The desire of city officials to bring in more jobs and tax revenue through new industry clashed head on against the traffic, noise and pollution concerns of local residents at Tuesday night’s Covington Planning Commission meeting. The additional jobs and tax revenue appear to have won.
Since the summer of 2008, Gil Gainer has been trying to get his 167 acre-property along Hazelbrand Road annexed into the city of Covington and rezoned from Agricultural Residential to Heavy Industrial. On Tuesday, the planning commission approved Gainer’s annexation and rezoning request by a 3-2 vote, with members Eula Hardeman and Greg Shy opposing.
The case has been complicated for several reasons. First, there is no developer involved and there are no set site plans — this would be a speculative rezoning. The reason Gainer wants the property rezoned to heavy industrial is so he can more easily market and sell the property to an industry or industries.
When industries consider locating a facility in Georgia, they go through the Georgia Department of Economic Development. This department has a map listing all of the potential industrial properties in the state. In order for a property to be on the listing, it has to already be zoned industrial.
However, heavy industrial is the most lenient zoning on the books, and that’s part of the problem. The planning commission expressed concern about rezoning this property without knowing what was going to move in – residents were even more concerned.
In addition, last year the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission, a planning group for Newton and 11 other counties, recommended that the property not be rezoned. The commission conducted a Development of Regional Impact, a study that examines proposed projects that could have large effects on their surroundings. City Planning Director Randy Vinson said the commission was opposed because of concerns about the effects more industry could have on the water quality of the nearby Alcovy River.
That process slowed down the rezoning request, as did the fact that the property’s next door neighbor, the Georgia Wildlife Federation, was vehemently opposed, because of environmental concerns.
The Gainer property, as it’s been nicknamed, is caught in the middle; SKC Inc. is to the southwest, while the GWF is to the southeast, across from the Alcovy River. Further complicating the matter is that the Alcovy River, which is the Gainer property’s southern border, has actually moved over the years, so there was a dispute about how much property belonged to Gainer and the GWF.
If that wasn’t enough, speculative zoning is basically not allowed under the new city ordinance; which requires a full site plan to be presented when a rezoning is requested. However, because this rezoning case is so old, the actual submitted documents are under the old ordinances.
After much of the above was sorted out, the planning commission finally heard the case on Dec. 8. They added several conditions to the annexation and rezoning request, including larger than normal stream buffers, a limit of 50 percent impervious surfaces, all infrastructure additions must be paid for by the property owner, a traffic study, additional open space and more review at later dates by the city engineering department.
The commission approved the request 5 to 1, with Ruel Parker voting against, and Chairperson Eula Hardeman abstaining.
The request was then heard at the city council’s Jan. 4 meeting, but at the meeting Mayor Kim Carter said that the commission may not have realized the Gainer property has two separate tracts of land, one north of Hazelbrand Road and one south. She said the southern property along the Alcovy River had very harsh restrictions put on it, which maybe shouldn’t apply to the northern portion. The request was tabled and sent back to the planning commission.
On Tuesday, the planning commission once again heard discussion and once again approved the request, with some amended conditions. However, many more residents from the surrounding area attended the meeting and spoke against the annexation and rezoning.
Several residents said they had concerns about possible pollution and increased noise – many residents bought houses out there to be in the peaceful country. However, the main concern seemed to be traffic. Even without this possible industrial park, or single large industrial user, semi-trucks frequently get lost and travel on roads they shouldn’t be travelling on, blocking traffic and damaging roads, residents said.
If train traffic is increased, certain roads could be blocked off more frequently and traffic could be held up even further.
Jerry Silvio, a former developer who was representing Gainer, said the property owner would make any necessary road improvements. He also said it was clear the property’s best use was for industry. The city council will vote on whether to annex and rezone the property at Monday’s city council meeting.
In the meantime, resident Johnny Stone said he would be collecting a petition for signatures to oppose any changes to Hazelbrand Road and present it to the county’s board of commissioners. Even though the property would be annexed by the city, the road would remain in the county’s control, so Stone hopes the county will refuse to let future property owners connect to the county’s road.