Monday, August 17, 2015

Audience At Oconee County Meeting On Mars Hill Road Land Use Voiced No Support For Project

Given Little Time To Complain

About 40 people showed up last Thursday night at a meeting in Veterans Park to learn about county plans for development of Oconee County’s Mars Hill Road corridor, and none gave evidence of being there because of happiness with how things are going as the two-lane road is widened to four lanes.

Bill Ross, hired by the county as a consultant, told the residents as the meeting got underway that he wanted to hear from them, but he also said the meeting would last only an hour.

He then took up nearly 50 minutes outlining what he called findings of the “Mars Hill Road Land Use Study.”

What he did hear when he finally stopped to listen was mostly critical.

“We also have been told, over and over again, that they’re looking at the future, and this whole corridor being a commercial corridor,” one woman said. “It already is 200 times worse than we expected it to be,” she added.

The Georgia Department of Transportation made an announcement this morning that isn’t likely to make people feel better.

Mars Hill Road is expected to be completely closed during periods on Wednesday and Thursday as workers put in place beams for one of the two new bridges across Barber Creek.

Davis Introduced Ross

Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis introduced Ross to the crowd, and Davis later tried to reassure those present that the county leadership was interested in hearing their concerns.

Commissioners John Daniell and Mark Saxon also attended the meeting, which lasted eight minutes longer than Ross said it would. Neither Daniell nor Saxon responded to comments, leaving Davis to provide support for Ross.

Zoning Map 1
Click To Enlarge

“There are three of us here tonight, and listening,” Davis said.

Many of those who spoke said they were most upset by the loss of trees along the road, and they said they would make sure they sent comments to Ross and the county expressing those sentiments.

Overlay District

Ross said he had not made any decision on what his recommendation to the Board of Commissioners would be, but he said he was leaning toward suggesting the county adopt an overlay district for the corridor running from SR 316 to the U.S. 441 bypass outside Watkinsville.

Construction is underway only on the segment from SR 316 to Hog Mountain Road in Butler’s Crossing, but the county is purchasing right of way for the second segment from Hog Mountain Road along Experiment Station Road to the US 441 bypass.

The long-range plans are to then extend the four-lane road to downtown Watkinsville.

Construction on the first phase is to last another two years.

Maps Of Land Use

Ross presented the group four maps, pasted on the wall, to illustrate what he called “policy map categories.” (The maps are on the county web site.)

The maps designate future land uses for the properties along the corridor, ranging from areas designated for “residential preservation” to others labeled “future development opportunity.”

Policy Map 1
Click To Enlarge

The land use in Ross’ maps deviates in many cases from current zoning.

For example, the first of Ross' maps--for the northern most part of the corridor--classifies a number of properties now zoned for agricultural and residential use to “future development opportunity.”

A strip of lots along Old Mars Hill Road is an example.

Residential properties on Barber Creek Drive are classified as “residential conservation,” in Ross’ map.

The term is misleading. The goal, Ross said, is to allow these residential properties to be converted to office use in the short term and to be “redeveloped,” possibly for commercial or office use, in the future.

Troubled By Mess

Ross made several references during the evening to 115 acres along Mars Hill road on the northern edge of Northwest Woods subdivision.

Ross said the property was “a mess,” because of confusion over ownership and over zoning.

Originally called The Promenade At Parkside, the project would have been much larger than Epps Bridge Centre, being built on 68 acres on Epps Bridge Parkway and the Oconee Connector.

The Promenade At Parkside was to include both offices and commercial businesses, such as apparel stores, fitness centers, gift shops, coffee shops, and restaurants.

The county has zoned 48 acres abutting Northwest Woods and the proposed Parkside residential development for office use.

But it has turned down the commercial core–for now.

Ross' policy map keeps the already zoned office land in that category, but it designates the remainder for mixed use development, which could include both residential and commercial uses.

Impact Of Overlay

Former Oconee County Commissioner Chuck Horton asked Ross to clarify the impact of an overlay district, which would be placed on top of current zoning laws.

While Ross had said one of his goals was to “protect” residential neighborhoods, he conceded that the overlay district would not prevent any land owner from asking the Board of Commissioners to rezone property in a way that was inconsistent with his overlay land use categories.

Horton said it then was simply a matter of a majority of the commissioners voting for a rezone, just as it is today.

Ross conceded that the overlay district did not restrict the commissioners.

Commercial Implications

Ross didn’t say this, but the overlay district would be a kind of prezoning of property, such as for those lots along Old Mars Hill Road, making it easier for a property owner to seek rezoning consistent with the overlay classification.

Back in January, when the BOC began its open discussion of an overlay district for the Mars Hill Road corridor, county Long-Range Planning Director Wayne Provost told the commissioners that the increased traffic on a widened Mars Hill road will make the corridor much more attractive for commercial development.

He said congestion on the road had slowed down development to date.

That congestion will be pronounced this week, weather allowing.

GDOT Announcement

GDOT announced this morning that the plan is to set beams for the Barber Creek bridge on Wednesday and Thursday.

“We expect the beams setting to start about 10:30 a.m. and continue until 4 p.m.," the press release said. “Major delays are expected along Mars Hill Road.”

One lane of traffic over the existing bridge will be closed while the custom-made beams are put into place.

During most of the time, traffic will be allowed across the bridge one direction at a time, guided by flaggers.

Traffic will be completely stopped for about 10 minutes when each beam is set.

“Please avoid this section of Mars Hill Road if possible Wednesday and Thursday,” the news release quotes Brent Cook, Georgia DOT District Engineer serving Oconee County, as saying.

Video Of Meeting

The next meeting open to the public for discussion of the Mars Hill Road corridor is set for 7 p.m. on Sept. 17 at Veterans Park.

The full video of last Thursday’s meeting at the Community Center in Veterans Park is below.

OCO: Mars Hill Overlay Meeting 8 13 15 from Lee Becker on Vimeo


Beanne said...

Development, development, development. Do we ever not want development? Or do we continue to sacrifice quality of life for the dollar?

Anonymous said...

The dollar and the powerful always win.