Oconee County Commissioners probably will have at least another month to sort out promises made more than 30 years in a rezone for a combined commercial and residential development at U.S. 78 and Hog Mountain Road.
Attorneys for the property owner and for residents of Oconee Crossing subdivision submitted a request Monday afternoon to table consideration of the rezone request by Donald Hammett of Kennesaw so they can continue discussions.
Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chair John Daniell sent out an email at 2:50 on Monday saying that the county had received the jointly endorsed request for the delay.
“Historically, request for deferral are honored by the Board of Commissioners,” Daniell wrote.
“If the deferral is granted at our meeting tomorrow evening, the rezone hearing and decision will move to Tuesday, October 4, 2022 at 6:00 p.m.,” Daniell wrote.
Also on the agenda for Tuesday night is the review of nine applicants for the chair of the Oconee County Board of Elections and Registration.
Daniell said in an email earlier on Monday that the item was placed on the agenda in error and that he will ask his fellow commissioners to remove the item from consideration until the end of the month.
Applicants include two former chairs of the Oconee County Republican Party, one of whom is already on the Board of Elections, the current Republican Party appointee to the Board of Elections, and a member of the local Democratic Party Committee.
Core Of Zoning Disagreement
Residents of Oconee Crossing subdivision told members of the Planning Commission in July that they accept that commercial development was approved next door to their homes as part of a rezone in 1990, but they said that what property owner Hammett wants to build is not what was approved.
|Entrance On Hog Mountain Road|
Hammett, through his attorney, W. Henry Parkman of Atlanta, has said that the home owners are wrong and that what Hammett is now proposing is consistent what was proposed by an earlier property owner. The new development is being called Shops of Oconee Crossing.
Parkman says Hammett is willing to compromise on the total square footage of the development, on the hours of operation of the businesses, on the number of drive-through restaurants, and on the buffers between the commercial development and the residents.
Parkman said Hammett also is willing to try to work with the Georgia Department of Transportation on a traffic light at the entrance to the Oconee Crossing subdivision.
Agreement To Table
Parkman had told the Commissioners in a letter on Aug. 25 that he was trying to hold “discussions with the Crossing homeowners and their representatives to explore the concessions we have suggested.”
In an email to Daniell at 2:24 p.m. on Monday, Parkman wrote to say that “On behalf of Don Hammett, this is to inform you that we have recently been in discussions with Stanton Porter, attorney for The Crossing neighborhood.”
“Both parties would like additional time to continue their discussions,” Parkman continued.
Porter sent an email to Daniell at 2:43 p.m. saying “I agree on behalf of the Oconee Crossing neighborhood that we are joining in the joint request to have the matter tabled one more month.”
Oconee Crossing Campaign
Residents of Oconee Crossing showed up in large numbers at the Planning Commission meeting on July 19 and were prepared to make their case again before the Board of Commissioners at its meeting on Aug. 2.
The Planning Commission was unpersuaded by the arguments made by attorney Porter, however, and voted 5 to 1 to recommend approval of the rezone request by Hammett.
The Board of Commissioners, at the request of Hammett, postponed its decision on the rezone from the Aug. 2 meeting until the meeting scheduled for tomorrow night.
The Property Owners Association ran a 2/5th page advertisement in The Oconee Enterprise on July 28 and ran a similarly sized advertisement in last week’s edition of the paper.
Both advertisements were under the heading “Don’t Gwinnett Our Oconee,” and signs around the county use the same tag line.
Rick Caffery, from the Oconee Crossing neighborhood, told Oconee County commissioners at their Town Hall Meeting on Aug. 23 that he expected between 100 and 120 people to attend tomorrow night’s meeting.
The Sept. 8 advertisement asked the Board to reject Hammett’s request to change the zoning to B-2 (Highway Business District) and force him to “go back to the drawing board and design a B1 center more in line with the Civic Center Character Area” in the county’s Comprehensive Plan.
The nearly 43-acres tract currently is zoned B-1 for a General Business District.
Jeff Carter, representing Hammett, told the Planning Commission back in July that his client needed the B-2 zone to be allowed to build the drive-through restaurants on the new concept plan and “to build a grocery store over 20,000 square feet.”
In a series of letters send to County Attorney Daniel Haygood and the Board of Commissioners starting on Aug. 1, however, Parkman argues that Hammett already is allowed to build what he is proposing based on the original rezone.
In a letter dated Aug. 18, Parkman said that “A denial of the Rezone will not yield the result the opponents claim to want.”
“Instead, we are confident that, if the current Rezone is denied, the plan approved in 1990 will be built in accordance with the Regulations then in effect (no limits on building size, no prohibition on fast-food drive-throughs).”
Parkman wrote in that Aug. 1 letter that “I am required by Georgia law to inform you of Mr. Hammett’s reservation of his right to raise a constitutional challenge to the Oconee County Zoning Ordinance and development regulations in the event the pending Rezone in denied.”
Email From Pittman
Jeff Pittman, Managing Principal of Piedmont Real Estate Group Inc. of Woodstock, also representing Hammett, sent me an email on Aug. 22, following a story I posted the day earlier comparing the concept plans for the 1990 rezone and the one included with the current rezone request.
Pittman said my statement in the story that the four drive throughs and large grocery were not included in the plans approved by in 1990 was “misleading.”
“These details were not required to be shown in 1990,” Pittman wrote. “Under the operative regulations, in 1990 there were no restrictions on drive-throughs at restaurants or the size of any single building.”
Pittman attached a copy of Parkman’s Aug. 18 letter to the Board making that point.
Because I wanted to make sure the letter had been received by the Board of Commissioners, I filed an open records request for correspondence from Parkman to the Board of Commissioners.
I obtained copies of that Aug. 18 letter as well as four others Parkman had written to the Board or Haygood or both.
“If the current Rezone is denied,” Pittman wrote in his email to me, “Mr. Hammett intends to pursue development in accordance with the approved 1990 plan, without later-enacted restrictions, as he acquired vested rights in the development when he purchased the property based on the approved Rezone, his payment of property taxes for years, and his significant investment in bringing sewer to the property.”
That statement by Pittman’s in his email to me summarized the key legal arguments that Parkman made in his correspondence with Haygood and the Board.
“The Board of Commissioners earlier had enacted an Ordinance on Sept. 4, 1990, rezoning the property from A-1 to B-1 for a commercial and residential Planned Unit Development,” Parkman wrote on Aug. 1.
“The representatives of the Oconee Crossing neighborhood do not seem to understand that the Board of Commissioners had already planned commercial development (as part of the rezone for the residential portion) back in 1990,” he continued.
“The matters they raised (drive-through restaurants and building size) are permissible under the approved 1990 Rezone,” he wrote.
“In 1990, the applicable regulations applicable to the B-1 zoning had no restrictions on building size,, architectural standards, or prohibitions against drive-through restaurants,” the letter continues.
“When the Property was rezoned in 1990, there were no architectural standards, fast food was an approved use, and there was no 20,000 square foot limitation on building size,” according to the letter.
“In fact, several of the buildings approved in the original approved plan were much larger than 20,000 square feet,” Parkman wrote.
“All the restrictions mentioned in this paragraph were created long after the original 1990 zoning application was approved, and my client relied on the County’s previous approval when he acquired the Property,” according to the letter.
Vested Rights Claimed
“No one knew how long it would take to overcome the Great Recession and to find a way to get sewer service to the Property,” Parkman said in his Aug. 1 letter.
“Mr. Hammett purchased the Property in 2005 in reliance on the commercial development uses approved in 1990,” Parkman wrote.
“Also in reliance on the development plan approved with the 1990 Rezone, Mr. Hammett has subsequently spent additional and substantial amounts of money for consulting and engineering fees for sewer service and commercial development of the Property,” Parkman wrote.
As a result, Parkman said, Hammett “has vested rights that may not be denied.”
“Enforcement of architectural standards, prohibitions of drive-through fast food restaurants and application of 20,000 square-foot limits on building size, which did not exist when the 1990 plan was approved, impose a burden for the development and jeopardize the successful development of the Property,” according to the letter.
On Aug. 25, Parkman wrote that “Denial of the pending Rezone request and enforcement of the 2019 UDC changes (including the referenced restriction on service or dumpster areas between commercial and residential and the single-building size limitation) would deprive Mr. Hammett of his vested rights.”
The reference is to the Uniform Development Code, which the county changes frequently.
“We, however, are not looking for a good lawsuit,” Parkman wrote.
“We still want to discuss a reasonable compromise, considering the interests of both my client and Mr. Stanton’s clients, to bring this first-class shopping center to fruition for the benefit of the many Oconee County residents in the surrounding communities.” (The reference is to attorney Stanton Porter.)
“It is hard for us to understand how approval of my client’s application will somehow turn Oconee County into Gwinnett County,” Parkman wrote in his Aug. 18 letter.
|Porter At Planning Commission 7/19/2022|
Despite that, he wrote, he had met with Porter “to go over details of the proposed Rezone and to hear more about the main concerns of the neighborhood residents.”
Parkman said that Porter told him that “the main concern of the Crossing residents was the potential growth in traffic, particularly their ability to turn left and south on Highway 53.”
“Mr. Porter suggested that installation of a traffic light would likely alleviate his clients’ concerns,” Parkman wrote.
“Following receipt of that information,” Parkman wrote, “we made a substantial proposal to provide funding for the cost of a new traffic light if GDOT would approve it.
Hog Mountain Road is a state road, and the Georgia Department of Transportation determines whether it will allow a traffic signal at intersections along it.
“I also told Mr. Porter (and I tell you now) that my client is willing to limit business operation hours at Oconee Crossing to 11 p.m. and to prohibit trash pick-up before 7 a.m.” Parkman wrote.
“We understand the Crossing’s desire for a buffer between the commercial property and the residential property,” Parkman wrote. “Our request would actually add 25 feet more width to the currently-required buffer.”
“A barrier of evergreen trees, combined with a fence, will shield the residents of the Crossing from the commercial development,” he wrote.
“The requirement for special approval of drive-through restaurants in B-1 was added in 2003,” Parkman wrote, “and the limitation on single-building size was added in 2019.”
“These restrictions would not apply if the Rezone is denied, as my client has a vested right to build the approved plan under the regulations in effect in 1990,” Parkman contended.
“The approved commercial development plan called for development of slightly less square footage (approximately 15,000 SF) than the current plan,” Parkman wrote.
“We are prepared to reduce the total square footage of our project so that it is less than allowed in the 1990 approved plan,” Parkman said on his letter.
In his Aug. 25 letter, Parkman wrote "we are willing to discuss eliminating one or two fast-food restaurant drive-throughs from the plan."
The 1990 Ordinance
The ordinance signed by the Board of Commissioners on Sept. 4, 1990, is six pages long and includes a rough concept plan and some primitive architectural renderings.
|Concept Plan 1990|
Click To Enlarge
It also includes a three-page document called Statistical And General Data. The ordinance lists as a condition of approval “compliance with all statistical data submitted with zoning amendment application and site plan.”
Another condition states that “Any improvements planned for the individual sites must be based on detailed site plans submitted to the Planning Commission for review before development occurs.”
According to the three-page statistical sheet, the project was to be completed in three phases, all of which would be completed by 1999. The commercial development was to run from 1993 to 1999.
The concept plan is only partially completed. Nothing is shown on 15 of the 20 commercial parcels. Conway C. Brown was the property owner.
The five parcels that show buildings include the lot sold by Hammett to Camp Families Properties LLC, in Walton County, for $539,000 on Dec. 15, 2011, according to county tax records.
The Stripling’s store was built on that lot in 2012.
The total square footage for the commercial development listed in the 1990 rezone was 252,000, with the largest building at 172,00 square feet.
County tax records list the Stripling’s building as 15,626 square feet in size, leaving 236,374 unused from the original 252,000 approved in the 1990 rezone.
The proposal Hammett now has before the Board of Commissioners is for 266,400 square feet of space, including a 48,500-square-foot supermarket.
Hammett would have to reduce his proposal by 30,026 square feet to comply with the 1990 rezone.
Included in the letters I received from my open records request was one from Jimmy Camp, who identifies himself as the owner of Stripling’s. (According to the store web site, he holds a franchise from Stripling’s)
“I am requesting your support for the zoning case referenced above,” Camp wrote in a letter dated July 14, 2022, under the heading for the Hammett rezone request.
“The subject property has been zoned for commercial development for over 30 years,” Camp wrote. “It has been designated on the long range land use plan as commercial development for roughly the same period of time.”
“I believe the applicant is following through on this zoning and planning forecast for a property that is located on one of the most important intersections in Oconee County,” Camp wrote.
“The applicant's request is responsive to the needs of our community,” the letter continued. “We would accept a larger grocery store in this area of the county because our store is not able to fully serve the expanding needs of the community around us.”
“We believe that this project will actually grow our business, not hurt us,” he wrote.
Election Board Decision
Oconee County Commission Chair Daniell said the discussion of the applicants for the Board of Elections and Registration ended up on the agenda for tomorrow’s meeting as a result of miscommunication between him and County Clerk Holly Stephenson.
“I went out of town last week and failed to communicate correctly with Holly,” Daniell wrote in his email Monday morning. “We will remove these two items when the agenda is adopted and follow our normal selection process.”
The agenda actually lists consideration of appointments to five citizen committees.
Daniell subsequently clarified that the Commission will not consider appointments to any of them tomorrow.
The normal procedure is for the Board to discuss citizen appointments in executive session at its Agenda Setting meeting at the end of the month and then make the appointments at the next regular Commission meeting.
That regular meeting is scheduled for Oct. 4, when the Hammett rezone also is now scheduled to be before the Board.
Composition of Board
Board Chair Daniell had announced at the Town Hall Meeting held by the commissioners on Aug. 23 that the county had decided to split the appointment of the Director of Elections and Registration from the appointment of the Elections and Registration Board Chair.
The Board appointed Sharon Gregg as the new Director of Elections and Registration for the county at its Aug. 3 meeting.
After the decision was made to split the appointment of the Director of Elections from the Chair of the Board of Elections, the county placed on its web site an announcement that it was seeking application for the Board chair.
The announcement stated that “The Chair will assist in the selection, appointment, and training of poll workers for elections.”
The deadline for applications was noon on Sept. 9. The appointment is to begin immediately and run through Dec. 31, 2026.
The local legislation, passed by the Georgia General Assembly in 1998, specifies that the Board of Elections and Registration of Oconee County “shall be composed of five members, each of whom shall be an elector and resident of the county.”
The Republican Party appoints one member of the Board, and the Democrats appoint another.
The Board of Commissioners appoints the other three and “one of such members shall be designated by the Board of Commissioners as the chairperson of the board,” the law reads.
The applicants for the chair position are:
Steven Strickland, director of Partnerships at Ericsson, former Oconee County Republican Party Chair.
Kirk Shook, Executive Director, Nonpublic Postsecondary Education Commission, current Republican Party appointee to the Board of Elections.
John Thomas “Jay” Hanley III, Office Manager and Funeral Services Assistant, former Oconee County Republican Party Chair and current Board of Commissioners appointee to the Board of Elections.
Mary P. Burke, Registered Nurse.
Eric C. Crawford, attorney.
Jonathan Kirkpatrick, retired U.S. Department of State Foreign Service.
Shami C. Jones, homemaker.
Victoria Cruz, retired physician.
Courtney Davis, attorney, member of the Oconee County Democratic Committee.
The educational backgrounds of and offered comments by the applicants are listed on the county web site.
NOTE: The original version of this post had Jeff Pittman's first name incorrect. I apologize for the error.