Wednesday, December 09, 2020

Access To Oconee Connector A Central Issue In Rezone Request For Proposed Mars Hill Road Shopping Center

***Planning Staff Recommends Changes In Concept Plan***

A shopping center needs entrances, and Sembler Corporation, a shopping center developer out of St. Petersburg, Fla., has proposed that its planned $50 million commercial center at the corner of Mars Hill Road and the Oconee Connector have six.

The main entrance that is proposed is off the Oconee Connector, about half way between SR 316 and the Connector’s intersection with Mars Hill Road and Daniells Bridge Road.

Property owner Deferred Tax LLC, which is seeking approval from the county for its plans, has said it will seek permission from the state to install a traffic light that will allow traffic from all directions to enter and leave the shopping center.

Sembler and Deferred Tax LLC, whose contact is Maxie Price of Lawrenceville, propose that the shopping center have five additional entrances off Mars Hill Road in the short distance between the Mars Hill Road/Oconee Connecter intersection and DaAndra Drive.

The final entrance, considered to be a secondary main entrance, would be opposite DaAndra Drive, which connects to Rocky Branch Road and runs through the Bond Crossing subdivision.

For these plans to work, Deferred Tax and Sembler need the approval of the Oconee County Board of Commissioners and the Georgia Department of Transportation, which retains control over the segment of the Oconee Connector and Mars Hill Road from the Connector to Butler’s Crossing.

GDOT turned down the request for access–a "cut"--to the Deferred Tax property off the Oconee Connector once before, when it approved final plans for construction of the widened roadway.

Jamie Boswell, who is listing the property through the company that bears his name, met back in 2014 with Oconee County officials along with Price to try to get those plans changed before construction began.

Boswell also is this area’s (Congressional District 10's) representative on the state Transportation Board, which oversees GDOT.

Opposition has emerged to the shopping center proposal, led by a group of residents of Bond Crossing, and the first public hearing on the request will be at 7 p.m. on Monday at the Oconee County Planning Commission, which is a citizen advisory body that makes recommendations to the Board of Commissioners.

Control Of Road

Oconee County turned over control of the Oconee Connector and Mars Hill Road from SR 316 to Butler’s Crossing before construction began in late 2014.

Corner of Mars Hill Road And Oconee Connector

By allowing the road to become a state route, the county transferred to the state most of the costs of widening a two-lane country road to what it is today.

The plan was for the state to transfer back responsibility for the road to the county once construction was complete, but, so far, that has not happened.

As a result, at present the decision on a traffic light and on the “cut” to allow access to the Deferred Tax property rests initially with the state.

County Attorney Daniel Haygood told me in an email message on Dec. 4 that while “It would be up to GDOT to approve the cut,” the county retains final control of the access because it “would also have to approve it as part of the concept plan” for the rezone.

Public Works Director Jody Woodall said that same day that “Technically, GDOT still has ownership of the Connector at this location as they are still closing out the widening project.”

Woodall added that GDOT officials “typically refer back to us for the access questions.”

2014 Meeting

Then Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chair Melvin Davis set up–but did not attend--a meeting on Nov. 3, 2014, which took place at the Oconee County Public Works office in the Government Annex on SR 15 south of Watkinsville.

Then Public Works Director Emil Beshara, Boswell, Price, an attorney for Price, Haygood, and then county Administrative Officer Jeff Benko attended the meeting.

Benko had told Beshara in advance in a text message that the purpose of the meeting was the “feasibility of turn in to price property off Mars hill.”

Benko said he knew that the median cut already had been discussed with Moreland Altobelli Associates Inc. of Norcross, which did the design work for the project, and was rejected.

Haygood said after the meeting that discussion at the meeting focused on a condemnation action the county had undertaken with Price over right of way for the project.

A median cut does exist opposite where Price was requesting the cut to his property because of a cut on the opposite side of the connector to the now-abandoned fire station, which has moved to Virgil Langford Road.

Staff Report

Deferred Tax LLC is asking for a rezone of three parcels totaling just less than 47 acres that would include a grocery store, a gas station with convenience store, and a bank in its initial phase.

Drone Shot Of Mars Hill Road And Oconee Connector

In a second phase, the project concept plan shows restaurants, hotels, retail outlets, and an auto dealership.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers granted a provisional permit on July 31 to Publix Supermarkets Inc. and the Sembler Corporation to dredge and fill a tributary of Barber Creek that flows through the property.

The planning staff, in its staff report, has recommended approval of the project, but it lists 20 suggested conditions.

Condition 13 states that the main entranceway on the Connector “shall be restricted to right-in right-out only, and a southbound dedicated right turn lane into the development shall be installed.” Southbound refers to flow from SR 316 to the direction of Watkinsville.

The five entrances along Mars Hill Road “shall be reduced to two full-access entrances and one right-in right-out entrance,” the staff recommends.

Additional Recommended Conditions

The staff is recommending that “one roundabout and one right-in right-out entrance to be installed during Phase I, and one roundabout to be installed during Phase II.

“For the entirety of the project’s frontage along Mars Hill Road, Mars Hill Road shall be upgraded to county street design standards for arterial roads,” according to the staff recommendation.

The staff also is recommending that a roundabout be installed at the intersection of the two interior private drives in Phase II of the development.

It also recommends that no “fast food restaurants with drive-through windows shall be permitted along Mars Hill Road.”

The staff says “An internal sidewalk network shall connect all uses within the development to sidewalks along Oconee Connector and Mars Hill Road. Pedestrian connectivity shall be provided throughout the development, including raised decorative crosswalks.”

Staff also recommends that “Pedestrian facilities shall be provided connecting the development to DaAndra Drive and Hollow Creek Lane.”

Flyover Plans

GDOT currently is doing engineer working to create a multi-grade intersection of SR 316 and the Oconee Connector, but neither the staff report nor the rezone narrative submitted by Deferred Tax LLC reference this work.

According to the GDOT web site, the project is currently in design stage, and construction is scheduled for 2024 to 2027. The project is being funded with state, rather than federal funds, and $4.3 million is listed as having been budgeted in 2019.

Planning documents indicated the Connector would be closed during construction.

In addition the MACORTS Policy Committee voted on Oct. 14, at the request of GDOT, to move engineering work for a multi-grade intersection at Jimmy Daniell Road and SR 316 into the Fiscal Year 21-24 Transportation Improvement Program. Construction is tentatively scheduled for 2027.

Madison Athens-Clarke Oconee Regional Transportation Study (MACORTS) is one of 16 federally mandated metropolitan planning organizations in Georgia. The Jimmy Daniell Road improvements are to be federally funded.

The rezone narrative submitted by Deferred Tax LLC states that Phase I construction is to begin in July of 2021 and be completed by October of 2022.

Phase II construction is to be begin in August of 2022 and be completed by August of 2024.

Organized Opposition

Residents of Bond Crossing subdivision have started a group they are calling Mars Hill Responsible Development to oppose the rezone request.

DaAndra Drive And 
Mars Hill Road

The group has a petition on, a Facebook page, and a website.

Jennifer Walker, 1201 DaAndra Drive, is serving as the contact person.

Guy Herring, director of Planning and Code Enforcement for Oconee County, told me in an email message on Tuesday that the county is encouraging participation via Zoom for the public hearing scheduled to start at 7 p.m. on Monday.

The link for the meeting is on the Planning and Code Enforcement web page.

The meeting will take place in the Board of Commissioners Chamber at the Courthouse in Watkinsville. Those who wish to attend will be required to wear a mask and social distance, Herring said.

“Unfortunately the BOC Chamber is the only location set up for providing online broadcasting,” Herring said.

Barber Creek

I live on Barber Creek and am the founder and past president of Friends of Barber Creek.

I sent a letter to the Corps of Engineers last October asking the Corps to deny the 404 permit that was being requested by Publix and Sembler to dredge and fill the wetlands on the Deferred Tax LLC property.

I said the action being proposed would result in increased flooding of Barber Creek downstream from the proposed site, where I live.

My home is in Welbrook Farms subdivision off Daniells Bridge Road, and I drive the Oconee Connector frequently.

I joined a meeting via Zoom with Jennifer Walker, Ian Taylor, and Aaron Nowak, organizers of Mars Hill Responsible Development, on Dec. 3, to talk with them about what I had written previously about the property up for the rezone and to provide them with information about the zoning process generally.

I have not been involved in any of the other activities of the group.

Nowak did provide me with the video from which the drone shot above is taken. The labeling is my own.


Megan S. said...

What a great article with a good bit of history. I feel I have been brought up to speed. Thank you for taking the time to compose all of the pertinent information.

Lee Becker said...


I approved Megan S, but I ask all who comment to use a full and authentic name, either in the Google ID or by typing it at the end of the comment. I have another comment that I am not posting because no name at all was used.