In well-organized and coordinated presentations to the Oconee County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday evening, citizens in neighborhoods abutting the proposed Oconee Mercantile project on U.S. 441 said how they had relied on past county zoning decisions to protect their homes.
The proposed multi-use commercial development and accompanying relocation of The Stone Store not only would adversely affect their residential neighborhoods, they said, but they also would be contrary to what the county had promised with its past zoning decisions.
Specifically, Bill Hale, president of the Chaddwyck Home Owners Association, said the existing zoning guaranteed him and his neighbors a 100 foot buffer between his back yard and any future development, not the 75 being proposed.
Pamela Hall, representing Chaddwyck subdivisions and surrounding neighborhoods, said that she and her neighbors had been promised in a zoning decision back in 2009 that they would be protected from commercial development such as The Stone Store.
In 3 to 2 votes, the Board voted to change the current zoning to allow the mixed use Oconee Mercantile project to go forward and to move The Stone Store from its current location further north on U.S 441 and onto Chaddwyck Drive.
In a separate decision, the Board agreed to give The Stone Store a special use to allow it to store material outdoors on pallets, something it could not do in the business zone without that authorization.
The votes on the two rezones had Commissioners Chuck Horton and Amrey Harden siding with the residential neighbors and Commissioners Mark Saxon and Mark Thomas siding with the developer. Commission Chair John Daniell broke the ties in favor of the developer.
On the special use, granted after the rezone was approved, Harden voted with Thomas and Saxon in favor of the variance and Horton voted in the negative. The chair votes only in the case of a tie.
While neighbors had been organized in their presentations to the Oconee County Planning Commission at its public hearing on the rezone requests on Feb. 15, they were more tightly focused at the public hearing before the Board of Commissioners on Tuesday night.
Hale, who had been the sole speaker in opposition to the rezone of just more than 23 acres on U.S. 441 across from the Hog Mountain Road intersection for Oconee Mercantile before the Planning Commission, played the same role again Tuesday night.
Seven citizens had spoken in opposition to the move of The Stone Store at the Planning Commission, but Hall alone spoke on Tuesday. The Planning Commission recommended approval of the rezone for Oconee Mercantile but denial of the rezone for The Stone Store.
|Hale Before Commission|
Both Hale and Hall used the allotted 20 minutes on Tuesday night to spell out their positions with visuals as supplements. The presentations were well-rehearsed and detailed.
Hale said that he and his neighbors knew when they bought their homes that the undeveloped property adjoining their subdivision was zoned Industrial, but they also had seen on the county tax records that the county property appraiser had labeled the land as “undevelopable.”
In addition, Hale said, even with the Industrial zoning, they knew that their residential property would have a 100-foot buffer from development.
Hall said that the neighbors were opposed to the movement of The Stone Store from an Industrial zone to their residential neighborhood because it really is an industrial operation and it would create noise and dust that would negatively impacts their homes.
In addition, she said, the truck traffic to and from the site would create a traffic hazard.
Finally, Hall said, the county had rezoned the property opposite their homes as Office Institutional Professional in 2009 rather than grant a requested commercial zone to buffer them from commercial development.
Hall also said the rezone would have a domino effect resulting in commercial development stretching further north on U.S. 441.
First To Speak
The Commissioners held two separate public hearings for the two separate but related rezone requests, and developer David Mulkey as well as Scott Haines of W&A Engineering spoke first in explaining their plans for Oconee Mercantile and the relocated The Stone Store.
|Hall Before Commission|
Oconee Mercantile as proposed to include multiple retail shops, dining establishments, possibly a gym/fitness center or large office space, and, potentially, a brewery with event space, hotel, and/or daycare center.
The Oconee Mercantile proposal is to repurpose the Oconee State Bank building that sits on U.S. 441, making what is now the back of that building into its front.
The current site of The Stone Store will become the main entrance to the complex, which is shown with six new buildings joining the reconfigured bank building, which originally was a cushion factory.
Mulkey said Oconee Mercantile is designed as a destination.
“This is all about getting out of your cars and experiencing the greenspace between the buildings,” he said.
Seven citizens spoke in favor of the Oconee Mercantile proposal, focusing on the project’s value to the community and on Mulkey as a developer.
Mickey Wakenigg, owner of The Stone Store, plus three others spoke in favor The Stone Store rezone. The store provides a needed service in the community, they said.
The site of the proposed Oconee Mercantile before Tuesday’s meeting consisted of three different properties with two different zoning classifications.
|Site Plan With Original 50 Foot Buffer|
The property on which The Stone Store sits as well as acreage behind that store and the bank building was zoned Industrial.
The request approved by the Board changed the zoning category for all three properties to the Highway Business category.
The proposed new site for The Stone Store consists of part of the property currently zoned Industrial and another piece of property that currently is zoned Office Institutional Professional.
The rezone approved on Tuesday changes that property to Highway Business.
Buffer Central Issue
In both of the rezones, the buffer between the new use and the residential properties was the central issue.
The Planning Commission has recommended that buffer for the Oconee Mercantile property be expanded from 50 feet to 75 feet, but it allowed construction of a retaining wall within that 75 feet, essentially reducing the buffer to 65 feet.
Commission Saxon proposed that the actual buffer be extended to 75 feet, with nothing allowed inside it.
Mulkey said he would agree provided the Commission allow him to reduce the number of parking spaces. The motion approved by the Commission provided that stipulation.
Commission Horton asked Mulkey if he would increase the buffer to 100 feet, but Mulkey said the change would make this “an unviable project.”
Haines from W&A Engineering said that he understood the concerns of the homeowners along Chaddwyck Drive regarding the proposed location of The Stone Store and that the proposed design included sufficient buffer to minimize the noise and air pollution associated with the store’s operation.
Hall said in her following comments that the buffer was insufficient and the only solution was to not move the store to the proposed location.
The currently completely undeveloped 12.4 acres that lies behind The Stone Store and the bank building but abut Chaddwyck Drive was the centerpiece of the discussion of the rezone for Oconee Mercantile.
Mulkey purchased that property as well as the property on which the bank building and The Stone Store sit for Oconee Mercantile.
Horton told the other commissioners that he remembered being told that the property was undevelopable because of lack of access, but Daniell said that it could have been developed via access across the property on which the bank sits.
In 2017, the county put a hold on development of a storage facility on the property after the owner cleared trees from the sites without getting clearing and grubbing permits.
Mulkey paid $600,000 to Broom Street LLC in October of last year. (The property is in the name of Selah Farm LLC, which has the same address as Mulkey's business address.) Broom Street had purchased the property in 2016 for $194,917. Broome Street LLC is owned by Harrison Tyler McClure.
Hale told the Commissioners at the beginning of the talk on Tuesday night “I’m not standing up in opposition to what Mr. Mulkey is doing up on 441.”
“I support the Oconee Mercantile project,” he said. “What I’m here to talk with you tonight about is our opposition to what is being proposed at the very rear of the property.”
He said his objection is to the retaining wall and parking lot that will be built inside the 100-foot buffer on that property because that is what he and his neighbors will see in the future.
The video below was recorded from the session via Zoom.
The session began with Watkinsville Mayor Bob Smith using the citizen comment section to voice his ongoing complaints with members of the Watkinsville Council.
Smith said the Council had not kept him informed about discussions of the future location of the Oconee County Library.
Mayor Smith began speaking at 1:16 in the video.
Discussion of the Oconee Mercantile rezone begins at 14:41 in the video.
Discussion of the rezone for The Stone Store begins at 1:27:32.