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Developer gains Newton board's approval for I-20 travel center
Negotiations led to design, operation changes, removal of truck stop features
New plan for old truck stop site
An artist's rendering of the convenience store and fast-food restaurants planned for Georgia Hwy. 11 at I-20's Exit 98 are shown. - photo by Courtesy of Newton County

COVINGTON, Ga. — A developer's months-long fight to build a travel center along I-20 in northeast Newton cleared a major hurdle Tuesday night.

The Newton County Board of Commissioners voted 3-2 to approve a conditional use permit for Jackson-based JPC Design & Construction to build a convenience store with underground fuel tanks on a 46-acre site at I-20 and Georgia Hwy. 11 near Social Circle.

It also apparently ended legal action by the landowner and JPC which sought damages for monetary losses caused by the board's February denial of a rezoning for the travel center. The Board voted to approve a settlement of the lawsuit filed earlier this year 

The building is now planned to include a convenience store and at least three fast-food restaurants in a 24,000-square-foot building.

LeAnne Long, a former commissioner who represented homeowners in the nearby River Cove neighborhood, said "the developer worked with us" on its plans. 

"Technically they didn't have to work with us on any of the design or anything — they only needed permission from the county to put in underground tanks," Long said.

Commissioner Stan Edwards, whose district includes the site, said "thank goodness" the developer agreed to remove planned facilities and services for tractor-trailer drivers while complying with design requirements of the Brick Store overlay zone.

"I believe we've struck a good balance," he told commissioners.

JPC, Davis and a group including Edwards negotiated plans that included devising a new design — including a return to the original size JPC proposed for the building in January. 

The 3-2 votes for the conditional use permit and settlement included "yes" votes from Edwards, District 2 Commissioner Demond Mason and District 5 Commissioner Ronnie Cowan — who attended the meeting remotely by phone.

The "no" votes came from District 3 Commissioner Alana Sanders and District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson.

Henderson said he based both votes on the fact he was not included in the negotiations.

"I think as a commissioner I should have the right to know what's going on," he said.

JPC and landowner Jack P. Davis of Athens filed the lawsuit in Newton County Superior Court in March. It asked a judge to order the county to cover the monetary losses they said commissioners caused by denying a rezoning and not allowing construction of the travel center.

The undeveloped 46-acre site at I-20 and Ga. Highway 11 is about about three miles south of the Walton County line adjacent to part of Social Circle within Newton County. 

JPC initially sought to rezone the entire site to Highway Commercial (CH) from a mix of Agricultural Residential (AR) and CH for construction of a 24,000-square-foot travel center serving tractor-trailer and passenger vehicles, with future plans that included a supermarket in a separate building. 

After the county planning commission and Board of Commissioners denied the request, JPC submitted a plan in May it negotiated with nearby homeowners groups that showed a building two-thirds smaller and not including facilities to serve tractor-trailers. 

However, JPC wanted additional changes residents and county officials opposed and the Board of Commissioners voted June 15 to delay action on it.

For the permit the Board approved Tuesday, JPC agreed to such conditions as a 100-foot, landscaped buffer between its parking area and Hwy. 11, except for driveways; operating hours of 5 a.m. to 12:30 a.m.; a 35-foot buffer along any streams; no overnight parking or parking of more than two hours except for employees; no visible retention ponds; no facilities for long-haul drivers, and more. 

Edwards said on his Facebook page the project met all the requirements of the Brick Store overlay zoning — which includes such building features as a brick-sided building. 

"I know many people didn’t want anything there. They want it to be kudzu forever, including myself, but it is simply unrealistic to believe that could be the case," he said on his Facebook page after the meeting.

"By right they could have built a (100,000-square-foot) building without board approval," Edwards said. 

He said landowners have a right "to sell their property for the best possible use within the criteria set by the local government."

Developers have said in recent years they were interested in building everything from outlet malls to apartments in the same area, Edwards said.

The site is near Georgia State University's Newton campus and a comparatively undeveloped interstate exit.

"People tell me they want grocery shopping and restaurants but those elements require more housing in the area," Edwards said.

"The folks that put together the overlay (zone) all those years ago did those that live in the area a great service but they did not prevent all development — they just put some very good limitations on it." 

The new plan’s design is similar to a travel center that JPC’s parent company, Jackson-based Jones Petroleum, operates near I-75 in Butts County, company officials said.

It faced opposition from residents of neighborhoods near the site who said the developer should be required to begin the entire planning process again because of the changes it made.

Long said she did not believe residents could "appeal or do anything at this point anyway."

"We worked really hard to put conditions on the building and come up with a good development for the community," Long said.

JPC travel center August 2021
The updated plan for a travel center at I-20 and Georgia Hwy. 11 is shown. - photo by Courtesy of Newton County