The Oconee County Industrial Development Authority is calling on the Oconee County Board of Commissioners to set aside its current practice of rezoning property only when an owner requests the change in favor of advance zoning to reflect county plans for future development.
The IDA is scheduled to deliver a report to the commissioners at their meeting on Tuesday night calling on the county to identify key commercial corridors and “pre-zone all parcels in those corridors consistent with the intended long-term use.”
The IDA says that the county should create districts in what it calls two “commercial-industrial-residential areas” that are defined by U.S. 78 from the Walton County line to the Clarke County line and by SR 316 from the Barrow County line to the Clarke County line.
The county should decide how wide it wants the new districts along these corridors to be and then rezone all land within those corridors based on county land use plans, according to the report.
Waller To Deliver Report
According to the agenda released by County Clerk Jane Greathouse on Friday afternoon, IDA Chair Rick Waller will deliver the report, produced by the Authority’s Product Development Committee.
John Morrison chairs that Committee. Matt Elder, Ed Perkins and state House Rep. Chuck Williams are the other members. Waller serves on the committee ex officio.
Morrison is a commercial realtor. Elder is owner of Oconee Waste Transport south of Watkinsville. Perkins is a retired businessman. Williams has spent most of his career in banking. Waller works in insurance.
The IDA approved the report at its meeting on Aug. 11 and circulated it to the county’s Citizen Advisory Committee for Land Use and Transportation Planning at that group’s meeting the next day.
In the video below, shot by citizen Sarah Bell, Elder tells the IDA members that the Product Development Committee report is ready to be sent to the BOC. Waller is on the left, and Morris is in the red shirt facing the camera.
Second Report Of IDA
The BOC, following the lead of Commissioners John Daniell and Jim Luke, has been exploring what it calls “prezoning” for more than a year, and it asked the IDA to lend a hand in the discussion.
The IDA issued its first report back in September of last year, and that report focused on the IDA’s belief that the county needed to “assemble” land for industrial parks.
The BOC asked the IDA to go back and look at zoning, and this second report reflects a response to that assignment.
The IDA included in the second report the recommendation that the Board of Commissioners should “work with the Development Authority” to identify and assemble “land, ready for development, zoned ‘industrial’ with access to transportation and utilities.”
In addition to calling for creation of industrial zones and for rezoning of the commercial corridors, the IDA said the commissioners should make “various improvements to the zoning and permitting processes” already in place in the county and should automate the process using available software.
Finally, the IDA said the BOC should use “consulting resources familiar with the details, risks and benefits of zoning/permitting process alternatives and (familiar) with the Oconee County community.”
The IDA said it would be “happy” to help the BOC “work through” the process of finding “consulting resources.”
Current Zoning Process
At present, landowners make decisions about if and when they want to try to rezone their land for something other than its existing use.
The staff forwards its review to a the county Planning Commission, a citizen committee that holds a public hearing and then makes a recommendation to the Board of Commissioners.
The Board of Commissioners holds a second public hearing before making its final decision on the zoning request.
Prezoning Of Land
The current Future Development Map is viewed by commissioners as a guide, and they do violate it.
They did just that in 2010 when they rezoned land in an agricultural area outside Watkinsville for IDA member Elder so he could expand and relocate parts of his business.
The commissioners also often negotiate with those making rezone requests, placing conditions on the rezone to accommodate the concerns of the commissioners and of citizens expressed during the rezone process.
While the IDA has not specified how the prezoning process it envisions would work, it would be designed as a partial replacement for the current procedures, which the IDA views as involving “substantial commitment of time and money by both the landowner/developer and the county.”
The current procedures, the IDA writes, “can drive out good uses and contribute to unintended and undesirable outcomes.”
According to the IDA report, Oconee County is primarily a “residential community and is likely to remain such.”
The county needs to plan for growth “to protect the character of our residential neighborhoods and the overall quality of life in Oconee County,” the report states.
The six-page report does not contain the words “agriculture,” “rural” or “farm” at any place.
The word “agricultural” appears in the IDA report twice, both in negative references to current zoning.
History of Zoning
The IDA report states that the county has “historically zoned land agricultural with zoning for other purposes having been conducted on a case-by-case basis.”
“It is time to consider if the ‘agricultural default and case-by-case’ processes are the best approaches for our future,” the report states.
That characterization of the history of zoning in the county is incorrect.
Zoning started in 1968, according to B.R. White, director of the Oconee County Planning Department and of the county’s Code Enforcement Office.
At that time, land was zoned based on its current use. Since most of the county was agricultural, most land was zoned for that purpose.
Land that was being used for businesses, even in areas that were mostly agricultural, were zoned to reflect the existing business use.
Tax Issues Ignored
When the BOC began its discussion of prezoning, County Attorney Daniel Haygood as well as White noted the possible tax implications of a change in zoning procedures.
The value of land is assessed in part based on its zoning category, according to Allen Skinner, chief appraiser in the Oconee County Property Appraisal Department.
The value of the land determines the amount of taxes paid, with the owner of higher valued land paying more than those with less valuable land.
The IDA report does not address the tax issue associated with blanket zoning of land in advance of a change in its use.
Skinner used as an example of zoning consequences on land values two properties on the Oconee Connector across from Epps Bridge Centre.
One undeveloped property is owned by the Evelyn and Frank Gordy Family and is zoned as agricultural. The 114 acres are valued at $1.8 million, or $15,897 per acre.
Next to the Gordy tract is undeveloped land owned by Rod and J.L. Wright, developers in the county. The 41-acre tract is valued at $3.4 million, or $83,136 per acre.
The Gordy Family has decided not to rezone its land–most likely leaving that to a future buyer–in order to hold down its value, and thus, taxes, Skinner said when I talked with him by telephone on Aug. 15.
Prezoning Would Change Assessment
Skinner said prezoning might not immediately change the taxes for a property, but as soon as property in that same zoning category sold, that sales value would be used in assessing all nearby property in the same zoning category.
If the Gordy and Wright properties were to be included in a prezoned cluster, the Gordy Family strategy of not changing the zoning category to keep taxes lower would be eliminated.
One thing that would not be affected by prezoning, according to Skinner, is the ability of a land owner to apply for reduced taxes via a conservation easement.
The Wright property is under a conservation easement–as is about 60 percent of the land in the county--according to Skinner.
Conservation easements and the reduced taxes they produce are based on land use, not zoning category, he said. But they also restrict use for a period of time and include severe consequences if the conservation easement is broken.
Caterpillar In Shadows
The IDA says that the background to its report is the “successful attraction” of the Caterpillar plant to Oconee County.
“The determining factor in our competition for the Caterpillar opportunity was having available land, already zoned and with access to transportation and utilities,” according to the report.
The Caterpillar property is located in the north of the county at the intersection of SR 316 and US 78 and is near to a rail line. The county spent $9 million to provide additional infrastructure, including roadways, for the property, and Athens-Clarke County spent the same amount.
Despite that investment and the location, none of the Caterpillar suppliers or anyone else so far has purchased the remaining nearby land for development.
To have any property similar to the Caterpillar land prezoned and ready for development in the future, the county would have to rezone agricultural land in the rural south of the county, probably along US 441.