The Oconee County Planning Commission Monday night voted 9 to 1 to recommend to the Board of Commissioners that it grant a special use permit to allow Life Church of Athens to build a community-scale church on just under nine acres at the corner of Summit Oaks Drive and Summit Grove Drive north of Watkinsville.
The Planning Commission took the action after a public hearing before an overflow crowd in the Board of Commissioners Chamber at the Courthouse during which neighbors complained about traffic problems and disruption of the neighborhood that the church would create.
Several citizens also spoke in favor, most of them associated with the church, which is now operating in Athens but is seeking to move to the Oconee County site. The property is east of the U.S. 441 bypass and north of Oconee County Fire Station Number 1 on SR 15 (North Main Street).
In other action, the Planning Commission voted 5 to 4 against a motion to deny a request from Lovett-Keller Ventures LLC to modify the style of homes in a subdivision to be built between Atlanta Highway and Thompson Street in Bogart.
The Oconee County planning staff had recommended denial of the request. The Commission did not vote to recommend approval.
That vote goes to the Bogart City Council, not to the Board of Commissioners, for final action.
Life Church Application
The application by Life Church of Athens for the special use permit came second on the agenda of the Planning Commission Monday night, but most of the overflow crowd was at the meeting for the public hearing on that request.
Dwight Moss of Hayesville, N.C., owns the property, which was zoned in 1987 OIP (Office Institutional Professional) to allow for the development of an office condominium park. The office park was never built, and the property is vacant and undeveloped.
Life Church of Athens needs a special use permit because of the scope of the church, labeled a community-scale church. The church currently is located a 120 Ware Street in Athens.
Life Church is proposing to build a 40,000-square foot building to house a fellowship hall, chapel, and classrooms.
The proposal also calls for a playground, outdoor classroom, courtyard, small pavilion and baptismal.
In addition, the church is proposing to build a multi-use athletic field and gathering space, including a small amphitheater, nature trails, and prayer gardens.
Access to the property would be off Summit Grove Drive. Construction would begin as church funds become available, with building over the next 10 or more years, according to documents submitted with the permit request.
Jeff Carter of Carter Engineering, 3651 Mars Hill Road in the west of the county, made the presentation to the Planning Commission on behalf of Life Church of Athens on Monday.
He was followed to the podium by Pastor Nolan Wood, 3120 Ryland Hills Drive, east of Watkinsville, who said he wants the church to be a "good neighbor" for the surrounding Summit Grove subdivision.
Planning Commission Chair Maria Caudill intermixed speakers in favor of or and opposed to the proposal.
In the end, five people spoke in favor, and 11 spoke in opposition.
The Summit Grove Homeowners Association had distributed fliers and used Facebook to urge neighbors to turn out in opposition.
I counted 120 people in the Commission Chamber, with at least 10 visible standing in the hallway outside.
Julie Mauck, 1110 Summit Circle Drive, in Summit Grove subdivision, said the proposed church "would be a great asset to that area.
"It is currently zoned commercial," she said, "and I would much rather see a church go in there than any other type of commercial or organization."
Jeff Benko, 1391 Summit Drive, also in Summit Grove subdivision, said "I am not personally opposed to the church. If there is ever a time in our history, we need more churches, but it needs to be in the right fit, the right location."
Benko, former country administrator and finance director, said his primary concern was with traffic, but he also had concerns about buffers, light pollution and storm water runoff.
Benko said that the Summit Grove subdivision was a conservation use subdivision "and everybody has three to five acres with a lot of trees."
"It's a beautiful setting," Benko said. "But you're going to change, with this special use variance request, you'll change that beauty and the aesthetics of that property and that whole area."
The Planning Commission did expand the buffer from the required 25 feet to 35 feet in the vote to recommend that the Board of Commissioners approve the rezone at its meeting on Dec. 3.
Stephen Lovett and Chad Keller of Gainesville and Oconee County respectively had sought to develop the 28.3 acres in Bogart as a commercial business park back in 2006.
When that proved to unsuccessful, they decided to develop a 37-lot, single-family residential subdivision and obtained a rezone for that purpose in 2016.
In that application, they submitted representative architectural renderings.
The Oconee County Planning and Code Enforcement Department rejected requests for permits for construction of the homes on the ground they did not match with the architectural renderings submitted for that 2016 rezone.
Specifically, the homes had front-facing garages, were built on slabs at ground level rather than elevated, and had modifications of the windows, Guy Herring, director of Planning and Code Enforcement for the county, told the Planning Commission.
Lovett and Keller had applied for residential sewer for the subdivision but were denied sewer capacity by the county. Subsequently, as part of a legal settlement, they have been granted access to county sewers.
The Planning Commission split 4 to 4 on a motion to deny the request, consistent with the staff recommendation. Caudill broke the tie by voting against the motion.
The video below is of the Nov. 11 meeting of the Planning Commission.
I did attend the meeting, but I arrived only a few minutes before it started because I was attending the meeting of the Oconee County Board of Education.
Sarah Bell had set up a camera and tripod before I arrived and recorded the video below.
Discussion of the Lovett-Keller request begins at 5:15 in the video.
The discussion of the Moss special use request begins at 54:20 in the video.
Pro: A church rather than some other use, such as shop-work.
Con: Traffic, sight buffers, and runoff.
Summit Grove, built in 1985, is a unique development with a significant number of high-value property tax payers. It would be a responsible use of authority to protect that milieu as intended.
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