Monday, January 18, 2021

Developer Of Proposed Shopping Center At Mars Hill Road And Oconee Connector Rejects Compromise On Access To Connector

***Also Dismisses Environmental Concerns***

The developer of a proposed shopping center at the intersection of Mars Hill Road and the Oconee Connector has rejected a compromise offered by the county’s planning staff regarding an entrance to the commercial complex off the Oconee Connector.

The county planning staff recommended that the proposed entrance allow only right-in and right-out traffic, rather than the complete signalized entrance the developer had sought.

At present, the 47-acre parcel does not have any access off the Connector.

In a letter sent to the county on Jan. 13, an engineer for Deferred Tax LLC of Lawrenceville, which is seeking to rezone the property for a major shopping center that would include a grocery store, likely a Publix, did not accept the compromise.

The engineer also rejected the planning staff recommendation that the number of driveways to the proposed shopping center off Mars Hill Road be reduced from the requested five to two. The engineer agreed to reduce the number of driveways to four.

Representatives of the developer also have dismissed a series of environmental concerns raised by citizens and by the planning staff of the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission about existing streams and wetlands on the property.

Opposition to the rezone has been strong, with Mars Hill Baptist Church, which owns property abutting the 47-acre tract, among others, voicing opposition to the plan proposed by Deferred Tax.

The rezone request by Deferred Tax is scheduled to be considered by the Oconee County Planning Commission after a public hearing at 7 p.m. on Tuesday and then go to the Board of Commissioners for a second hearing and decision on Feb. 2.

Reports And Delay

The rezone request originally was to be before the Planning Commission at its December meeting, but Deferred Tax asked for a postponement of the public hearings after the county planning staff and the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission planning staff issued their reports.

The county planning staff said the proposed full, signalized entrance, about half-way between the Oconee Connector and the Mars Hill Road/Daniells Bridge Road intersection, was not appropriate.

The Development of Regional Impact report of the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission, was harsher.

Labeled Rezone Map
Properties In Red With Current Zoning

Noting that the proposal calls for the addition of 13,430 new trips per day, the planners said “this many local trips next to a regional road like GA-316 risks degrading the performance of GA-316 as an efficient, high-speed connection between Athens and Atlanta.”

“Adding congestion-inducing local trips to this regional artery is not recommended,” the planners wrote.

Engineer Response

In the Jan. 13 memorandum to the county, Abdul K. Amer, of A&R Engineering Inc. of Marietta, said the full interchange, rather than the restricted right-in, right-out interchange proposed by the county, “is appropriate at this proposed access to the shopping center and can be safely accommodated.”

Based on our analysis,” Amer wrote, “the proposed traffic signal should not impact operations of adjacent intersections as queues do not extend from one intersection to another.”

Amer acknowledged uncertainty about the proposed entrance because the Oconee Connector is proposed to be elevated in the near future to fly over SR 316.

“Any proposed road grade changes at the proposed site driveway can be handled by GDOT project in a manner similar to any other driveway on the corridor including the driveway across from the proposed site driveway,” Amer wrote.

Sembler Corporation of Florida, the developer of the proposed shopping center, has submitted maps showing the proposed entrance across from the existing entrance to the now-abandoned fire station. That property has been sold and is planned for development as a hotel complex.

“Given the roadway frontage on Mars Hill Road for Phase 1 and the fact that we will not be violating any county ordinances with respect to driveway spacing standards,” Amer wrote. “I believe restricting the number of access points to only two is not warranted.”

History Of Connector Access

Access to the Deferred Tax property from the Oconee Connector has been requested before.

The Georgia Department of Transportation turned down a request for a "cut" to the Deferred Tax property off the Oconee Connector when it approved final plans for construction the widening of the Connector and Mars Hill Road from SR 316 to Butler’s Crossing.

Jamie Boswell, who is listing the Deferred Tax property through the company that bears his name, met back in 2014 with Oconee County officials along with Maxie Price, the principal of Deferred Tax, 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.

Moreland Altobelli Associates Inc. of Norcross, which did the design work for the project, already had rejected the request before the 2014 meeting, and nothing changed after that meeting.

Amer indirectly acknowledged that history in his Jan. 13 memorandum.

“It is our understanding that this road will be a county-maintained roadway in the near future and therefore the County will have jurisdiction to make the decision relative to access to the Oconee Connector,” he said.

Amer said “Allowing left out movement here with the help of a traffic signal will relieve significant potential congestion that will otherwise be created at adjacent intersection of Mars Hill Road.”

The full access, he wrote, also will “ minimize truck movements at proposed driveways from the project to Mars Hill Road.”

Stream Buffer

Sembler Corporation, a shopping center developer out of St. Petersburg, Fla., is the actual developer of the project and is serving as an agent for Publix Supermarkets Inc., based in Lakeland, Fla., in seeking water and wetland permits.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers granted a provisional 404 permit on July 31 to Publix Supermarkets Inc. and the Sembler Corporation to dredge and pipe the tributary of Barber Creek that flows through the property.

That permit was conditional on the Georgia Environmental Protection Division granting a 401 permit, which the Georgia Environmental Protection Division granted on Nov. 4.

Sembler and Publix still need a variance from the Watershed Protection Division to encroach within the 25-foot state water buffer for the stream.

Citizen Comments

Local citizens sent comments to the Environmental Protection Division during its open period, and Laura Benz, of Benz Environmental Consulting LLC of Peachtree City, filed a 14-page response on Jan. 5.

“The Applicant has committed to preserve and avoid impacts to aquatic resources where feasible,” Benz wrote at one point. “Given the site’s topographic relief, it is not feasible to preserve the intermittent channels within the center of the site due to the required grading.”

Vicki Soutar, chair of Upper Oconee Watershed Network (UOWN) Oconeewaters, wrote to the EPD noting that Barber Creek already is impaired.

“The factors which have resulted in Barber Creek being impaired will not be increased or impacted by the proposed project,” Benz wrote.

The planning staff of the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission also had addressed the stream and wetlands on the property.

“Any development plan for this site should seek to preserve this stream as much as possible,” the report states. “For example, the stream could be preserved as greenspace or usable parkland with trails and footbridges.”

“The NEGRC recommends that the buildings be clustered along a walkable main street or organized around a central square of parkland that would protect the stream and provide some walkability and a sense of place within the site,” the report continues.

(I was a co-signer of a comment submitted to the EPD on behalf of Friends of Barber Creek, which I founded and for which I am past-president.)

Citizen Response

Residents of Bond Crossing subdivision have organized in opposition to the proposal, using the name Mars Hill Responsible Development, and created a petition to oppose the rezone request. Jennifer Walker, 1201 DaAndra Drive, is serving as the contact person.

Bond Crossing lies along DaAndra Drive, which would be opposite one of the proposed entrances to the shopping center activated in the second phase of the development.

As of Sunday evening, the petition was showing that 660 people signed in opposition to the project.

Rick Brittain, pastor, Mars Hill Baptist Church, sent an email message to Guy Herring, director of Planning and Code Enforcement for Oconee County, raising a number of concerns with the proposal.

Brittain thanked Herring for meeting with him and former Board of Commissioners Chair Melvin Davis on Dec. 3 to discuss the project. Davis is a member and former deacon of the church.

The project will create traffic problems for the church, Brittain said, and he asks that “the county reduce the traffic flow in front of the church as much as possible, including not allowing the proposed entrance/exit that is currently shown on the rezone concept plan directly across from DaAndra Drive, a street located directly adjacent to the church property.”

The church also wants the buffer between the church property and the shopping center expanded.

“We request that that proposed buffer be extended, so that it’s at least 30 to 50 feet along the church’s property,” Brittain wrote. .

“We also request that there be no fast food restaurants allowed on Mars Hill Road,” the pastor wrote. “The noise and traffic from fast food establishments would be very detrimental to the church’s conducting services and would also be extremely detrimental to the overall character of the surrounding neighborhood.”

“We would also appreciate the County not allowing any type business directly across the street from the front doors of the church,” he wrote.

Nature of Rezone Request

Deferred Tax is seeking to rezone three different pieces of property it purchased in 2006 for $8.5 million, according to county tax records. Currently the property is assessed at $2.5 million.

Concept Plans 1992 Rezone B-1 And R-1 Properties

At the time Deferred Tax purchased the property, two of the three lots already had been rezoned for business use. The third had been zoned for residential.

Deferred Tax is asking the county to combine the properties into a single tract to be zoned B-2 (Highway Business District) for development of a shopping center with a grocery store as the main tenant and for retail, restaurant and hotel uses.

The 6.8 acre property at the corner of Mars Hill Road and the Connector was rezoned to B-2 use in 1988 for a shopping center.

The 26.8 acre property with frontage on both the Connector and Mars Hill Road was rezone to B-1 in 1992 for a commercial planned unit commercial development.

The 13.2 acres that fronts only on Mars Hill Road was rezoned R-2 in 1992 for development of a 15-lot single family subdivision.

Concept Plans In Place

If the county were to turn down the request of Deferred Tax, Price could develop the property using the plans in place from the earlier rezones.

In fact, no actual concept plan exists for the 1988 rezone. The zoning ordinance merely says the use will be as a “shopping center.”

SR 316 was not completed when any of the rezones was done, and the Oconee Connector did not exist.

The other two tracts were rezoned together in 1992, and the main entrances to both the residential and the commercial property were off Mars Hill Road.

The 1992 concept plan for the B-1 property shows a roadway connecting Mars Hill Road and Virgil Langford Road.

The uses outlined in the plan are offices, warehouses, a single fast food restaurant, and a convenience store.

Meeting Format

The Planning Commission is a citizen advisory group that makes recommendations to the Board of Commissioners.

It will meet in person in the Commission Chamber in the Courthouse in Watkinsville, though some members may be connected remotely.

Citizen access to the room will be limited because of COVID-19, and citizens are being encouraged to participate remotely via Zoom.

Procedures for remote access are described HERE.

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