Presbyterian Homes of Georgia, in its third attempt, says it finally has found the right location for its Athens area continuing care retirement community.
Its first selected location on Bishop Farms Parkway between Butler’s Crossing and Watkinsville turned out to be too expensive, Jon Williams of Williams and Associates told the Oconee County Planning Commission on March 16.
But this third site on U.S. 441 at Hog Mountain Road is just right. It meets the goals of being “the right piece of property at the right location,” Williams said.
Not everyone agrees with that assessment, with opponents particularly concerned about traffic issues because the site’s main entrance and exit is on U.S. 441--a designated north-south freight corridor with a 55 mph speed limit.
The Planning Commission, having tabled the rezone request by PHG last month, is to take up the issue again on April 20, but whether those opponents as well as proponents will have a chance to speak again remains undetermined.
After Planning Commission Chairman Dan Arnold declared the public hearing closed on March 16, a majority of the Commission decided it wanted to delay action on the rezone request.
Several commissioners said they needed time to digest last minute requests by Williams that a list of conditions be added to the rezone, dealing, among other issues, with traffic. Williams’ land planning company is representing PHG in the rezone.
Williams’ explanation of the site selection is below.
B.R. White, Oconee County Planning Department director, told me on Friday that the Planning Commission will have to decide if it wants to reopen the public hearing to allow citizens a chance to add additional comments.
The Commission simply could pick up where it left off last month after the hearing was closed. In that case, it could ask questions of staff, of Williams, and of any citizens present.
The agenda has not yet been released for the meeting next Monday, but another controversial rezone also was tabled until April 20. That involves a proposed complex of office warehouses on Jimmy Daniell Road.
Opposition From Start
PHG’s decision to locate its continuing care retirement community (CCRC) at this third location ran into opposition from the start.
It abuts at the rear one of the wealthiest subdivisions in the county–Crystal Hills–and University of Georgia Basketball Coach Mark Fox would be one of the facility’s closest neighbors.
PHG quickly changed its plans for the CCRC to create a larger buffer for those properties and to move some of the smaller residences in the complex away from the subdivision.
Residents of two other high-end subdivisions, Lake Wellbrook and the rather small Phinizy Court, have opposed the project because, they contend, it will bring unwanted new traffic through their subdivision and make it difficult for them to use Wellbrook Road.
Wellbrook Road (also spelled Welbrook) is the major access route for residents of these subdivisions wishing to reach U.S. 441.
The 70 acres PHG is proposing to use for its facility is oddly shaped.
It fronts both U.S. 441 and Wellbrook Road, but not Hog Mountain Road.
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It is carved from two existing properties, both zoned B-1 for business use, but it does not include a section of one of those properties fronting on Wild Azalea Lane.
It also does not include two properties fronting on U.S. 441 and three properties fronting on Hog Mountain Road.
Zoned But Not Developed
The tract fronting on U.S. 441 and Wellbrook Road and the tract fronting on U.S. 441 and Wild Azalea Lane both were rezoned in 1994. Together they total about 81 acres.
The 49-acre-tract on U.S. 441 and Wellbroad Road is owned by the estate of Marjorie Maxey.
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The approximately 32-acre-tract on U.S. 441 and Wild Azalea Lane is owned by the Crystal Hills LLLP.
State records list three officers of Crystal Hills LLLP: John H Terrell III, 450 W Lake Drive, Athens; Joseph E. Tillman, PO Box 7746, Athens; and Gay T Crowe, 115 Chestnut Lane, Athens.
The larger property was to be an office and shopping complex. The smaller was to be a shopping center, stretching all the way to Wild Azalea Lane.
PHG is asking for a downzone of the 70 acres to be used for the CCRC to Office-Institutional-Professional and for a downzone of the remaining roughly 11 acres on Wild Azalea Lane to residential.
Used As Argument
Williams made the case in his presentation to the Planning Commission that an alternative to the PHG rezone was commercial development of the property. He said he had been in contact with a potential buyer in 2009 who wanted to use the land for that purpose.
But that argument ignores the fact, which Williams stated clearly to a meeting of residents I attended on March 4, that Crystal Hills LLLP does not want to develop the land as zoned.
Williams said that a condition of purchase of the 32 acres is that the roughly 11 acres be downzoned for residential and not included in the PHG project.
PHG is obligated to handle the downzoning of the 11 acres, Williams said, and that second rezone request was not dealt with by the Planning Commission last month.
That request, with the necessary public hearing, should be before the Commission next week. A related request for a variance on height restricts of the buildings will be dealt with only the Board of Commissioners.
Williams’ argument about the possibility of shopping centers on the site also ignores a feature of their rezones in 1994.
Both of the legal documents for 1994 rezones contain a condition that grants the Board of Commissioners much latitude in controlling actual use of the property.
The 1994 rezones state:
“Developer acknowledges that certain site plan requirements of the Zoning Ordinance have been deferred from the rezone concept stage to the preliminary plat and building permit stages and that, prior to approval of said plans and plats and issuance of permits, all site plan requirements so deferred shall be fully met.
“Developer also acknowledges that by deferring such site plan requirements, the Board of Commissioners does not waive any requirements of the Zoning and Subdivision Regulations nor the authority to impose reasonable conditions related to this zoning amendment.”
County Attorney Daniel Haygood told me in an email message on April 27 that, before the adoption of the Unified Development Code by the county in 2006, this condition “was very common in the more complicated rezones.”
Third Exit Removed
The elimination of access to Wild Azalea Lane has had significant impact on the proposal PHG has before the county and is the source of much of the opposition.
The main entrance to the complex will be opposite Lavista Road beneath a high point on U.S. 441 just beyond Wild Azalea Lane, making it difficult for motorists existing the proposed CCRC to see traffic coming from the east.
Williams admitted the difficulty of making a left-hand turn onto U.S. 441, where the speed limit is 55 mph, during his comments to the Planning Commission. He said PHG would be glad to pay for a traffic light.
The state, however, is unlikely to install that light, Williams has said, because the traffic count will not justify it.
Five traffic lights already exist between the exit from SR Loop 10 onto U.S. 441 and Hog Mountain Road.
Truckers hauling freight do not like traffic lights.
Access Road Option
One option, not discussed so far, would be to construct an access road along the frontage of U.S. 441.
Emil Beshara, Public Works director for the county, downplayed that option in an email message to me April 18.
“I don't see much point in an access road for this application,” he wrote. “Folks could just go out Welbrook, turn left on HMR, and left again on 441 if they are not patient enough to wait for a gap at the entrance across from Lavista.”
HMR stands for Hog Mountain Road.
Another reason why an access road would create problem is that Mike Thornton owns a small property of less than an acre that lies to the west of the proposed main entrance and exit to the PHG facility.
Thornton has a fitness facility on the site and a large sign leased to Fairway sign company.
Thornton purchased the land in 1999, according to tax records, and built the office in 2004. The sign was constructed in 2012.
Carl Nichols, who is acting as the agent for PHG for purchase of the land, told the citizens who met with Williams and him on March 4 that he tried to purchase the property from Thornton but could not come to terms.
PHG also is not purchasing four other properties in the corner of the Hog Mountain Road intersection with U.S. 441
Two of these have access to Hog Mountain Road only through the stub of Hog Mountain Road created when the intersection was upgraded as U.S. 441 was improved.
These two are listed as for sale, but Nichols did not say if he attempted to purchase them.
What Beshara predicted will happen–traffic from the PHG facility will use the Wellbrook Road exit–is what has residents in Lake Wellbrook and Phinizy Court so upset.
Beshara is upgrading the Hog Mountain Road interchange with U.S. 441 to add turn lanes.
And Williams proposed as one of his conditions at the Planning Commission meeting last month that PHG will upgrade the Wellbrook Road intersection with Hog Mountain Road.
But opponents at the Planning Commission meeting did not seem satisfied.
They have said that these two intersections are extremely congested in the morning, making it difficult to turn left from Wellbrook Road onto Hog Mountain Road.
And they said that people wanting to get to SR 316 or the Epps Bridge Parkway shopping area will turn right while existing PHG on Wellbrook Road and travel through their neighborhood on residential streets rather than turn left and then right again onto Hog Mountain Road.
The video below shows travel along the route in question, starting on U.S. 441 at Spartan Lane, traveling west to Hog Mountain Road and then Wellbrook Road.
John Washington filed a report with the county on April 3 of his analysis of the time required to make a left-hand turn out of the proposed PHG main entrance on U.S. 441. Washington, who has played a leadership role in opposition to the PHG application by Lake Wellbrook residents, said the analysis showed the exit was unsafe.
Washington also measured the time to reach Daniells Bridge Road with either a left-hand or right-hand turn on Wellbrook Road and found them to be basically equal.
An unnamed citizen group commissioned a traffic study by Armentrout Matheny Thurmond, an engineering, architectural and planning firm of Athens, that also was submitted to the Planning Department on April 3.
The report criticizes the traffic data used in the rezone application by Williams and the design of the the existing median cut on U.S. 441 at Lavista Road.
Residents of Chaddwyck Drive and Lavista Road filed petitions with the Planning Department on April 7 asking the county to prohibit entrance and exit from the Presbyterian Homes complex on U.S. 441 opposite Lavista Road on the grounds it would make turns from Lavista Road unsafe.
Although this is the third site selected by PHG in Oconee County, it actually is the fourth rezone request of the county by the Quitman 501 (c) (3) non-profit corporation. PHG, despite the name, is not a part of the Presbyterian Church.
The rezone for the property on Bishop Farms Parkway was approved in 2008.
In 2009, PHG asked to modify that rezone but withdrew the request prior to a meeting of the Planning Commission.
Williams said at the Planning Commission meeting last month that the expense of the property and the downturn in the economy led to the decision not to purchase the property.
In 2013, PHG withdrew its request for the rezone of the property on Rocky Branch Road after running into problems with sewage capacity on the site.
Once the Planning Commission has reached its decision regarding this fourth request by PHG, that decision will go forward as a recommendation to the Board of Commissioners. The BOC will hold another public hearing before reaching its decision.
Video of March 16 Meeting
A video of the March 16 Planning Commission meeting on the PHG rezone request is below.
Note: An earlier version of the story listed the speed limit on U.S. 441 as 65 mph. The speed limit was raised from 45 to 55 mph within the last year. I typed 65 and did not catch the error in proofing. I thank a reader for calling the error to my attention and apologize for it.