The Oconee County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday night likely will decide the future location of The Stone Store and, if the developers of the proposed U.S. 441 mixed-use project are to be believed, the viability of that project itself.
The Commissioners are scheduled to vote on a rezone request for just more than 23 acres on U.S. 441 across from the intersection of Hog Mountain Road as well as on a second related rezone and special use variance request for just less than six acres just north of that intersection.
The linked rezone requests would move The Stone Store from its current location, create a new home by carving out land from two different parcels, and allow the developers of what is being called Oconee Mercantile to create an entrance to the development from an extension of Hog Mountain Road.
The Oconee County Planning Commission, at its Feb. 15 meeting, recommended approval of the rezone for the mixed use development in a 7 to 1 vote, but it recommended denial of rezone request for the proposed new location of The Stone Store in a 5 to 4 vote.
The Stone Store has a seven-year lease on its current location and is willing to surrender the lease only if it can move to the new location, the developer told the Planning Commission.
Without that access opposite Hog Mountain Road, the whole complex, with its proposed reuse of the existing Oconee State Bank headquarters building and construction of an additional six buildings, is not viable, according to the developer.
Oconee Mercantile as proposed will 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.
Planning Commission Vote On Oconee Mercantile
Bill Hale, president of the Chaddwyck Home Owners Association, the neighborhood adjoining the proposed development of Oconee Mercantile, spoke for the allotted 20 minutes in opposition to the project at the Feb. 15 Planning Commission meeting.
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Hale’s primary concern was the buffer between the project and the neighborhood, and he asked for a 100-foot buffer rather than the proposed 50 foot buffer.
The Planning Commission recommended that the buffer be expanded to 75 feet even though developer David Mulkey, who lives in Oconee County, said he was unwilling to make the changes.
Steven Strickland, who had tried to get the Planning Commission to require the 100-foot buffer, was the only negative vote on the Oconee Mercantile request.
The Planning Commission only makes recommendations to the Board of Commissioners, which will hold another public hearing before it votes on Tuesday evening.
Planning Commission Vote On Stone Store
Mulkey told the Planning Commission that the owner of The Stone Store has a lease for the property, which Mulkey owns, “and there are seven years remaining on the lease.”
“The Stone Store needs to move” so he can have access to his property and build an entrance to the commercial complex, he said.
Seven citizens from the Chaddwyck subdivision spoke in opposition to the rezone required to allow The Stone Store to move to the new location.
They expressed concern about noise and air pollution they said the operation would cause.
They also objected to cutting into the existing Office Institutional Professional rezone district that now exists to create a business district for The Stone Store. They had fought commercial development at that site in 2009.
Planning Commission members Brian Fosen, Scott Green, Chuck Hunt, and Penny Mills voted to recommend that the rezone be denied.
Members Nathan Byrd, Karen Hilyard, Steven Strickland and Gavin Jordan voted against the recommendation.
Board Chair Brad Tucker broke the tie by voting to deny.
The site of the proposed Oconee Mercantile currently consists of three different properties with two different zoning classifications.
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The property on which the Oconee State Bank building sits is zoned Office Business Park. Oconee State Bank is building a new headquarters on Main Street in downtown Watkinsville.
The property on which The Stone Store as well as acreage behind that store and the bank building is zoned Industrial.
The request is to change 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 request is to rezone that property to Highway Business.
According to Oconee County tax records, Mulkey bought the nearly 10 acre tract on which the Oconee State Bank sits for $4.5 million in November of 2019.
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Old Creek Business Park, owned by Mulkey, bought the nearly two acres on which The Stone Store sits in August of 2019 for $700,000.
The 12.4 acre tract behind these two property, and accessible only across them, is owned by Salah Farms LLC, which has the same Athens address as Mulkey’s Oconee Mercantile LLC.
Salah Farms purchased that property for $600,000 in October of 2020.
Fred Gunter Property LLC owns the 12.4 acres at the corner of LaVista Road and U.S. 441 from which acreage is being carved to create the proposed new home of The Stone Store.
Mulkey has said he plans to own the property to which The Stone Store will move.
The Oconee Mercantile proposal is to repurpose the Oconee State Bank building, making what is now the back of that building into its front.
Access to the bank building is via a right-in, right-out drive off median-divided U.S. 441. The Stone Store property has access to U.S. 441 via a light at the corner of Hog Mountain Road and U.S. 441.
That reconstruction of the bank building is the first phase of the project, with addition of the others buildings to follow.
The project has some similarities to Wire Park, the redevelopment underway on the east side of Watkinsville, and the two properties are likely to be in competition over some of the same potential tenants.
Oconee Mercantile is opposite the soon-to-open Presbyterian Homes complex, which should provide considerable commercial traffic once it is completed.
The Oconee County Library Board recently voted to move the Oconee County Library, now on Experiment Station Road in Watkinsville, to Wire Park.
Originally, it had agreed to move the library to the planned site of the Oconee County government building, just south of the planned site of Oconee Mercantile.
I recorded the video below from the meeting of Feb. 15 Zoom meeting of the Oconee County Planning Commission.
The beginning of the meeting deals with Oconee Mercantile. At 1:18:32 in the video discussion turns to The Stone Store rezone.