If the Oconee County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday night were to approve the requested rezone for a shopping center at the intersection of Mars Hill Road and the Oconee Connector, it would be the third largest in the county in terms of building square footage.
It also would be the culmination of efforts going back to 1988 to create a shopping at that location.
Commissioners have approved smaller shopping centers on two of the three properties in the intersection in the past, but the property owners never developed the land.
In this latest attempt to create a shopping center at the location, Maxie Price is asking the commissioners to merge three properties he owns and rezone them for a commercial complex, anchored by a Publix, that also would include hotels, restaurants, and a car dealership.
Price’s request, involving just less than 47 acres, greatly changes the scale of the earlier rezones, which also included residential development.
To accommodate that increased scale, Price is asking that he be allowed to add a new entrance to his property off the Oconee Connector with a traffic light and median break. The property has no access to the Connector at this point.
To justify that request for access, which also needs state approval, Price’s commercial real estate agent, Jamie Boswell, has delivered to Georgia Department of Transportation officials correspondence about the property going back to 1997.
Boswell also is a member of the Georgia Transportation Board, which oversees GDOT.
Price also wants to increase the number of entrances off Mars Hill Road from two to five.
A map from those earlier rezones played a key role in presentations at the April 19 Planning Commission meeting both by Guy Herring, director or Planning and Code Enforcement for the county, and of Ken Beall, land planner, representing Price.
|Beall's Zoning Map 1992|
(Click To Enlarge)
The Planning Commission voted 6 to 3 to recommend that the Board of Commissioners deny Price’s rezone request, but that was a more favorable vote than the 8 to 0 vote by that same body in January.
The three who voted against the denial motion–two of whom voted in January and one who was new to the Commission–engaged Beall in his arguments in favor of the rezone.
The map, dated 1992 in the version presented by Beall, is striking in what it does not show.
The route of SR 316 is only marked as proposed.
The Oconee Connector does not exist, and no route for it is shown.
A section of roadway currently labeled as Daniells Bridge Road but historically a part of Epps Bridge Road (and called that at the time) intersects with Mars Hill Road in a Y south of where Daniells Bridge Road and Mars Hill Road now meet.
Beall argued that the request by Price for his rezone needed to be understood in the context of this historical map.
What Price Is Asking
Price originally filed for the changes in zoning for the nearly 47 acres he wants to see developed as the large shopping center on Oct. 19 of 2020.
|Three Properties Identified By Zoning Category|
(Labeled From County Document)
The Sembler Company of St. Petersburg, Fla., would develop the shopping center, and it provided a concept plan showing a grocery store, a convenience store with gas pumps, a bank, four fast food and other restaurants, two hotels, five retail buildings, and an auto sales operation.
Publix has committed to occupy a 48,387 square-foot building and serve as the primary anchor of the shopping center.
Total square footage in the concept plans is 322,507.
Only the Epps Bridge Centre I and Epps Bridge Centre II are larger than what is proposed with the rezone request before the commissioners on Tuesday. The meeting starts at 6 p.m. and is available online.
Shopping Center Comparisons
Epps Bridge Centre I has about 486,000 square feet of commercial space approved, and Epps Bridge Centre II has another 394,000 square feet of space approved.
Epps Bridge Centre I was for just more than 68 acres, and Epps Bridge Centre II was for just less than 54 acres.
The next largest project after these two Epps Bridge Centre rezones is the Jones Petroleum rezone for 173,000 square feet of space at U.S. 78 and Mars Hill Road.
The Jones Petroleum project is on 32 acres.
Jones Petroleum was rezoned in early 2019 and is not yet under construction.
Epps Bridge Centre II was rezoned in early 2016 and has only Hobby Lobby on the site.
Epps Bridge Centre I was rezoned in 2008. At present, it has seven unoccupied outparcels.
Publix As Anchor
Both the Epps Bridge Centre II an the Jones Petroleum rezones included references to Publix as a potential tenant.
The Publix in Butler’s Crossing is slightly larger than the one proposed for the new shopping center with 51,568 square feet of space.
The Butler’s Crossing shopping center itself is on just more than 10 acres, compared with the 47 for the new shopping center proposed for the Connector and Mars Hill Road.
Sembler Family bought the Butler’s Crossing property in 1996, built the Publix that year, and sold the property two years later, according to county tax records.
Two of the parcels involved in the rezone request before the Commissioners on Tuesday already are zoned for business use, and a grocery could be built on them “by right,” meaning consistent with the zoning category.
Those two parcels total 33.6 acres.
1988 And Parcel 1
In October of 1988, in response to a petition by Dr. Paul Keller and Dr. James McDonald, the Oconee County Board of Commissioners rezoned 19 acres at what was then the intersection of Epps Bridge Road and Mars Hill Road for a shopping center.
|1988 Map From Rezone Resolution|
(Click To Enlarge)
No concept plans for the shopping center exist, and no shopping center was built.
The map submitted with that rezone in 1988 is very similar to the map Beall presented to the Planning Commission last month.
That 19-acre parcel shrank as Daniells Bridge Road and Mars Hill Road were reconfigured and the Oconee Connector was built.
In February of 2006, Deferred Tax purchased 6.8 acres of this 19-acre parcel from James J. McDonald Jr. at the northwest corner of the new Daniells Bridge Road/Mars Hill Road and The Connector intersection for $1.4 million, according to county tax records.
The property still was zoned B-2 Highway Business District for a shopping center.
In February of 1992, in response to a petition by 316 Holding Group and Kel-Mac Development, the Board of Commissioners rezoned just less than 50 acres for a “planned shopping center.”
|1992 Concept Plan With Access Marked By Beall|
(Click To Enlarge)
The property stretched from Mars Hill Road on the south, the proposed SR 316 to the north, Virgil Langford Road on the west, and a straight line from the proposed SR 316 to a point behind the abandoned fire station on the Oconee Connector.
The Oconee Connector did not exist.
The shopping center was to include a convenience store, fast food establishment, a regular restaurant, and offices and warehouses.
Maximum square footage was 250,000.
Also in February of 1992, the Board of Commissioners rezoned 13.2 acres of land just west of the 50-acre tract for a 15-lot single-family subdivision.
The petitioner was 316 Holding Group, Kel-Mac Development was listed as the developer, and Ken Beall represented these entities as land planner.
In February of 2016, at the same time, Deferred Tax purchased the 6.8 acres at the corner of Mars Hill Road and the Oconee Connector, it purchased 26.8 acres from that original 50 acres zoned for the shopping center, according to county tax records.
Tax records show that Deferred Tax paid $4.8 million for the 26.8 acres and $2.3 million for the 13.2 acres zoned for residential development.
The seller in both cases was 316 Holding Group.
James J. McDonald Jr. of Athens had been listed as the agent of 316 Holding Group.
Commitment On Access
The concept plan for the 1992 rezone of the two properties showed access to Mars Hill Road at two points and a single access to Virgil Langford Road.
It did not show access to the Oconee Connector, which did not exist.
At the Planning Commission meeting last month, Beall noted that one of the internal roads shown on the concept plan crossed what is now the Oconee Connector but ended in a cul-de-sac beyond that point.
He argued that the county had agreed to grant A. Paul Keller Jr., James J. McDonald Jr., and Mary Beth McDonald access to the Oconee Connector.
Price and Boswell had asked for a “cut” into the property when the Oconee Connector was being redesigned for its widening in 2014, but Moreland Altobelli Associates, in charge of the design work, rejected the request on the ground it was too close to the interchange.
Athens Attorney William Berryman, who is representing Price, has told the county that a letter from January of 1997 from then GDOT Commissioner Wayne Shackelford to an attorney for 316 Holding Group promised the access to the property.
He also has said that a letter to James McDonald from then Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chair Melvin Davis in August of 2009 reaffirmed the commitment.
None of this correspondence anticipated the decision by the state to spend $70 million to create a full interchange with flyover at the intersection of the Connector and SR 316.
Firm plans for that intersection were announced late last year. Construction is scheduled to start in 2024.
Time Line Shows Centrality Of Access
Price asked for and was granted three delays in the county’s response to his rezone request.
The time line below tracks developments on the request.
* Oct. 19, 2020, Price applies for rezone. Planning Commission hearing set for Dec. 14.
* Dec. 10, 2020, Herring grants postponement of Planning Commission hearing at Price’s request following release of staff report on the rezone.
* Jan. 12, 2021, District Traffic Engineer Jason Dykes sends Herring Email saying the existing median break will be closed when the flyover of SR 316 is constructed.
*Jan. 19, 2021, Planning Commission votes 8 to 0 to recommend denial of rezone.
*Jan. 23, 2021, Price asks for another delay for Board of Commissioners hearing.
*Feb. 12, 2021, Meg Pirkle, chief engineer, writes Kelvin Mullins, Dykes supervisor, saying she had been contacted by Georgia Transportation Board Chair Rudy Bowen regarding Price’s request for “an access break promised by Commissioner Shackelford in 1997.) She forwarded to Mullins a copy of documents with the names “Rudy” and “Jamie” written at the top.
*Feb. 23, 2021, Board of Commissioners grants second postponement but sends matter back to the Planning Commission.
*Feb. 24, 2021, Andrew Hoenig sends Mullins an email saying the requested driveway opening “would be substandard for a median opening.” He forwarded a report written Feb. 23 by a consultant to GDOT saying the requested “design does not comply with design criteria adopted by GDOT.”
*March 17, 2021, Price writes to GDOT Commissioner Russell McMurry asking for full access commercial median break for his shopping center.
*April 5, 2021, Boswell provides Pirkle with address to which she should send Price’s letter and asks for a copy as soon as she has finished it.
*April 6, 2021, Pirkle writes to Price saying “GDOT will honor previous commitments and include the accommodation for full access commercial median break and driveways in the development of the new interchange of GA 316 and the Oconee Connector.”
*April 19, Planning Commission votes 6 to 3 to recommend denial of rezone.
There are so many unanswered questions about this entire rezone process that revolve around political favoritism, pressure and conflict of interest. Oconee County citizens need to wake up and pay attention to the overdevelopment and the destruction of the character of our county and the impact those developments will have on surrounding residential property. Large estate lots could become the norm to protect against any nearby commercial development and the midrange housing market will become nonexistent or too expensive. We are approaching that state now.
Until we have a true citizen advocate willing to stand up and run against some of the current Board members, we will continue the status quo.
Thank you Lee for digging into this and shedding light on these events.Pamela Hall
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