A Variance Here and a Variance There
The Oconee County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday night is scheduled to make a crucial rezone decision regarding the proposed $76 million Epps Bridge Centre.
The rezone comes before the BOC with a negative finding from the North East Georgia Regional Development Center that "the development is not in the best interest of the Region and therefore the State."
Environmental and traffic concerns topped the list of problems NEGRDC has with the project.
While the Oconee County Planning Commission recommended approval at its Aug. 18 meeting, several commissioners who ultimately voted for it also raised questions about the project on these same and other grounds.
Here is a summary of those concerns as well as others that my reading of the documents suggest should be addressed on Tuesday night.
The BOC can vote to deny, but it probably is more likely to vote to approve, perhaps with added conditions.
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.
Because no one knows when the Oconee Connector Extension will be built, the county planning staff has recommended the following condition:
"Until the Oconee Connector Extension project is completed, no more than one-third (1/3) of the overall building square footage of the site shall be allowed to use Epps Bridge Parkway as the sole access to the development."
Here is alternative language that is clearer:
"No more than one-third of the square footage shall be certified for occupancy by Oconee County until the Oconee Connector Extension is completed."
But that does not solve a big problem with the entrance to and exit from the shopping center directly on Epps Bridge Parkway. That entrance and exit will be between the McDonalds restaurant and Loop 10, across from the entrance to Krogers.
A map submitted by Bishop indicates the entrance and exit directly on Epps Bridge Parkway will allow only right turns into the development and right turns out, but this has not been stipulated as a condition of the development. It should be.
(Click here to watch a video clip I shot from my car window to show where the entrance and exit on Epps Bridge Parkway will be located.)
Even if only right turns are allowed, many drivers will want to enter SR Loop 10 going north, at least until another entrance to SR Loop 10 is built. Given the location of the current entrance ramps, that will mean merging from the right to the left lane in a very short distance.
It would make much more sense to stipulate that Epps Bridge Centre cannot open until at least two entrances are available, including one that uses the part of the future Oconee Connector Extension that already exists just west of Lowe’s. That stretch of road allows for a left-turn into and out of Lowe’s.
Drivers from the shopping center wishing to enter SR Loop 10 north could be directed to this exit, and the exit with the right turn only onto Epps Bridge Parkway could stipulate that traffic could not enter SR Loop 10.
Although the Oconee Connector Extension will be built with both bike lanes and sidewalks, Epps Bridge Centre does not have bike lanes.
The county could require that bike lanes be included in the design and integrated with the bike lanes from the Connector.
Stream and wetland destruction
Bishop told the Planning Commission he knew the site he wants to rezone for the Epps Bridge Centre had wetlands and flowing streams before he started to develop it.
He could have decided to preserve those streams and wetlands and to incorporate them into his shopping center design. Pictures Bishop submitted to the U.S. Corps of Engineers show some of the streams are quite substantial and attractive.
Bishop chose instead to pave over and pipe almost all of the streams and wetlands, and he sought a permit from the Corps of Engineers to allow him to do that. That procedure required him to mitigate the damage to the streams and wetlands either by purchasing wetland credits from a commercial mitigation bank or by purchasing land and doing restoration himself.
Bishop told the Planning Commission he could not find a mitigation bank in Clarke County and did not want to pay the price required for Oconee County land where he could do restoration. He chose instead to purchase land in Greene County, and he now is proposing to convert that land to a commercial mitigation bank.
According to the Oconee County Planning Department staff report, Bishop has received permission from the Corps of Engineers to mitigate the damage to the Oconee site via the Greene County site. Bishop also told the county in a memo he sent on Sept. 17, 2008, that he has received permission from the Corps for the mitigation bank itself.
According to Michael Berry, an environmental specialist at the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, Bishop also has applied for two variances that would allow him to enter the 25-foot buffers on the streams on the two sites, but he does not have the required variances.
Berry told me by telephone on Oct. 3 that the variance request for the Oconee site has been "in house" since "back in January" but has not been approved. He said the request for the Greene County site was filed only in September of this year and also is still under review.
Once the EPD makes a decision for a variance, the public is invited to comment. Berry said that piping a stream is viewed as a significant course of action and that the Corps of Engineers approval is only one of the criteria used by the state in granting a variance.
Oconee County is supposed to make sure that no permits for disturbance of the site takes place without both the federal permits and the state variance allowances.
One option for the BOC would be to postpone approval on the rezone until the needed permits and variances are in hand.
Impervious surface and tree canopy
Bishop also plans to clear the site of almost all existing vegetation as part of the construction process. When the project is completed, 70 percent of the will be covered with impervious surfaces such as roofs and pavement.
The NEGRDC recommended that Bishop "preserve a greater percentage of existing tree canopy" and "reduce the amount of impervious surface."
A large part of that surface is parking. The concept plan shows 2,905 parking spaces, which is 17 percent more than the 2,483 required, according to the document.
Planning Commission member George Rodrigues said at the Aug. 18 meeting he wondered if Bishop "was invested in asphalt" and suggested that the amount of parking be cut back.
The BOC certainly could ask that parking be the minimum and that more tree cover be preserved.
Bishop has said this Epps Bridge Center will generate about $750,000 each year in property taxes for the county and $4.7 million in sales taxes. The sales tax calculations are based on projected annual sales at the mall of approximately $158 million.
Bishop has never been asked in a public meeting to explain those figures. Given the current economic crisis and its affect on all aspects of the economy, it seems reasonable to ask how realistic these figures are.
Bishop also has estimated it will cost the county only $55,498 annually to provide community services associated with the project. Given that Epps Bridge Centre is intended to be an entertainment complex with restaurants and a 16-screen theater, the county will have some security costs as well as costs associated with administration and enforcement of the beer and wine ordinance.
It would be nice to know the source of the $55,498 figure.
It also would be nice to hear Bishop’s opinion on whether he will be able to get restaurants to locate in the mall as long as the county does not allow sale of alcohol by the drink. If he is going to want that law changed, he should say so.
At the Aug. 18 Planning Commission meeting, member Travis Marshall expressed concern that the rear of the restaurants facing Loop 10 be attractive to those passing by the mall. Marshall asked if it was safe to "assume" they would be attractive, and Bishop said it was.
It would be nice if the BOC would do something other than rely on Bishop’s reassurance. The county usually buffers subdivisions and other developments with berms and vegetation.
This might be a nice way of saving some of the tree cover on the site.