The Oconee County Chamber of Commerce has asked the Oconee County Board of Commissioners to approve tomorrow night the rezone request of Presbyterian Homes of Georgia for a continuing care retirement community on U.S. 441 and Wellbrook Road.
The Chamber told the commissioners that the PHG facility will have “significant” economic impact on the community and “add to the quality of life” of citizens, but it did not address the issues of safety and traffic, which are most likely to be the primary focus of the commissioners tomorrow night.
Those safety and traffic issues at the proposed PHG site are in part the result of decisions made more than 10 years ago by the Tillman family, owners of one of the two parcels that make up the proposed 70-acre campus of the continuing care retirement community.
The Board of Commissioners has moved the 7 p.m. meeting from the Commission Chamber to Courtroom 1 at the Courthouse in Watkinsville because of the anticipated large turnout for the public hearing on the PHG rezone.
The Chamber of Commerce sent a letter to the Board of Commissioners on April 20 asking the BOC to rezone the property as requested by Presbyterian Homes.
Kay Keller, Chamber president, told me in telephone conversations on Tuesday and Thursday of last week that PHG had approached the Chamber seeking support for its rezone request.
Keller said PHG made a presentation to the six-member Executive Committee of the Chamber, which then shared information with the full 14-member Board of Directors.
The Board of Director voted unanimously to support the PHG rezone, Keller said.
Keller said such action by the Chamber is not unprecedented, but she did not remember the last time that the Chamber had expressed its views on a rezone request before the county.
Proponents Argue Need
In the two public hearings before the Planning Commission, on March 16 and April 20, proponents argued, consistent with the Chamber letter, that the project would have positive economic impact on the community.
Many of the individuals who spoke in favor of the project also argued that the county needs a continuing care retirement community such as PHG is proposing because of the aging population.
Elberta Prestegard, 1071 Scotland Bend Court, in the Broadlands off Simonton Bridge Road, told the Planning Commission on April 20 that she has friends who are moving to Gainesville to find what PHG is proposing to offer.
The video clip below is of a segment of her comments at that meeting.
While Prestegard argued that there are limited facilities for senior citizens in Oconee County, two new ones are under construction.
The first of these is the 70-unit Thrive Senior Living facility in Resurgence Park off Virgil Langford Road.
Construction of the upscale, assisted living facility to be known as The Village at Athens is well underway and is expected to be completed by the end of July of 2015, according to the building permit.
The second is The Fairways, on Langford Drive, also off Virgil Langford Road behind the first phase of Three Sixteen Professional Quarter.
Oconee Medical Properties submitted site developments plans on Feb. 26 of this year for a continuing care retirement community that would include one multi-story building, 23 two-unit cottages, and one separate two-bedroom unit.
The PHG proposal is for a much larger facility than either Thrive or The Fairways. PHG’s campus would include 113 single-family units, 13 duplexes, 100 apartments, an assisted living health services center, and a village center.
The Thrive facility and The Fairways are much closer to the county’s commercial complex on Epps Bridge Parkway than the proposed PHG complex.
Safety and Traffic
The PHG facility has frontage on U.S. 441 and Wellbrook Road, and the main entrance and exit would be on U.S. 441 opposite Lavista Road.
No traffic light exists at Lavista Road, and the state, not the county, makes decisions on if and when a traffic light can be installed.
The speed limit on U.S. 441 is 55 mph, and Lavista Road and the proposed entrance and exit to the PHG facility are below a crest in the road, making a left-hand turn out of PHG and a left-hand turn out of Lavista Road difficult.
The Board of Commissioners turned down a rezone request for 13 acres at the corner of Lavista Road and U.S. 441 on May 7, 2007, because of that problem.
The property owner, Fred Gunter Property LLC, filed suit against the county as a result of that denial, but the case was dismissed in February of 2009, and the property ultimately was rezoned for office use, which has a lower traffic volume than a shopping center.
The two pieces of property that PHG wants to use for the continuing care retirement community previously had been zoned for office and retail use.
The smaller of these two tracts is 32 acres in size and is owned by Crystal Hills LLLP, controlled by the family of the original developer of Crystal Hills subdivision, Thomas M. Tillman Jr. Thomas Tillman still has a residence in the subdivision, according to county tax records.
A condition of the sale of the property to PHG is that approximately 10 acres, with frontage on Wild Azalea Lane, be downzoned by PHG to residential use and not be part of the retirement facility. (The tax records and the rezone documents have minor discrepancies in the size of the Tillman property.)
In fact, those 10 acres would remain in the hands of Crystal Hills LLLP, depriving Presbyterian Homes of frontage on Wild Azalea Lane and forcing PHG to rely on U.S. 441 and Wellbrook Road for its main entrances and exits.
Crystal Hills LLLP is controlled by the family of Thomas M. Tillman Jr., including son Joseph Tillman.
Joe Tillman is a humanities teacher and coach at Athens Academy. One of the buildings at Athens Academy is called the Tillman Center.
Joe Tillman also does real estate investment.
Tom Remar, 1521 Crystal Hills Drive , told the Planning Commission at its March 16 meeting of the strong connection between Athens Academy and Crystal Hills subdivision.
He said many people in Crystal Hills work at Athens Academy or have family working at Athens Academy.
Remar also said that two days before that March 16 Planning Commission meeting Joe Tillman had sent out an email through the Athens Academy email system “the tone of which discouraged anybody from Athens Academy to come and speak in opposition.
“You know, when a Tillman speaks, everybody runs,” Remar said in the video clip below that was taken from his presentation to the Planning Commission.
Decision On Residential
When the county rezoned the Tillman tract in June of 1994, it expected that the development to the south would become commercial, according to the staff report written by then Planning Director Wayne Provost.
The remainder of the surrounding land was owned by Tillman, and Provost wrote “negative impacts are not anticipated.”
The land to the south is the second parcel PHG has under contract, and it was zoned for office and commercial development in October of 1994.
The Tillmans developed the surrounding property for residential use as part of Crystal Hills, selling the property across Wild Azalea Lane between 2000 and 2004.
Three tracts across Wild Azalia Lane and a tract on Wild Azalia Lane adjoining the rezoned property would be impacted negatively by increased noise and light pollution if the shopping center were developed.
It is those properties that will be buffered and protected by the downzoning of the 10 acres with frontage on Wild Azalea Lane that the Tillmans are requiring PHG to obtain as part of the purchase agreement.
Crystal Hills has been developing since the middle of the 1970s, county tax records show.
Athens Academy, founded in 1967 in Athens, has been constructing its current Oconee County campus across U.S. 441 from Crystal Hills since about that same time.
County tax records show that Athens Academy erected three buildings on the campus in 1972, one in 1973, and three in 1975.
The private, co-educational, college prepatory schools offers grades K3 through 12 for about 1,000 students.
The Athens Academy’s web site touts its athletic programs.
Joe Tillman, according to the web site, is middle school girls basketball head coach.
When Fred Gunter Property LLC proposed building a shopping center at Lavista Road and U.S. 441, residents in surrounding neighborhoods, including along Spartan Lane, were vocal in their opposition.
Spartan Lane forms the southern border of the Athens Academy campus. The Athens Academy mascot is Spartans.
Williams and Associates represented Fred Gunter Property in that rezone, and the company is representing PHG in the rezone request before the Board of Commissioners tomorrow night.
Williams did a traffic study at that time and concluded that, if the shopping center were built, the Lavista Road intersection with U.S. 441 would operate at an unacceptable level “because there are insufficient gaps in the U.S. 441 traffic for the Lavista Road traffic to enter.”
The speed limit has been increased from 45 mph to 55 mph since that time.
Jon Williams of Williams and Associates has said that PHG would be willing to pay for a traffic light at Lavista Road and U.S. 441 if the PHG rezone is approved, but he also has said he does not believe the continuing care retirement community will generate enough traffic to warrant a light, given state requirements.