Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Oconee Rezones More Commercial and Office Park Space

Something for the New Year: Swapping Zoning Requests

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners approved two rezone projects Tuesday night, authorizing additional retail and office development in the county.

The Commission chambers was packed for the hearings on the rezones, with many citizens crammed into the hallway outside the meeting room for lack of space.

In the first rezone, involving the Fred Gunter Property on U.S. 441 at LaVista Road, the Board voted to grant a rezone for Office Institutional Professional (OIP) use though the developer had asked for a B-2 Highway Business District zone and had presented a concept plan for a shopping center.

The Board approved the OIP zone without seeing any proposal for a relevant use of the land.

The Board then voted to approve a 425,213 square foot commercial project combined with a retirement residential community that stretches from Barber Creek on U.S. 78 nearly to Pete Dickens Lane. The commercial strip is to be called the Markets at the Meadows.

The residential community, separated by a gas transmission line easement, is being called the Village at the Meadows. It will retain and incorporate the existing Pete Dickens Lake, on a tributary to Barber Creek.

Citizens spoke out in opposition to both zoning requests, and the Board showed considerable division over and even confusion about the proper course of action.

Before the hearing, the Board went into a closed session with County Attorney Daniel Haygood to talk about the Gunter rezone request, which is the subject of a lawsuit. The Board had turned down the rezone request in its meeting on July 3, 2007.

In a letter sent to the Board as recently as Jan. 5, 2009, Haygood said "The County intends to vigorously defend" the Board’s decision.

After the public hearing, during which one person spoke in favor and 12 people spoke in opposition to the rezone, focusing mostly on traffic problems, Commissioner Chuck Horton made a motion, seconded by Commissioner Margaret Hale, to deny the rezone.

Commissioner John Daniell joined Hale and Horton in voting for the denial motion, and Commission Jim Luke voted against it.

Then, in response to a question from Chairman Melvin Davis, Haygood said it was permissible for the Board to consider an OIP rezone, though none was requested. Haygood said it was appropriate, but the Board should vote to rescind the just-passed motion first. All four of the commissioners then voted to rescind the denial.

Horton then made a motion to grant OIP zoning for the property, and Hale seconded. Daniell joined Luke in opposing this action. Davis voted to break the tie in favor of the OIP rezone.

The OIP option had been discussed in advance in some fashion, as the county planning staff had been asked by someone to talk to the Board about the option. The planning staff answers to Davis.

Planning Director B.R. White told the Board he could not offer much by way of advice on such a rezone since there was no concept plan to review.

The developer wanted a strip mall shopping center with the only certain exit directly to LaVista Drive.

The citizens spoke in opposition to that concept, noting that no traffic light exists at LaVista and U.S. 441, making a left turn difficult at best. Many also complained about what they felt was an inadequate buffer between the commercial strip and their homes.

The Board voted to approve an office park that no one has proposed and, consequently, without any knowledge that the traffic problem will be less than would have been the case with the shopping center.

The office park rezone requires less of a buffer than was proposed for the shopping center, White told the Board.

The citizens were not given a chance to indicate how they felt about the swap, since the hearing was on the B-2 rezone request, not a rezone for an office park.

The rezone request by 78 Commercial Ventures for the strip mall on U.S. 78 produced a smaller citizen turnout, but the concerns were much the same.

The five people who spoke in opposition expressed anxiety about traffic congestion in the residential neighborhoods behind the property and the need for a buffer from the lights and noises of a commercial development.

Daniell made the motion to approve the rezone of the commercial strip from agricultural to business. Luke seconded. Hale joined the pair in voting for the rezone, and Horton voted against.

Next, Hale made a motion to rezone the property from agricultural to residential for the retirement community, and Daniell seconded. This time, Luke joined Horton in voting against the motion, resulting in a tie. Davis voted in favor of the rezone.

As is usual, with one exception, Board members did not explain the votes. Luke did indicate he wanted to vote for the original Gunter rezone out of fear the court would dictate a rezone without any of the conditions the county was imposing, such as the buffer. He said the county was better off with what it had negotiated with the developer.

Clearly lots of discussion of these two rezones had taken place outside the open meeting.

It is unlikely the Gunter rezone on U.S. 441 is settled, which means there is likely to be more conversations, only some of which the public will be privy to.

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