Mayor Kim Carter once again cast the tie-breaking city council vote Monday night in further support of a special use permit for Janice VanNess' Christian Peachtree Academy, which would be built off McGuirts Bridge Road. In what was at times a contentious discussion, VanNess, area residents and city councils members made arguments for and against the building of the school. The most important issue for council members was increased traffic.
City council members John Howard, Keith Dalton and Mike Whatley said they didn't think the school would be built because the county and Georgia Department of Transportation wouldn't approve hundreds of extra cars traveling along U.S. Highways 278 and McGuirts Bridge Road, no matter what road improvements were made.
"I can almost say right now that the DOT won't approve the changes (that would have to be made according to the traffic study)," Howard said Monday night.
"I shouldn't have put words in their (DOT and county) mouth, but anybody who drives along that area of 278 knows how bad it is all day long," Howard added Tuesday night. "They're not going to allow them to just put an access road or a turn off lane in there. And students will be trying to pull out, trying to do this and that and somebody could be killed. It's going to be a total disaster traffic wise."
The city already approved a SUP for VanNess on Feb. 2, but she wanted some amendments to be made regarding extending the length of the permit and clarifying the number of students that could go to the school. On April 28 the Covington Planning Commission voted to eliminate the five-year time limit on the SUP, extending the permit to perpetuity, and to clarify that the school could hold up to 1,100 students based on the city ordinance's acreage requirements.
The city was simply voting on these two amendments, not the SUP again, Howard said. That's why even though the city council was once again split, some of the council members voted differently. Howard said he still opposed the school being built there and he voted against the SUP originally. However, this time he voted for the amendments, because he was supporting the planning commission's recommendations. Council members Howard, Ocie Franklin and Janet Goodman voted in favor of the amendments and Keith Dalton, Mike Whatley and Hawnethia Williams voted against the amendments.
Even though the city council approved the changes to VanNess' SUP, she now has to pay for a traffic study of the area to be conducted. County Engineer Kevin Walter said the traffic study will include current traffic conditions, how traffic will change with each building phase of the school, how many cars will be added to the traffic of the area, at what times the traffic will be added and what improvements should be made to make sure traffic flows smoothly.
Walter and DOT will have to sign off on the changes, because the McGuirts Bridge Road is a county road and Highway 278 is a state road. Walter said the county could deny VanNess the ability to connect her driveway to the county's road if the traffic study finds that traffic would be unbearable, preventing her or anyone else from gaining access to the property.
Even some of the council members who voted for the project said they just didn't think the area was right for the school. Carter who cast the tie-breaking vote in favor agreed traffic would be a concern, but she said that decision was the county's and DOT's to make.
"I agree that the location is not ideal and that traffic is a big deal," Carter said. "I hope you (VanNess) have deep pockets, because the road improvements would need to be (extensive). However, we can't deny you the right to spend your money."
VanNess will have to make any changes required by the traffic study and meet numerous other SUP stipulations in order to get a building permit from the city which would actually allow her to start construction. Walter said a traffic study will likely cost between $5,000 and $10,000 and will take a month.
McGuirts Bridge Road resident Tony Webb, the unofficial spokesperson for the area residents, said he and the other residents are against the school because of the traffic concerns. He said he will continue to watch the project's progress, but he said the traffic issue isn't going away and he isn't going away.
VanNess said despite the council's comments, she is still planning to have the traffic study and build her school.
"Yes I'm going to go ahead ... there is so much demand for a school that is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, such a need for a high caliber school with those criteria," VanNess said. "There is so much opportunity for the city to have more things that would attract industry and more higher-end businesses and this is certainly one of the qualities they (businesses) look at in a community.
If everything was approved and on schedule, VanNess said the school would open in the fall of 2010.