Monday, March 02, 2020

Life Church Of Athens Going Before Oconee County Board Of Commissioners After Positive Vote From Planning Commission

***Scaled Back Proposal For New Church***

Life Church of Athens, confronting vocal opposition from potential future neighbors in Summit Oaks and Summit Grove subdivisions, scaled back its plans for a community-scale church to a neighborhood-scale church.

At the Planning Commission meeting last month, many neighbors continued to object to the plans, focusing largely on traffic that even the smaller church will put onto Summit Grove Drive as it intersects with SR 15 (North Main Street) just north of Watkinsville.

The Planning Commission was unpersuaded, voting 6 to 1 to recommend that the Board of Commissioners approve the church’s request for the special use permit it needs for the project.

Staff of the Oconee County Planning and Code Enforcement Department also had recommended approval of the project.

On Tuesday night, the Board of Commissioners is scheduled to hold another public hearing on the Life Church of Athens request at its regular 6 p.m. meeting at the Courthouse in Watkinsville.

The agenda for that meeting is relatively light, though the Board will consider again the $60,000 in new fees Oconee County Schools is asking the county Parks and Recreation Department to pay for use of school athletic facilities.

The Board of Education meets at 6 p.m. on Monday at the Superintendent’s Office on School Street in Watkinsville, where the recreation facility fees may come up for discussion.

Planning Commission Meeting

The Feb. 17 meeting of the Planning Commission was a sometimes tense one, with some of those who spoke accusing the Planning Commission of not being sensitive to their concerns when it voted in November to recommend approval of the earlier request by Life Church of Athens.

Carter Before Planning Commission 2/17/2020

I counted 37 people in the Commission Chamber when the Planning Commission held its public hearing on the Life Church request. Several other people were in the hall outside the room.

Three people spoke in favor of the scaled back request by Life Church of Athens, and five spoke against.

Included among those who spoke in opposition was Jeff Benko, 1391 Summit Drive, who said he “took offense” at part of the presentation by Jeff Carter of Carter Engineering, who was representing the interests of the church.

Benko, former country administrator and finance director, said Carter’s suggestion that a three-building office complex could go where the church is proposing to build “is not a serious comment.”

Conflict also arose within the Planning Commission during the discussion of the proposal.

Maria Caudill, who took over as chair in January, attempted to get Commission members to speak in order as she called on them for comment and questions regarding the proposal.

Commission Member Chuck Hunt refused to abide by that rule and, at one point, got into a brief argument with members of the audience about the office building. He also said he “didn’t appreciate” Benko asking a question about the maximum square footage of the church.

Life Church Proposal

Life Church of Athens, now located at 120 Ware Street in Athens, wants to move to the nearly nine-acre parcel at the intersection of Summit Oaks Drive and Summit Grove Drive.

The property is owned by Dwight R. Moss, of Hayesville, N.C., and was rezoned for Office Institutional Professional (OIP) use in 1987 when it fronted on U.S. 441.

U.S. 441 was shifted to the west when the bypass of Watkinsville was built, and the Moss property now fronts on what is called Summit Grove Drive, a stub of the old U.S. 441.

Moss is seeking the special use of the property so Life Church of Athens can purchase it and build its planned 30,000 square-foot sanctuary and chapel.

Life Church Of Athens could build the church by right in an OIP zone, but the special use is needed because it will front on what is now a local road–Summit Grove Drive.

The church proposes to have two entrances on Summit Grove Drive, including at what is now the dead end of that road.

Change Of Plans

On Dec. 3 of 2019, after the positive vote of the Planning Commission but before the public hearing and vote by the Board of Commissioners, Life Church of Athens withdrew its application for a special use for a community-scale church.

“We heard from the residential properties surrounding us and, really, the church kind of wanted to take a step back and say, Is this something we really want to do?” Carter said in his comments before the Planning Commission on Feb. 17.

“Is the scale appropriate?” Carter continued. “Those types of questions, because they want to fit into the community.”

As a result, Carter said, the church scaled back the project from a 40,000-square-foot facility to the 30,000-square foot facility, reduced the number of parking spaces from 280 to 200, and removed the proposed amphitheater and the recreational fields.

Carter also said that the current county code allowed for an office building of 150,000 square feet in size with 500 parking spaces with the existing OIP code.

One Exit

Residents who live along Summit Oaks Drive, Summit Drive and Summit Circle have only one way to exit their properties–via Summit Grove Drive and then SR 15 (North Main Street).

Commission Members Hunt, Brian Fosen, Green, Caudill

Google Maps shows 70 lots along these three roads, with most of them having a house built on them.

Carter presented two photographs of the property, one he said was from 1994, before the U.S. 441 bypass was built, and one from now.

The photographs show that the Moss property formerly was on a major highway that now has been cut off by the the new road.

The question has been raised about the capacity of Summit Grove Drive, Carter said.

“Capacity of the road is actually fine,” he said.

“This is not a small, residential type street,” Carter said. “It is an old state route.” It has 80 foot wide right of way, he added, so improvements can be made within the existing right of way.

Life Church of Athens Pastor Nolan Wood, 3120 Ryland Hills Drive, east of Watkinsville, was one of the three speakers in favor of the proposals. The two others persons who spoke in favor identified themselves as church members.

Audience Response

Carter’s description of Summit Grove Drive produced verbal objections from the audience.

Steve Edwards, 1340 Summit Drive, was the first of those who spoke in opposition to the Life Church Of Athens proposal, saying he didn’t want to be living in a construction zone for the next 10 years.

Jonathan Eggenschwiler, 1140 Summit Circle, focused on traffic.

“All of this is about roads,” Eggenschwiler said. “End of story. It is just about the roads. We have no concern with the church. We are happy to have churches in our neighborhood. Many of us in this community are believers.”

“Yes, at one point this had been a highway,” he said. “It is a two-lane highway, but the elephant in the room is that it is a dead end road.”

“It will, according to the current plan, remain as a dead end with one and only one point of access,” he said. “The only way we can get in and out of our homes is that road.”

Planning Commission member Scott Green cast the only negative vote on the recommendation for approval sent forward to the Board of Commissioners.

Other Issues On Agenda

The Board of Commissioners on Tuesday also will consider a request of Alan and Elizabeth Stewart to allow for a second vehicular access to their property at 1070 Campbellton Place off Hickery Hill Drive east of Watkinsville.

Kimberly Arnold and Kelly Hughes are seeking a variance to allow them to reduce the rear setback for their property at 1150 Two Oaks Drive in the Tanglebrook subdivision off Epps Bridge Parkway.

At the Board of Commissioners meeting last week, Lisa Davol, director of Oconee County Parks and Recreation Department, asked the Board to approve a $20 increase in the fee for tackle football starting in April.

Davol said the request was the result of Oconee County Schools increasing fees for use of the school system’s sports facilities by the county.

Commissioner Chuck Horton said he wanted another chance to discuss the request before voting to approve the fee increase, and the item in on the agenda for the meeting on Tuesday night.


The video below is of the entire meeting of the Oconee County Planning Commission on Feb. 17, 2020.

Discussion of the Life Church of Athens request begins at 3:43 in the video.

The Life Church of Athens was the only item on the agenda.

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