The Oconee County Planning Commission voted 8 to 0 on Tuesday night to recommend to the Board of Commission that it deny the rezone request for a major shopping center at the intersection of Mars Hill Road and the Oconee Connector.
The Commission took its vote after a relatively short discussion following a public hearing in which citizens voiced strong opposition to the project, raising concerns about the environmental impact of the project and about traffic created by it.
Much of the discussion that did take place focused on the proposed main entrance to the shopping center off the Oconee Connector
Kevin Letch, senior development manager for the Sembler Company of St. Petersburg, Fla., told the Commission that his company did not accept the Oconee County planning staff recommendation that the entrance be limited to right-in, right-out traffic and that he wants a full intersection with a traffic signal.
Grace B. Tuschak, senior planner with the county, had forwarded to the members of the Planning Commission late on Thursday an email message from Georgia Department of Transportation District Traffic Engineer Jason Dykes, rejecting the Sembler proposal.
In response to questions from members of the Commission, Guy Herring, director of Planning and Code Enforcement, confirmed that the Georgia Department of Transportation had concluded that the Sembler proposal is inconsistent with the state’s plans to elevate the Connector to fly over SR 316.
The Commission’s recommendation for denial now goes to the Oconee County Board of Commissioners, which is scheduled to make is decision at its meeting on Feb. 2.
In completely unrelated news, the county is now seeking a new Director of Elections and Registration following the resignation on Friday of Fran Leathers, who will become customer service manager for Dominion Voting Systems, the Denver company that provided the voting equipment introduced in Georgia for the 2020 elections.
The Public Hearing on the request of Deferred Tax LLC for a rezone of just less than 47 acres between SR,. 316 and Mars Hill Road at the Oconee Connector was held at the Courthouse in Watkinsville, but only two of the nine Commission members was present: Chair Brad Tucker and Commission Member Chuck Hunt.
Deferred Tax, whose principal is Maxie Price of Lawrenceville, is asking the county to consolidate zoning on three separate parcels to a consistent B-2 Highway Business zone.
|Letch Of Sembler Company|
In response to a question from Planning Commission Member Steven Strickland, Letch said Publix is under contract to purchase 10 acres from Price for the store that would anchor that first phase.
Letch also said that Publix has no intent to close “any of its stores” in the area. At present, Publix has nearby stores in Butler’s Crossing and on the Atlanta Highway.
Letch said no contracts have been signed for the hotels, restaurants, or car showroom shown on the concept plan.
No one other than Letch and an engineer he called in remotely to comment spoke in favor of the proposal, but seven citizens spoke against the project.
Vicki Soutar, 1091 Castle Drive, outside Watkinsville, was the first to speak in opposition. Soutar is chair of Upper Oconee Watershed Network (UOWN) Oconeewaters, and she said the project would have negative environmental impact on Barber Creek.
Eleanor Cotton, 1103 Nona Drive, representing Friends of Barber Creek, also focused on the impact of the proposal to fill and pipe much of the tributary of Barber Creek that flows through the property.
Jennifer Walker, 1201 DaAndra Drive, speaking on behalf of a group calling itself Mars Hill Responsible Development, focused on the negative impact of the project on the Bond Crossing subdivision that lies along DaAndra Drive.
Chris Herring, 1291 DaAndra Drive, brought the focus to traffic. Herring said he is an engineer, and he said the traffic studies done on behalf of Deferred Tax were “inadequate.”
The proposed shopping center would adversely affect traffic flow on roads feeding into Mars Hill Road as well as on Mars Hill Road itself, Chris Herring said.
When the hearing had finished, Planning Commission Member Mike Floyd asked Planning and Code Enforcement Director Herring to comment on the email message from the Georgia Department of Transportation forwarded to the Planning Commission last week.
“The project team discussed the proposed development on the Oconee Connector at SR 316 this morning,” Dykes from GDOT had written in the email forwarded to the Planning Commission at 5:01 p.m. on Jan. 14.
“It was determined by the team that the existing median opening on the Oconee Connector would be closed due to the proximity of the proposed ramp signal,” Dyke said, referring to the planned flyover of SR 316.
At present, the median is cut, and Sembler is proposing that a full intersection with a traffic light be at that break in the median.
“As a compromise, the proposed full access drive will be allowed as a right-in right-out drive even though this area would typically be inside the limited access foot print for the interchange,” Dykes continued.
“The developer will need to submit to the project manager a revised traffic impact study showing these changes as well as how it will impact the existing signal at the intersection of Mars Hill Rd. and the Oconee Connector,” Dykes said.
Herring told me in an email on Tuesday that he had sought input from GDOT because of the right of way it holds adjoining the proposed project, some of which was purchased when SR 316 was built in anticipation of improvements to the intersection at some point in the future.
Letch and Abdul K. Amer, of A&R Engineering Inc. of Marietta, commenting remotely, said they would not agree to the county planning staff stipulation that the main entrance only allow right-in and right-out traffic.
They also said the county’s proposed changes restricting the number and types of entrances to the project on Mars Hill Road were unacceptable.
Leathers turned in her letter resigning from her position as director of Elections and Registration on Friday, but she will continue to serve in her current role until Feb. 5.
She will begin her new role with Dominion on Feb. 16, she said in a telephone conversation on Tuesday morning.
Leathers has been with the Board of Elections and Registration for more than 13 years and has served as director since March of 2018. She replaced Pat Hayes when Hayes retired.
Leathers said she was approached by Dominion about the new job.
“It is sad,” she said about leaving the current job, “but at the same time I am excited for the opportunity to do something different and still be working in elections.”
I have embedded below two videos of the meeting.
Aaron Nowak attended the Planning Commission meeting and recorded the first video below at my request.
I recorded the second video from Zoom from my home.
The first video shows better what is happening in the room. The second video shows better what is happening remotely.
The Deferred Tax rezone is the first item on the agenda.