The members of the Oconee County Board of Commissioners will be in the uncomfortable position on Tuesday evening of having to decide if a fellow commissioner should be allowed to rezone his agricultural property for commercial development.
The three voting commissioners have good reasons to turn down the request by Commissioner William “Bubber” Wilkes.
And the Planning Commission gave a mixed vote of endorsement after Wilkes made a tearful plea to be allowed to develop his property.
The Wilkes rezone request is one of two on the agenda on Tuesday night.
The commissioners also are being asked to set aside a historical preservation overlay district that has been in existence since 1968 to protect the county’s iconic Elder Mill Bridge.
On Tuesday night Wilkes almost certainly will be asked to recuse himself, leaving the fate of his request in the hands of Commissioners John Daniell, Jim Luke and Mark Saxon.
Commission Chairman Melvin Davis only votes in the case of a tie–something that won’t happen unless another of the Commission members doesn’t attend the meeting or somehow decides not to participate in the vote.
At the Planning Commission meeting on Oct. 19, Wilkes made a personal plea for the rezone, saying “This is my 401(k), folks.” The reference is to a common tax-qualified, defined-contribution pension account.
Wilkes has spent most of his life as a farmer and would be unlikely to have a substantial, actual 401(k) plan.
Wilkes told the Planning Commission he would “like to do it (rezone the land) so we can enjoy our lives a little bit better.”
The Planning Commission, which is appointed by the Board of Commissioners, only makes recommendations to the commissioners.
Wilkes is seeking to rezone six acres of land on Old Greensboro Road south of Watkinsville from A-1 (Agriculture) to O-B-P (Office-Business Park) for a Commercial Parking Lot and Garage Facility/Indoor Mini-Warehouse and Self-Service Storage Facility.
He also is asking for a special use to allow for the facility in an O-B-P zone.
Following the appeal by Wilkes, the Planning Commission voted 5-3 to recommend to the Board of Commissioners that the rezone be approved.
In a second vote on the special use permit–which is needed to operate the facility–the Planning Commission voted 4 to 4, and Planning Commission Chairman Dan Arnold broke the tie by voting to recommend the special use.
Elder Mill Overlay
James A. Flanagan on Tuesday is asking the Board of Commissioners to remove the Scenic Preservation Overlay District from the 23 acres he owns on the east side of Elder Mill Road south of the Elder Mill Bridge over Rose Creek.
Flanagan, 420 Milledge Terrace in Athens, is not asking to change the actual agricultural zoning of the property but only to remove the overlay district.
In the narrative for the application, Flanagan does not explain why he is requesting the change, but Norm Grayson, the real estate agent representing Flanagan, said at the Oct. 19 Planning Commission meeting that the overlay is preventing Flanagan from selling his property.
“I don’t understand how you can take a man’s property and still charge him taxes. It just doesn’t work,” Grayson said. “I’m of the opinion the overlay was a mistake.”
The Oconee County Planning Commission discussed creating the overlay district in 1967 to preserve and protect the Elder Mill Covered Bridge, according to documents presented by the Planning Department.
The property has been zoned with a combination of A-1 (Agricultural) and S-P (Scenic Preservation Overlay District, formerly known as A-3 - Agricultural Preservation) since the adoption of zoning in Oconee County on May 7, 1968, according to the staff report.
On May 5, 1994, the Elder Mill Covered Bridge and Elder Mill located north of the Flanagan property were listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Portions of the subject property are included within the boundary of the area designated for the National Register of Historic Places, according to the staff report.
Speakers At Hearing
Russ Page, who has been active in historic preservation in the county, including of the Elder Mill, which is on Rose Creek opposite the property owned by Flanagan, spoke against the request for a removal of the overlay district at the Planning Commission meeting.
Page was joined by Melissa Steele, who lives south of the bridge on a tributary to Rose Creek.
Flanagan said “the bridge itself has nothing to do with my property.”
Joe Earley, who has the Flanagan property under contract, spoke in favor of the change.
Earley told the Planning Commission he does not intend to build on the property at present but rather to hold it as an investment. He said he does want flexibility in deciding where to locate a house on the property at some point in the future.
The Planning Department staff recommended against removal of the overlay, saying that action “would be incompatible with the other properties located adjacent to the Elder Mill Covered Bridge.”
The staff report states that “This request to remove the S-P (Scenic Preservation Overlay District) is not consistent with established land use patterns around the Elder Mill Covered Bridge.
|Minutes of May 7, 1968, BOC Meeting Beginning Zoning|
(Click To Enlarge)
“All of the properties within the view-shed of the Elder Mill Covered Bridge are located in the Scenic Preservation Overlay District,” according to that report.
“The subject property is significantly within the view-shed of the Elder Mill Covered Bridge,” the report states.
Vote To Deny
The permitted uses in the overlay district, according to the zoning ordinance approved by the BOC in 1968 and still in place, include “agricultural pursuits” excluding “poultry houses and feedlots.”
The owner also is allowed to make “improvements or other efforts to preserve or restrict existing structures of facilities in conformance with the special character of the area.”
Since the property owner is not proposing to make any changes, leaving the overlay in place does not place any hardship on the owner, the staff report states.
The Planning Commission voted 5 to 3 to recommend to the Board of Commissioners denial of the request for removal of the overlay.
Bridge And Mill
The May 5, 1994, National Register of Historic Places record lists both the Elder Mill Covered Bridge and Elder Mill itself, just downstream on Rose Creek from the bridge, as historical properties.
The bridge was built in 1897 by Nathaniel Richardson using the Town Lattice design, according to that document, and originally crossed Calls Creek on what is now SR 15 north of Watkinsville.
The bridge was disassembled, moved and reassembled in its present location in 1924.
The grist mill, which is privately owned, is located about 100 yards east of the current location of the bridge and was used to grind both wheat and corn, according to the National Park Service document.
Originally, the road passed in front of the mill, but the road was relocated in 1924 to accommodate the covered bridge, the document states.
No one spoke at the hearing on the two requests by Wilkes for the rezone of his property.
While Wilkes is the property owner and the one seeking the rezone of the six acres, the plan is for Ted Evans Jr. of Watkinsville Storage to develop the property.
The facility is to include a secure automobile commercial parking lot and garages for recreational vehicles and boats, according to the project narrative.
It also will include mini-warehouses and self-storage units, including indoor units that will be climate controlled, the narrative states.
The project's office and leasing will be handled remotely via Watkinsville Storage's existing facility, 67 Greensboro Highway (SR 15) in the industrial park in Watkinsville, according to the narrative.
In December of 2014, Evans and the owners of a property at the corner of New High Shoals Road and Union Church Road withdrew a request for a rezone of that property for a similar storage facility.
They took that action following a negative recommendation of the Planning Commission on the rezone request.
That vote came after critical comments by a room full of citizens in attendance at the public hearing on the rezone.
Planning Commission members at the Oct. 19 meeting, despite their positive vote, raised many of the same concerns as did citizens at that hearing last year
Issues And Answers
Planning Commissioner members asked about light pollution, onsite security, the availability of restrooms, the availability of a waste dump, and the possibility of waste leakage from the recreation vehicles.
Evans said there would be no restrooms, no onsite security other than video cameras, and no waste dump.
Jon Williams of Williams and Associates, representing Evans and Wilkes, said the county’s code would restrict light pollution.
Evans said he would explore the possibility of penalizing owners whose vehicles caused a problem of leakage.
Video Of Meeting
The meeting of the Board of Commissioners on Tuesday will begin at 7 p.m. at the Courthouse in Watkinsville.
The Planning Commission meeting on Oct. 19 also took place at the Courthouse.
I was not able to attend the Planning Commission meeting, but Russ Page did, as noted above, and video recorded the meeting for me.
The video below is of the entire meeting, beginning with the Flanagan rezone request and followed by the rezone request by Wilkes.
Discussion of the Wilkes rezone starts just after 25 minutes into the 52-minute-long video.