Wednesday, April 26, 2023

New Site Plan For Oconee Crossing Shopping Center Moves Grocery Store, Increases Buffer

***Grocery Still At Rear Of Shopping Center Near Residential Lots***

The new site plan released last week for the Oconee Crossing Shopping Center on U.S. 78 at Hog Mountain Road moves the proposed grocery store and increases the size of the buffer with the adjoining Oconee Crossing subdivision.

It also reduces the number of drive-through restaurants and moves the car wash.

The most striking difference between the rezone request of last year and the one that is now before the Board of Commissioners for a vote on May 2, however, is contained in the Oconee County Planning Staff Report.

In July of last year, the Applicant for the rezone was Carter Engineering, and the Property Owner was Donald Hammett.

Now, the Applicant is the Oconee County Board of Commissioners, and the Property Owner remains Donald Hammett.

The Board of Commissioners voted on March 7 to settle a suit filed by Hammett to overturn the Board’s denial in October of last year of his request for a rezone of his nearly 43 acres.

While the Board will hold a public hearing before making a decision at its meeting on May 2, it actually is asking itself to rezone the property using the site plan submitted by Carter Engineering and attached to the staff report issued last week.

The hearing on the Oconee Crossing Shopping Center will be one of five the Board of Commissioners will conduct on May 2 in a meeting that starts at 6 p.m. at the Courthouse in Watkinsville.

Board Decision In March

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners, in a 3 to 1 vote on March 7, approved a settlement of the lawsuit Hammett filled on Nov. 2 of last year against the county in Oconee County Superior Court.

Revised Site Plan (Click To Enlarge)

The suit followed the Oct. 4 decision by the Board of Commissioners, also in a 3 to 1 vote, to reject the rezone request of Hammett for the shopping center that would wrap around the current Stripling’s and front both on Hog Mountain Road and U.S. 78.

Hammett, from Kennesaw, was required as part the settlement to return to the Board of Commissioners with a new site plan for the shopping center.

County Attorney Daniel Haygood said at that time that Hammett had 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.

Commissioner Chuck Horton voted against the settlement. Commissioner Mark Thomas had voted against the original motion to deny Hammett’s request for the rezone.

“All the agreement says is the Board agrees to reconsider it based on these things,” Haygood said at that time. “Once the Board has looked at it again and voted, then the plaintiff will dismiss the lawsuit with prejudice,” he added. That indicates the plaintiff will not refile the complaint.

On April 13, after the agreement to reach settlement, attorneys for Hammett and for the county filed a stipulation with the Superior Court to extend the time allowed the county to respond to Hammett’s discovery requests.

Nature Of Opposition

Opponents of Hammett’s request have been well organized and persistent.

Opposition originated with homeowners in the Oconee Crossing subdivision, and many of those against the plans showed up at hearings on the rezone wearing red T-shirts and holding signs saying “Don’t Gwinnett Our Oconee.”

The concern of those in Oconee Crossing subdivision centered on noise and light pollution, with particular focus on the grocery store and its deliveries, on the drive-through restaurants, and on the car wash.

Plans for all three–the grocery store, the drive-through restaurants, and the car wash--changed as opponents negotiated with Jeff Carter and others from Carter Engineering.

In the end, the grocery store became the biggest obstacle, with opponents saying it should be moved to the front of the commercial development on U.S. 78, rather than located in the rear closest to the residential neighborhood.

New Site Plan

The site plan submitted by Carter Engineering as part of the settlement locates the 52,000 square foot “Supermarket Food Store” close to and set back from the existing Stripling’s General Store.

The grocery store is separated from two residential lots in Oconee Crossing subdivision by what are labeled a 25 foot existing buffer, an additional 50 foot required buffer, a 25 foot “enhanced buffer,” and an additional 25 foot “planted buffer.”

Four office/retail buildings, a “retail restaurant” building, and “pavilion space” are shown on either side of the entrance to the shopping center from Hog Mountain Road.

A retail building, four office/retail buildings, and a stormwater retention pond are shown along the rear of the shopping center abutting residential lots in Oconee Crossing subdivision.

Fronting on US. 78 are shown a retail building, a car wash, a building marked “Retail Restaurant,” two buildings marked for restaurant and retail, a building marked for drive through “Retail Restaurant,” and a building marked “Retail Or Restaurant With Drive Thru.”

The final building fronting on U.S. 78 is a 23,500 square foot retail farm and garden supply store with a garden center and a feed storage additions.

Staff Report

The Staff Report issued for the court settlement is really only a new cover on the original Staff Report from July 8, 2022. It is not dated and does not contain the name of an author.

It contains this Request Summary: “The Oconee County Board of Commissioners is initiating and will consider a rezone of the subject property pursuant to the settlement agreement with Donald Hammett, in the case of Donald Hammett v. Oconee County, Georgia, et al. (Civil Action File No. SU-CV-2022-000347)”

The new cover for the Staff Report does not include a staff recommendation. The July 8, 2022, Staff Report had recommended conditional approval of the rezone.

The original Staff Report had included eight conditions.

The new documents released last week for the new hearing list five “Revised Conditions.”

Missing from the new list is a requirement regarding an “imitation vinyl fence” to be used as a buffer, a requirement that there be a multi-use path with gated access to Oconee Crossing subdivision, and a requirement that bicycle racks be installed on two of the lots in the shopping center.

The submitted site plan does not show any access to Oconee Crossing subdivision.

Additional Comments From Haygood

I sent County Attorney Haygood an email message after release of the new site plan asking for clarification of the Board action on Tuesday.

Haygood confirmed in a response on April 25 that a vote of the commissioners on the rezone request following the settlement is a requirement of Georgia law.

If the commissioners were to decide not to approve the rezone with the new site plan, Hammett’s suit in Superior Court would proceed, Haygood confirmed.

Haygood also said that the Joint Stipulation filled on April 13 is the final legal document at this point in the court case.

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