Despite strong objections from a large contingent of nearby residents Tuesday night, May 11, the Barrow County Board of Commissioners granted approval of a request to rezone roughly 43.7 acres of property across from Home Depot in Bethlehem, allowing for a large residential development of 288 apartment units and 150 townhomes to be built.
The board voted 6-1 in favor of the request by Westplan Investors, which plans to build the development, referred to as Accent Springs, just west of the intersection of Carl-Bethlehem Road and State Route 81. The project, which went through a month-long Developments of Regional Impact (DRI) review process by the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission earlier this year, will bring more than 400 living units to what is already one of the most congested intersections and areas of the county.
Numerous residents from neighboring subdivisions have been vocal in their opposition to the rezoning and poured into the BOC’s chambers Tuesday night to voice their objections, primarily centering around traffic concerns and the burden they contend the development would pose on already-crowded nearby schools.
“Please stop approving construction that is hurting our school system,” said Kenneth England, a resident of the Cambridge Estates subdivision and organizer of the opposition group and an online petition against the development that had garnered nearly 1,400 signatures as of Tuesday.
Commissioner Ben Hendrix was the lone BOC member to oppose the request, saying he shared the residents’ concerns over traffic and the potential impact on schools.
But a majority of the board seemed to agree that the county had little legal standing to deny the request with staff’s finding that the proposed use is supported by the county’s comprehensive plan and surrounding zoning.
“I understand that people are concerned,” commissioner Isaiah Berry said, addressing the crowd. “I feel your pain, but there are certain things we can do and certain things we cannot do. I hope you understand that.”
The board’s decision backed up a recommendation last month by the county’s planning commission to approve the request with more than a dozen conditions attached. Among them are that there be no three-bedroom apartments and no playgrounds as amenities — conditions attorneys for the applicants have agreed to and said should alleviate some of the concerns over school burdening, adding that the housing would be targeted toward “young professionals.”
The total property area is a little more than 73 acres, and the remaining 30 acres will stay zoned for commercial development for now, though attorneys for the applicants have said there are no current plans to build commercial uses there. Still, they have pointed to traffic studies done that indicate daily traffic trips would be reduced by making the 43.7 acres residential rather than full commercial buildout if they kept them under the current zoning. Commissioner Bill Brown singled out that finding prior to his “yes” vote.
Chairman Pat Graham supported the request partly on the basis that, she said, Barrow County lacks an adequate supply of apartment housing. She said the development could help improve the single-family housing market in the county by leading to fewer investors buying single-family homes around Barrow and turning them into rentals.
The BOC did diverge from a pair of requests by the applicant’s attorneys — voting as part of the conditions to keep the minimum rental unit sizes at 823 square feet for one-bedroom units and 1,107 square feet for two-bedroom units — rather than the suggested 725 and 1,050 square feet, respectively — and to require that at least 80 percent of the townhomes have rear-entry garages rather than the suggested 50-percent minimum.
In other business Tuesday, commissioners:
•approved a roughly $4.7 million contract with Allied Paving Contractors for 2021 resurfacing and patching work on 18 county roads totaling about 26.2 miles. The company had the low bid out of five to complete the work, which will be paid for through a combination of capital project funds, SPLOST funds and LMIG grant funds from the state. The roads slated for work include Pleasant Hill Church Road, Bowman Mill Road, Hancock Bridge Road, Arnold Road, Glenn Jackson Road, Cosby Road, Manning Gin Road, County Line-Auburn Road, Harvey Lokey Road, Bethel-Bowers Road, Matthews School Road, Lakeview Drive SW, Hillside Drive, Spring Street, Elks Street, Short Street, Jim Johnson Road and Carl Cedar Hill Road.
•approved a $289,855 contract with Kech and Wood to conduct a transportation study for the State Route 316 corridor in Barrow between the Gwinnett County and Oconee County lines. Kech and Wood was selected out of three responses to the county’s request for qualifications. The study, previously approved by the BOC, is being funded 80 percent with a grant through the Atlanta Regional Commission, and the ARC will reimburse the county after it covers the costs upfront. The county will ultimately be responsible for $57,971. County traffic engineer Darrell Greeson said Kech and Wood’s price came in under the county’s initial cost estimate for the study of $350,000.
•approved a professional services agreement for operation and maintenance of the county’s Barber Creek and Tanners Bridge wastewater treatment facilities with Bob Sheldon Inc. for $248,580 per year. The initial agreement will expire June 30, 2023, and the county has the option to extend it twice for three-year periods.
•approved a request by Sarah Place, LLC and property owner Wanda Harris to change the future land-use map designation for and rezone 43.9 acres at 331 Cosby Rd., Winder, in order to build a 91-lot residential subdivision. The property is to the south of the Barrow County Airport, following a recommendation of approval by the planning commission. County planning staff had recommended denial, citing the proposed subdivision’s close proximity to properties zoned for industrial development, but offered recommended conditions for approval — including that it be developed as a less-dense conservation subdivision. The developer of the proposed project, however, said it would make more sense as an R-2 development as proposed because public water and sewer infrastructure are already in place. The vote on the rezone request was 6-1 in favor with Graham opposed. Commissioner Rolando Alvarez joined Graham in opposition to the future land-use map change.
•tabled a request to rezone 6 acres at SR 316 and Smith Cemetery Road for new office and warehouse space for Athens-headquartered Lotus International, a home and gardening product distributor looking to relocate to Barrow County. Graham called for tabling the request until the board’s June voting session so that the applicants and staff could work on architectural guidelines for the proposed facilities. John Stell, the attorney representing the applicants, has said that phase 1 of the proposed project would be to build a 60,000-square-foot warehouse and 10,000 square foot of office space for the company. Phase 2 would be to build a retail garden center with plans to hire an additional 6-15 employees to go along with the current 25 or so employees.
•denied a request to rezone 4.9 acres at the intersection of SR 316 and Barber Creek Road in Statham for a convenience store/gas station to be built. The request had drawn opposition both from a neighboring resident and a representative of nearby Barber Creek Baptist Church’s deacon board over traffic concerns at last month’s planning commission meeting, and the church representative echoed his comments Tuesday. The applicant for the project did not appear before the planning commission and sent in a late request Tuesday to withdraw the application. Alvarez was the lone vote against the motion to deny.
•met in closed session for over an hour to discuss potential and pending litigation as well as real estate matters. No action was taken.