Oconee County Commissioners on Tuesday night, despite opposition from neighbors and a negative vote of the majority of the Planning Commission, approved what amounts to a seven-lot subdivision surrounded by farmland in the west of the county.
The proposal for the subdivision came in the form of two requests by Tony Townley to subdivide two plots of land he owns totaling 15 acres, most of it currently farmland, so he can build houses.
Townley also owns most of the land surrounding the planned residential development, making those seven lots–and future houses–residential nodes in the pastureland surrounding them.
Neighbors who spoke in opposition raised issues of traffic, noise, and the disturbance of the rural lifestyle they now enjoy.
They also said repeatedly and consistently that they did not want renters moving into their part of the county.
Jeff Carter, representing Townley, confirmed that “more than likely” the property will become rental.
The county cannot and does not regulate whether landowners rent their property, commissioners and county planning staff told the citizens before the commissioners voted to approve Townley’s request.
In other action on Tuesday, the Board of Commissioners approved a rezone so the county can build a new 44,000 square foot county administrative building at the intersection of the U.S. 441 bypass and North Main Street just north of the Watkinsville city limit.
Administrative Building Rezone
The approval by the Board of Commissioners of the rezone of 7.6 acres owned by Oconee County at the corner of Veterans Memorial Parkway (U.S. 441 Bypass) and Macon Highway (North Main Street, SR 15) from AR (Agricultural Residential) to OIP (Office Institutional Professional) for the proposed County Administration Building was a legally required formality.
|Renditions of New Administrative Building|
Guy Herring, Director of Planning and Code Enforcement for the county, told the Board in a memorandum accompanying the rezone request what they knew, namely the “Board of Commissioners desire to, and staff recommends, rezoning” the property for the administrative building.
“The proposed rezone and use are in conformity with the Civic Center Character Area as defined in the Oconee County Comprehensive Plan 2018 and shown on the Future Development Map,” Herring wrote.
“The proposed rezone and use are in conformity with the goals and objectives of the Oconee County Comprehensive Plan, Short Term Work Program 2018-2022, and the Oconee County 2021-2024 Strategic Plan,” he continued.
Accompanying Herring’s presentation was a site plan showing the 44,000-square-foot building surrounded by 159 parking spaces. Traffic from the building will flow to a roundabout on North Main Street opposite Summit Grove Drive.
Renditions of the new building included with Herring’s presentation show a two-story building with a slightly offset front facing south to the parking lot.
On Oct. 5 the Board approved a contract Manager at Risk with the Mathias Corporation of Duluth for the Administrative Building construction. Final cost of the project had not been determined.
The Planning Commission, after hearing complaints from residents on Rays Church Road and Aycock Road, voted 4 to 2 last month to recommend denial of Townley’s two rezone requests.
Townley is asking the county to allow him to subdivide two parcels he owns in the triangle created by Matthews Road, Rays Church Road, and Aycock Road so he can build a five-lot subdivision and an adjoining two-lot subdivision.
The larger of the parcels Townley wants to subdivide is 12.5 acres. At present it is pastureland, but the plan is for it to be used for five houses on a private drive exiting on Matthews Road.
In addition, Townley is seeking to divide an adjoining 4.25-acre-parcel fronting on Aycock Road into two residential lots of about two acres each. A modular home currently sits on the lot.
Townley, cofounder of Zaxby’s with his boyhood friend Zach McLeroy, grew up in Oconee County near where he now lives on Hog Mountain Road.
Townley sold his interest in Zaxby’s in 2020.
Jeff Carter, of Carter Engineering, 3651 Mars Hill Road, representing Townley, told the Board of Commissioners on Tuesday night that he had no idea how much land Townley owns in the western part of the county.
“I tried to add it all up and quite frankly I couldn't,” Carter said. ‘I get tired of counting.”
“He's purchased a lot of property and preserved it in farmland,” Carter said.
“I have been told that it's tough breaking even in the farm business and, I think that there are some things he's doing to enhance the community and invest in the community that's helping him offset some of those costs,” Carter said.
“I think that's part and parcel of what he's looking at here,” Carter added.
CPA Weighs In
Russell Wills, who identified himself as the Certified Public Accountant for the Townley family, said Townley has been “accumulating a lot of land, and farming, it's not a profitable endeavor for him.
|Wills, Left, Before The Commission 2/1/2022|
“He does it because he enjoys it and his dad enjoys it,” Wills said.
“He's not trying to get rid of his farmland,” Wills said. “He does a lot of his outside stuff whether it's redevelopment of existing homes and consideration of some strategic houses as well just to offset costs and when it's more appropriate from a farming perspective.”
“Everything he owns he's done at a high level, even the rental houses,” Wills said.
Townley has another 100 acres under contract at present, Wills said, that will be used for farmland.
“He's not looking to be a major developer,” Wills said. “I mean, he enjoys the farm as much as anybody does and he enjoys the scenery more than anybody does.”
The Board of Commissioners held separate hearings for the two rezone requests by Townley, and the 16 speakers made it clear that they, too, wanted to preserve the rural nature of the area where they live and Townley farms.
They said the two subdivisions will add unwanted noise and unwanted traffic, put strain on roads that are in poor condition, and threaten the water wells on which they rely.
Matt Alexander, 1531 Aycock Road, said he moved to his home on the edge of the Townley farmland about five year ago “because we enjoy this way of life” and “the proposed rezoning threatens our continued enjoyment of this current lifestyle.”
The speakers said that part of that threat came from renters. Six of the seven who spoke in the first hearing mentioned renters specifically.
Mandi Moreira, who grew up on Aycock Road and now lives off Daniells Bridge Road, said the four homes that Townley already has built on Aycock Road “are renters” and Townley “wants to put more in.
“It's just going to keep going,” she said. “We don't think this is going to stop at any point so we kind of need to put a stop to it now and say hey, let's pull back on these. Let's leave these beautiful pastures and all this land that way for others.”
“I'll be brief,” Carter said as he began is rebuttal in the first public hearing.
“I just wanted to point out that in this case you do have a track record here of the Townley family renting out property,” he continued.
“I didn't say it was going to be rental property,” he said, “but more than likely that's what he's planning on doing is renting these houses out and it will be under common ownership.”
I will stick up for renters too,” he said. “I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing
“These homes---the cost of the rentals--is not going to attract the lowest of society,” he said. “I think renters aren't bad people,” Carter said.
“I can understand the concern for rental property, but I think this is in a different--a different category,” Carter continued. “I think we have a proven track record here of some nice rentals.”
When the hearing ended, Commissioner Chuck Horton asked County Planning and Code Enforcement Director Guy Herring if there is an ordinance in the county allowing the Commission to “prevent somebody from renting their property.”
“Not to my knowledge,” Herring responded.
Herring told Horton that the he has no idea how many rental properties are in the county.
“We don't track any of that,” Herring said.
The vote to approve Townley’s first rezone request was unanimous.
The second hearing featured nine speakers, most of whom also had spoken at the first hearing.
This time, they said less about renters.
James Frazier, who, with his wife, Annie, owns the only parcel of land in the triangle of Ray’s Church Road, Aycock Road, and Matthews Road, that will not be included in Townley’s new subdivision, said he like things as they are at present.
Frazier said the area now was “peaceful, everybody know one another, and everybody a good friend.”
“We just country people enjoying our life,” he continued.
Frazier said Townley “got all this land. You know, he got all around his house up there. He can build up there.”
Patrick Whitehead, 1493 Rays Church Road, said “It seems to me like we got half a dozen more people here that are against this and only one that's for it.
“It seems like democracy is not working very well,” he continued. “It seems like the person with the most money wins. It doesn't seem very fair to me.”
Commission Response To Second Hearing
When the second hearing ended, Commissioner Horton said he had a statement he wanted to make.
|Horton, Second From Right, 2/1/2022|
During the first hearing, Whitehead had said the subdivisions Townley has proposed are “going to bring people in from other places such as Atlanta because, you know, these houses are not for people of Oconee County, I don't suspect.
“People from other counties and other states come in, they try and change our politics,” he continued. “We don't like that.”
Horton didn’t reference Whitehead in his statement, but he said “it's almost like renters aren't welcome, or people are going to be different than me.
“But that's the way it is,” he said. “They're going to be folks moving in that don't agree with you or me or somebody else.
“But that's America,” Horton continued. “I just felt it necessary for me to say something because nobody shut the door to me, and this has been a great place even when people disagree with me.”
The Commission voted unanimously to approve Townley’s second rezone.
Other Request For Division Of Lot
The Commission voted to deny a rezone request from Kyle Scott who wanted to subdivide five acres with the address of 1370 Ridgeway Road, off Moores Ford Road in the northwest of the county.
|Boswell, Left, Before Commission 2/1/2022|
The property already has one rental home on it, and Scott wants to rezone the parcel from AG (Agricultural District) to AR (Agricultural Residential District) so he can build a second home on roughly 2.5 acres of the land.
As had been the case in the public hearing before the Planning Commission, the request met with opposition from neighbors, including Chris Boswell, whose property abuts that of Scott.
Boswell said the rental property is in disrepair and that traffic on the access road already is great because of the large number of vehicles used by the renter.
Commissioners voted 3 to 1 to deny the request. Commissioner Mark Saxon was the negative vote.
Dials Mill Extension Request
Pittmann Engineering asked the Board of Commissioners to rezone two properties on the north side of SR 316 at the Dials Mill Extension intersection in the far northwest of the county for a multi-use commercial development.
The property is owned by Mike Power and the Estate of Jerry R. Huff. The Power property is 4.6 acres in size, while the Huff property is 1.4 acres.
The request was to combine the properties for a multi-use commercial development. The property owners were seeking a special use permit to include mini-warehouses and self-storage units.
Sharon Thelen, president of the Dials Mill Plantation Property Owners Association, spoke against the rezone, saying there is inadequate need for storage facilities in the area.
“I would just tell you because you bothered to spend a lot of time up at the podium,” Horton said to Thelen. “We don't determine and really go and decide whether a developer needs to do that.
“That's their decision whether or not they want to build or invest or do offices or for storage buildings, whatever,” he continued. “I may agree with you on some, but that's not for me to decide.”
In response to a question from Commissioner Amrey Harden, Pittman said the property owners understand that the Georgia Department of Transportation may close off access to Dial Mill Extension from SR 316 via a flyover.
Visibility from SR 316 was more important than access from the highway, Pittman said.
The Commission voted unanimously to approve both the rezone and a special use permit for the storage facility.
The video embedded below is on the county’s YouTube channel.
The meeting begins at 7:57 in the video.
The first Townley rezone is at 10:56 in the video.
The second Townley rezone is at 52:19.
The Kyle rezone request is at 1:28:47.
The Power rezone request at is at 2:14:25.