Thursday, March 09, 2023

Oconee Commissioners Vote To Settle Suit Filed By Landowner Who Wants To Build Oconee Crossing Shopping Center

***Rejected Rezone Will Come Back For Vote***

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners, in a 3 to 1 vote on Tuesday night, approved a settlement with Donald Hammett that will allow construction of Oconee Crossing Shopping Center on U.S. 78 at Hog Mountain Road.

Hammett will have to return to the Board of Commissioners with a new concept plan for the shopping center, and the Board will have to vote again on the rezone request by Hammett it turned down in October.

County Attorney Daniel Haygood said Hammett has agreed to move the grocery store away from the Oconee Crossing residential subdivision and increase the berm and buffer between the shopping center and the residences.

The Board made its decision to approve the settlement after meeting in executive session for more than 70 minutes on Tuesday.

Commissioner Chuck Horton, who voted against the settlement, said he is not able at this point to discuss the reason for his vote.

In other action on Tuesday night, the Board approved–in three split votes–a rezone modification, a reduction in landscape buffer, and a special use for construction of four self-storage units at U.S. 441 and New High Shoals Road.

Commissioners Horton and Amrey Harden voted against the three related requests, and Commissioners Mark Saxon and Mark Thomas voted in favor.

Commission Chair John Daniell broke the tie in each of the three votes by voting to approve the requests by Halloran Masonry Inc. of Athens, which owns the 7.1 acre tract backing up to the Melrose Farms subdivision.

Executive Session

The Board voted to go into closed or executive session after meeting for a little more than an hour in regular session.

Haygood, Far Left, Advises Commissioners
After Executive Session 3/7/2023

Commission Chair Daniell said the executive session was necessary to discuss land acquisition, personnel, and litigation, the three topics that state law allows to be discussed behind closed doors.

When the Board emerged from the closed session, County Attorney Haygood said the settlement with Hammett would require submission of “a revised site plan providing for additional buffers and some other matters.”

He said the changes would not go before the county Planning Commission and he expected the new plans to be back before the Board at its April or May meeting.

In a telephone conversation on Thursday morning (March 9), Haygood said the county is being asked as part of the agreement to grant Hammett an extension on his sewer permit to November of 2024.

Hammett will have to file a “reworked concept plan” with the county, which he expects to happen “relatively soon,” Haygood said.

Agreed Upon Changes

“The big thing that’s done is moving the (grocery) store forward a little bit and enhancing the berm and the buffer,” Haygood said of the agreement. “There will be some line-of-sight kind of drawings that demonstrate how high the berm is and what the lines of sight are between the development and the neighborhood.”

“All the agreement says is the Board agrees to reconsider it based on these things,” Haygood said. “Once the Board has looked at it again and voted, then the plaintiff will dismiss the lawsuit with prejudice.”

I asked Haygood why the county was agreeing to a settlement.

“That really is a Board of Commissioners question,” he said.

“If you look back at the meeting there were some things that were being asked for that the development wasn’t willing to put up at the time,” Haygood said, referring to the October Board of Commissioners meeting.

“But I think, when everything is finalized and done, the things that were wanted that night are going to be more or less what’s happened,” he added.

Suit Filed

Attorneys Brandon L. Bowen of Cartersville and W. Henry Parkman of Atlanta, representing Hammett, filed the suit against the county in Oconee County Superior Court on Nov. 2.

Hammett, from Kennesaw, said in the suit that the Oconee County Board of Commissioners ignored his “vested rights” in the nearly 43 acres he wants to develop as Oconee Crossing Shopping Center.

Hammett said that he obtained his “vested rights” to develop the property as it was rezoned in 1990 when he purchased the property on the southeast corner of U.S. 78 and Hog Mountain Road in 2005.

On Oct. 4 of last year, the Oconee County Board of Commissioners, in a 3 to 1 vote, rejected the rezone request by Hammett for the shopping center.

The vote came after a lengthy discussion by the Board following presentations by representatives of Hammett and by representatives of the Oconee Crossing subdivision, many wearing red t-shirts and holding signs saying “Don’t Gwinnett Our Oconee.”

Much of that discussion centered on the location of the proposed grocery store, which Hammett wanted to put on land near the subdivision.

The homeowners wanted to move the grocery to an area that would have been separated from the subdivision by a retention pond.

Commissioners Harden, Horton, and Saxon voted to deny the rezone request. Commissioner Mark Thomas voted against the motion to deny.

Self-Storage Request

In 2015, Halloran Masonry, an Athens construction contractor, rezoned about seven acres at the New High Shoals Road intersection with U.S. 441 so it could move its corporate offices to one of three lots in a business park it proposed to develop.

One Of Two Allowed Designs Types
With Self-Storage Rezone

Frank Pittman of Pittman and Greer Engineering, representing Halloran Masonry, told the Commissioners on Tuesday night that “due to economic reasons and being unable to sell some of these lots, he decided that he would stay where he was and try to sell the whole property.”

“One of the reasons that it hadn't been economically viable for offices down there is because the sewer isn't close by,” Pittman added. Storage units can operate on septic, he said.

Pittman was asking for a change in the plans approved in 2015 to allow for the four buildings, a special use approval to allow for self-storage, and a reduction in the buffer with the residential neighborhood from 50 to 25 feet.

Pittman said the full buffer wasn’t needed because of an existing fiber optic easement running between the two properties.

The existing easement “would be giving the buffer that is needed,” Pittman said. “It just doesn't quite meet the UDC requirement.” UDC is for the county’s Unified Development Code.

Speakers In Opposition

No one other than Pittman spoke in favor of the rezone request, but six people came forward to speak in opposition. For almost all of them, Pittman’s argument about the buffer wasn’t convincing.

“I would request that you don't change the 50-foot setback,” Chris Hardin said. “I mean it affects property values and that's my property there and I'd rather it not change. I mean I don't want stuff right up against it.”

Chad Howard said he doesn’t want to see two-story buildings, and “a self-storage facility does not bring any value to the residents there. We're all homeowners, we have no use for self storage,” he said.

“The only point I would like to make to all the members of this Board is that the reason that we have buffers in general is to preserve the value of the existing property before another developer comes in to put something on the adjacent property,” Mike White said.

“So from my perspective,” he continued. “I would just like to say that I think that there's a reason we have the 50-foot buffer setback in place and I would just like to ask you guys that you not consider reducing it from 50 to 25 feet.”

Commission Comment

When the citizens finished speaking, Commissioner Hardin pointed out that the original rezone request back in 2015 had not asked for a buffer variance.

One Of Two Allowed Designs Types
With Self-Storage Rezone

He also said there were differences between what appeared in the narrative for the rezone request and in the concept plans.

Hardin, reading from the narrative, said that the applicant wrote: “The proposed use of the property is a self-storage facility consisting of up to three interior and/or exterior loaded buildings. Buildings could be up to two-stories.”

“What does that mean?” he asked.

“They'll be bound by their concept plan,” not the narrative, Planning and Code Enforcement Director Guy Herring responded.

That concept plan shows four buildings, two of which are two stories in height. The county has designed two of four renditions of those buildings as stylistically acceptable.

The buildings would cover about a quarter of the land area, and paving would cover another quarter. A little less than half of the acreage would be landscaped.

Horton pointed out that the homeowners bought their land when the adjoining land was agricultural, and they expected a buffer from any adjoining commercial development.

Other Action

At the beginning of the meeting on Tuesday, two citizens from North High Shoals asked the county to keep speed bumps on Hillsboro Road as it passes through the city.

Commission Chair Daniell said discussions with the city are ongoing about how to address speed and drainish issues on that road.

The Board also approved a rezone of a 0.5 acre parcel between Stonebridge Parkway and Hog Mountain Road that will be used as a stormwater storage pond for an adjoining commercial development.

The Board, following the executive session, approved a resolution to participate in the Teva opioid settlement.


The video below is on the Oconee County YouTube site.

Discussion of rezone matters begins at 14:33 in the video.

The brief discussion of the Hammett settlement is at the very end of the video.

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