Opponents of the court settlement allowing for construction of Oconee Crossing Shopping Center turned out in the Commission Chamber at the Oconee County Courthouse on Tuesday night, but they didn’t change the minds of the needed two commissioners.
After detailed arguments by two residents of Oconee Crossing subdivision, the vote was unchanged from March 7.
On that evening, Commissioners Amrey Harden, Mark Saxon, and Mark Thomas voted to accept the settlement of a lawsuit filed by Donald Hammett to force the county to vote a second time on his rezone request for the 43 acres he owns at Hog Mountain Road and U.S. 78.
Those three voted on Tuesday to approve the site plans and rezone request that Hammett submitted that includes a 52,000 square foot grocery store, a car wash, several restaurants, including two marked for drive-through service, office and retail buildings, and a farm and garden supply store.
Commissioner Chuck Horton voted against the settlement agreement on March 7 and against the rezone on Tuesday night.
The meeting on Tuesday was a lengthy one that included a decision to allow for an increase in the size of a proposed commercial building at Manders Crossing on Mars Hill Road and Cliff Dawson Road but to prohibit use of that building for a “dollar” store and other purposes.
At the end of the meeting, county Finance Director Melissa Braswell presented the first draft of the county’s Fiscal Year 2024 Budget that is based on a drop in the county millage rate from 5.954 to 4.954 in the unincorporated parts of the county and from 6.804 to 5.804 in the county’s four cities.
The commissioners pulled from the Tuesday agenda discussion of the proposal by the Oconee County Board of Education for an increase in fees it charges the county for use of school sports facilities after Commission Chair John Daniell said he wants “a little more time to work on that.”
Hearing On Oconee Crossing Rezone
Technically, what the Board of Commissioners had done on March 7 was agree to give Hammett, of Kennesaw, a second hearing on the rezone request it had denied him on Oct. 4.
|Caffery Before Board 5/2/2023|
Hammett had filed suit in Oconee Superior Court on Nov. 2 of last year attempting to overturn that decision, and Harden, Saxon, and Thomas had agreed after a lengthy executive session on March 7 to the hearing on Tuesday night as a settlement of that suit.
At the front of the hearing, Jeff Carter of Carter Engineering, representing Hammett, gave a short presentation and was followed by Jeff Pittman with Piedmont Real Estate Group and Brandon Bowman, also representing Hammett.
Rick Caffery, who has led Oconee Crossing subdivision residents in opposition to the shopping center as planned, and Paul Bludov, whose house and lot back up to the proposed grocery store, split the time allocated to opponents of the project.
Argument Of Hammett’s Representatives
Carter told the Board that “all the uses that we’re asking to do on the property was approved back in 1990,” when the Board of Commissioners rezoned the acreage that now includes Stripling’s General Store, the 43 acres Hammett now owns, and Oconee Crossing subdivision.
|Pittman Before Board 5/2/2023|
“We feel that this property is very well situated in the county,” he said. It will serve planned subdivisions in the area and reduce traffic in Butler’s Crossing, he said.
Pittman said that the “berm that we’ve proposed in the most recent site plan is probably the most significant berm that’s ever been proposed in this county and maybe in the state of Georgia in terms of its ability to separate the two uses.”
The site plans show the grocery 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.”
“I’ve never seen anything of this design before,” he said. “I think we’ve come a considerable ways in trying to meet every objection of the opposition to this case.”
“We’ve redesigned the property four times,” he said.
“We think we’ve got ultimately something that is going to benefit the county in ways that we didn’t see at the beginning,” he added.
Oconee Crossing Residents
“I cannot honestly say that I’m happy to see you guys tonight six short months after the vote in October,” Caffery said as he began his comments. “But here we are.”
“You apparently are acquiescing without so much as a fight,” he said.
“It is not a significant change,” Caffery said of the new site plans.
“We’re asking you guys to please continue to defend us and stay with the convictions you all had in October, and not roll over for these guys,” Caffery said.
Bludov spent most of his time focusing on the noise he said he will hear if a grocery is located at the edge of his property.
The movement of the store and the buffer “makes almost no difference,” he said.
Bludov said he purchased the type of commercial beeper that is used on trucks to warn those nearby when the driver is backing and “placed the beepers exactly where the trucks would be,” he said. “I can tell you that it’s going to be unbearable.”
Skip Taylor used the tiny amount of time after Caffery and Bludov spoke to say that “no business in any way should push aside the citizens, the taxpaying people of this county.”
Harden said after the hearing ended that “the citizens of Oconee County are entitled to understand the reasoning behind my willingness to consider a settlement with this request.”
“When I saw the first version of the plan I quickly had concerns about the proximity of the grocery store to the property line” at the rear of tract, he said.
The developers moved the grocery store to its current location at the rear of 1660 Oconee Circle on the night of the vote in October, and Harden said he didn’t know how closely that move aligned with the concept plan from 1990, when the land was originally rezoned.
“With the additional 25 feet (buffer) that is being presented as part of the settlement,” Harden said, “it is my view that increased buffer and the enhanced screening within the buffer matches and in some cases even exceeds the distances that were previously agreed to by this county in 1990 when this property was originally zoned along with your residential component."
Commission Chair John Daniell, who votes only in the case of a tie, said he agreed with Harden.
“This was zoned in 1990,” he said. “The residential component only exists because of the commercial portion of it. This version is a lot better than the original one submitted, and it is closer to the 1990 version that was approved in terms of location of the bigger retail building.”
Horton said what made this rezone difference was that it was a Planned Unit Development, in which the residential and commercial units were designed and approved together.
The residents “bought” the original concept, Horton said, and the county had an obligation to honor that original plan.
The vacant 1.4 acre parcel at the corner of Cliff Dawson Road and Mars Hill Road already is zoned B-1 (General Business District), and the Brothers Company LLC of Atlanta is seeking to revise the square footage of the original rezone.
Rob Leverett, an attorney from Elberton, representing the company at the hearing on Tuesday night, said the request to increase the square footage from 9,600 to 10,600 was to allow the owners to offset expenses of building a below ground stormwater facility and of the sloped roof required for buildings along Mars Hill Road.
At the Planning Commission meeting on April 17, Greg Ashley, owner of the existing Manders Crossing Shopping Center, said he had heard that a Dollar General was a possible tenant of the proposed addition to the center and “that would not be something I was in favor of.”
Much of the discussion at the meeting had to do with ways to improve the view of the building, which will sit prominently at the Manders Crossing intersection.
No one mentioned the types of tenants for the building when Harden suddenly read off a list of uses of the building that he felt were inappropriate, including a general merchandise store, a cigar and tobacco store, and a variety store.
He added at the end of the list “dollar store.”
The Board of Commissioners unanimously approved the condition that these types of stores would not be allowed in the 10,600 square foot building.
The commissioners then turned to three other rezone requests before them.
Robert W. Bishop, representing KBB LLC, requested the rezone of 17.8 acres on Bishop Farms Parkway “for estate purposes.”
The property abuts the campus of the University of North Georgia.
Triple C Family Limited Partnership, controlled by Archie B. Crenshaw, President and General Partner of Triple C. Services, Inc., asked to rezone 10.0 acres from an 104.8 acre tract on Cole Springs Road.
The goal of the rezone is to set aside land for four of his grandchildren.
Benjamin Proulx from Smith Planning Group asked to rezone 10 acres inside a 415-acre now dormant residential development off Choyce Johnson Road being called North Haven subdivision.
The commissioners approved unanimously, and with hardly any discussion, the three rezone requests.
Braswell presented the Board with a balanced General Fund Budget of $38.8 million, which is an increase from the approved current Fiscal Year Budget of $37.9 million.
The amended Fiscal Year 2023 budget, however, is $39.9 million, or $1.1 million more than is proposed for next year.
The Fiscal Year 2024 Budget includes $18.4 million in property tax revenue, down from $20.4 in the amended Fiscal Year 2023 Budget.
The decrease in property tax revenue is the result of the 1 mill reduction in property taxes the Board committed to with the passage of the Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (TSPLOST) last year, Braswell said.
Local Option Sales Tax revenue is projected to increase from $9.0 million in the current amended budget to $10.6 million in the upcoming year.
The proposed expenditures for Fiscal Year 2024 show a sharp decline in spending for Public Works, from $11.1 million in the current amended budget to $4.6 million in Fiscal Year 2024.
That is the result of shifting these expenses to revenue from TSPLOST, which is budgeted to bring in $10.6 million.
Budget Hearings Scheduled
In addition to the General Fund Budget, the county has separate budgets for the Water Resources Department, for TSPLOST, and for the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax.
The total budget for the county in Fiscal Year 2024 is $73.6 million.
Hearings on the General Fund and total county budget are scheduled for May 23 and June 6.
The Board is scheduled to adopt the budget after the second hearing on June 6.
The county will not actually set the millage rate until late summer, when the Tax Commissioner releases the size of the county's Tax Digest, or assessed property values.