Watkinsville City Council on Wednesday rejected the request by Oconee County Schools to set aside a city zoning ordinance so it could have 23 parking spaces in two rows in front of the school system’s planned Instructional Support Center.
Instead, Council approved a modification to that request that will allow Oconee County Schools to have up to 14 parking spaces in a single row in front of the new building on North Main Street.
Dallas LeDuff, Associate Superintendent of Oconee County Schools, returned to the Council on Wednesday with a modified plan that reduced the number of parking space in front of the new building from 27 to 23. He had made his initial appearance in October.
Council Member Christine Tucker, who had been critical of the initial parking plan because it was at odds with the city’s zoning ordinance, said on Wednesday the reduction in parking LeDuff offered was not responsive to the concerns Council had raised in October.
LeDuff, in making his case for the 23 parking spaces, told Council that the parking was needed because of expected future growth in the county and school system and emphasized that the Board of Education fully supported the request.
Council Members Brett Thomas and Jeff Campbell spoke against the request, and, in the final vote, Council Members Connie Massey and Chuck Garrett joined in the unanimous vote for the substitute variance allowing only the 14 parking spaces in a single row.
In other action on Wednesday, Council voted to approve a first phase of improvements to Harris Shoals Park that will eliminate the existing basketball court, add a sidewalk, and increase paved parking.
LeDuff began his presentation to the Council on Wednesday by saying “We are here tonight with the full support of the Board of Education to present to you a variance from the Watkinsville zoning ordinance with regard to the parking in front of the proposed Instructional Support Center.”
|LeDuff, Right, Before Council 12/21/2022|
LeDuff said predictions are that the population of Oconee County will exceed 62,000 by 2050 and Oconee County School enrollment will exceed 15,000.
The current population for the County is 43,023, and student enrollment at Oconee County Schools is 8,530.
“The Instructional Support Center is designed to meet the needs of our incredibly supportive community, while also preparing us for the reality of future growth and expansion,” he said.
He said, as a result of feedback from the Mayor and Council, “Oconee County Schools has added green space between the parking lot and North Main Street and also added professionally landscaped hedges, trees and other plantings to that same area to screen the front parking lot from North Main Street.”
He said Oconee County Schools also had “relocated some of the parking spaces from the front of the building to the rear of the building.”
“The design was intentionally developed to provide ease of access and safety to our visitors by allowing adequate space for parking in front of the building,” he said.
“With the full support of the Oconee County Schools Board of Education, we respectfully request variance” from the Watkinsville zoning ordinance prohibiting parking in front of buildings.
“In looking at this plan and trying to remember back to October, how many spaces from the front did you all remove?” Tucker asked LeDuff when he finished his comments.
LeDuff said it was four.
Campbell said he would like to have a single row of cars, as is the case at the Courthouse.
“Our ordinance is that there would be no parking,” Tucker said. “In October we suggested a compromise that it would be similar to the Courthouse, just having one row.”
“And while I appreciate that there is a little added green space, it is almost the same as what we saw in October,” she said. “I personally felt like we were being generous to compromise, to acknowledge that this is a different type of structure and what this is and just out of mutual respect and appreciation.”
“I just want to concur with Christine,” Thomas said, speaking remotely. “I believe this is very similar to what we saw the previous time and I would still request that we get down to a single lane.”
At the Council meeting on Oct. 19, Thomas had said specifically that he was willing to accept a single row of parking in front of the Instructional Support Center adding up to about 13 spaces and that he wanted increased green space in front of the building.
That meeting was designed to be advisory.
LeDuff told Council that Oconee County Schools would like to issue a request for proposals for the Instructional Support Center in January of 2023 with plans to open the facility in the summer of 2024.
The projected cost of the Instructional Support Center is $12.7 million. It will be located on 6.7 acres between North Main Street and Experiment Station Road. The nearest neighbor on North Main Street is Bethel Baptist Church.
Tucker made the motion to approve a variance request allowing only 14 spaces in a single row. Garrett seconded the motion, which then was approved unanimously.
City Engineer Mark Campbell told LeDuff, once the modified variance request had been approved, that Oconee County Schools needed to submit a revised site development plan showing the changes required by the Council.
Council will be able to review those plans at its Jan. 18 meeting, City Manager Sharyn Dickerson said.
School Board Support
I asked LeDuff in an email message immediately following the Council meeting on Wednesday evening for an explanation of his comments about Board support for the variance request.
“I cannot find any record of a vote on this,” I said in that email.
Oconee County Schools is closed for the holidays, but LeDuff responded to my email late on Thursday.
“I meant that the Board of Education was in support of the request for variance,” LeDuff wrote.
The record indicates that the Board did not take any formal action in public regarding the variance request. It is impossible to know what decisions or communication took place outside of the public meetings.
|Screen Shot Ricketson Before Board 11/7/2022|
At the Dec. 5 Board meeting, Fred Ricketson, Director of Facilities for Oconee County Schools, told the Board “we submitted a variance request to the City of Watkinsville on Nov. 4. It's currently under review.”
He didn’t elaborate, and no one from the Board asked for any clarification.
At the Nov. 7 Board meeting, Ricketson told the Board “we've submitted additional paperwork to the city of Watkinsville on Nov. 4. It's currently under review.”
That was after the Oct. 19 meeting of the Watkinsville Council.
Again, no Board member asked for any additional information.
At the Oct. 3 meeting of the Board, Ricketson said “we've got a submittal that we put together to go to the city of Watkinsville. It's going to go tomorrow. This is going to get us on the October the 19th agenda.”
No Board member commented.
Site plans for the Instructional Support Center were unveiled at the Sept. 12 meeting of the Board of Education.
The Board did not discuss the plans at the meeting.
On February 17, 2021, the Council adopted a Master Plan for Harris Shoals Park.
Dickerson told Council on Monday that it needed to approve the first phase of that project.
“Basically, we’re trying to establish the footprint for the future improvements that are outlined in the Master Plan,” she said.
The Council was being asked to approve a site improvement plan that includes demolition of some of the facilities and improvements to others.
“Some parking spaces are going to be removed,” Engineer Campbell said. “Some are going to be reconfigured. Some are going away or replaced.”
The changes will add seven additional parking spaces, Campbell said.
The plans approved unanimously by Council show 21 parking spaces along an improved and repaved Harris Shoals Drive, 26 parking spaces in an expanded and reconfigured lot at the front of the park near Experiment Station Road, and a concrete walkway connecting the parking.
The basketball court is shown as marked for demolition. The gravel parking at the pavilion remains unchanged at this phase.
I watched the Wednesday Council meeting remotely and used screen capture software to make a copy of the meeting.
I have selected out only those parts of the meeting dealing with the request for the zoning variance by Oconee County Schools and the proposed upgrades to Harris Shoals Park.
The video below is of those parts of the meeting and begins with a presentation by Campbell, who is the City Engineer, of the request by Oconee County Schools for the variance.
LeDuff began his comments at 2:53 in the video.
Tucker began Council discussion at 8:17 in the video.
Thomas is on military assignment in Kuwait, and he connected to the meeting from there.
Discussion of the plans for Harris Shoals begins at 21:57 in the video.