One said the county was lucky to have a developer of the caliber of Bishop doing the project.

In his allowed rebuttal of the citizen concerns, Bishop offered his view of why his mall is good for Oconee County.

"We have spent a lot of time and resources trying to bring this project to fruition in Oconee County," he said, "believing it will be a benefit to Oconee County, to the citizens of Oconee County, and will enhance their lifestyles in that it will provide additional shopping, services, that will be closer to the residents’ homes in Oconee County and thusly they will not have to travel as far. They will spend less time in automobiles. The need to consume more gasoline will be reduced."

Despite his proposed–but not yet approved–destruction of 2,421 linear feet of streams and 1.06 acres of wetlands, Bishop, it seems, is something of an environmentalist after all.

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