The Oconee County Planning Commission voted a second time on Monday night to recommend that the Board of Commissioners not rezone 47 acres at the corner of Mars Hill Road and the Oconee Connector for a major shopping center.
The vote on Monday had six Commission members recommending denial and three voting against that recommendation.
The vote on Jan. 19, when the rezone first came before the Commission, had been unanimous, with all eight voting members in favor of denial.
Steven Strickland and Chuck Hunt changed their votes, and the newly appointed Commission member, Matt Elder, replaced a denial vote by Brian Fosen with his vote against denial. Fosen stepped down following the January meeting.
Gavin Jordan, who did not participate in the January vote, voted to recommend denial on Monday.
The Board of Commissioners is scheduled to take up the request by Maxie Price’s Deferred Tax LLC for the rezone at its meeting on May 4.
The Board of Commissioners had sent the request for the rezone back to the Planning Commission after Price sought and received two delays following the January Planning Commission vote.
While Kevin Letch with the Sembler Company of St.Petersburg, Fla., and Abdul Amer, of A & R Engineering in Atlanta, had made the presentations for the rezone at the meeting in January, local land planner Ken Beall represented Price on Monday.
Sembler will be the developer of the shopping center, if it is approved, and Publix will operate the anchor store. The development also is to include a hotel, other retail outlets, and a car dealership.
Beall spent most of his time talking about the history of the properties, saying that he had worked on their development with different owners for 27 years.
One of the existing tracts was zoned B-2 (Highway Business District) in 1988, another was zoned B-1 (General Business District) in 1992, and a third was zoned R-1 (Single-Family Residential), also in 1992.
Price is seeking to combine the three properties he owns into a single tract to be zoned B-2.
Beall spent most of his allotted time arguing that the county had made a commitment to whomever owned the properties to allow access to the Oconee Connector.
The Oconee County Planning staff had recommended approval of the rezone and accepted the concept plan showing access to the connector.
The planning staff had recommended as a condition that the access on the connector be right-in, right-out only.
Beall said Price rejected that restriction as well as the staff’s recommendation that the five proposed entrances to the shopping center on Mars Hill Road be reduced to three.
Beall also presented a radically different concept plan, showing a water feature and additional use of green space.
Oconee County Planning and Code Enforcement Director Guy Herring told the Commission he had not seen Beall’s plan until it was presented on Monday night and that the Commission should make its decision on the original concept plan that his staff had used in its review of the project.
Speakers In Opposition
Five citizens made presentations in opposition to the rezone, and at least three more chimed in remotely offering their support to the opposition.
|Chris Herring Speaking To Commission|
Jennifer Walker, 1201 DaAndra Drive, said the development would direct a great deal of traffic through her residential neighborhood and she and her neighbors are concerned about safety as a result.
Walker also said the proposal for a signalized light at the main entrance to the shopping center on the Oconee Connector is going to increase traffic backup on SR 316 at the Connector.
Chris Herring, 1291 DaAndra Drive, said the property at present is appropriately zoned and that zoning the two parcels now zoned B-1 and R-1 to B-2 would “open a pandora’s box” for inappropriate uses of the property opposite the existing residential neighborhoods.
Christopher Blanchard, 1111 Paul Ridge Road, in the Canyon Creek subdivision off Mars Hill Road west of the project, said “what’s been proposed will adversely affect the quality of life of a number of people in Oconee County” and particularly those who live along Mars Hill Road.
“Everybody goes up and down that road,” he said.
Greg Jungles, 1380 Hollow Creek Lane, said his older neighborhood had not been represented in the opposition to this point but “we are very concerned about the impact of traffic, impact of our ability to navigate the community and all the additional challenges associated with noise" and light pollution.
Vicki Soutar, 1091 Castle Drive, outside Watkinsville, speaking remotely, said the proposal calls for paving and filling of the stream on the property and that planners at the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission have criticized the project on those grounds.
Commission Member Questions
Only Commission Chair Tucker and members Hunt and Elder were in the meeting room at the Courthouse in Watkinsville for the public hearing and vote on the rezone request.
|Elder (Left) Asks Question Of Guy Herring|
The others were connected remotely.
Only some of the Commission members asked questions during the discussion following the public hearing.
“I’m very confused about the stream on the property,” Elder said in posing a question to Beall. “Would you say it is more like a ditch than a flowing stream?”
“Parts of it is more like a ditch,” Beall said.
Hunt asked Beall to specify the conditions he would not accept in the staff recommendation for the rezone.
Beall listed five, saying they “all have something to do, in our opinion, with access to the property.”
Beall said “We cannot agree with them the way they are currently written.”
Strickland, despite Guy Herring’s recommendation that only the original concept plan be considered, asked Beall to provide some details of the plan he had submitted on Monday regarding water features.
Oconee Connector Access
Strickland also asked Guy Herring to comment on ‘the news that broke pretty late in the process with the Georgia Department of Transportation” regarding the median break on the Oconee Connector.
Specifically, Strickland, wanted to know if those changes had altered staff assessment of the access issues for the project.
Guy Herring said it had not.
Georgia Department of Transportation Chief Engineer Meg Pirkle on April 6 overruled Jason Dykes, District 1 traffic engineer, and said she would allow Price to have a full access median commercial break on the Connector for his shopping center.
Dykes had told the county in an email on Jan. 12 that the existing median opening would be closed as part of a more than $70 million reconstruction of the SR 316 interchange with the Oconee Connector.
Pirkle copied her letter to Kelvin Mullins, District 1 engineer, Russell McMurry, Georgia Department of Transportation Commissioner, and Jamie Boswell.
Boswell is District 10 member of the State Transportation Board, to which McMurry reports. Pirkle reports to McMurry.
Boswell also is owner of the Boswell Group, which is listing the property Price wants to sell for the shopping center.
Aaron Nowak attended the meeting of the Planning Commission and recorded the first video below.
Guy Herring began speaking at 4:16 in the video to introduce the rezone request.
Beall began speaking at 7:16 in the video.
Citizens began speaking at 25:39 in the video.
Commissioners started asking questions at 47:25 in the video.
I recorded the second video from the Zoom session as live streamed to the public and have uploaded it as well since it includes better images of the visuals presented and some images of the Commission members attending remotely.
Reminiscent of Through the Looking Glass.
- B Rodgers
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