A1 A1
Winder council approves FY22 budget with projected tax increase; millage rate hearings kick off next week

The Winder City Council on Tuesday, July 20, approved a fiscal year 2022 budget that is anticipated to roughly double the city’s millage rate. But discussions among the split six-member body and city officials are likely to continue as the council readies for three state-required hearings on the proposed tax increase beginning next week.

Following a brief discussion Tuesday and a fresh round of criticism from a handful of city residents in attendance, the council voted 4-2 in favor of a budget — with council members Jimmy Terrell and Holly Sheats in opposition — that projects $64.5 million in revenues and $84 million in expenses, with the difference primarily due to capital utility projects that will need to be financed. The budget includes an $18 million General Fund, which includes only $12.9 million in revenues but will be balanced primarily with a $4.5 million transfer from the city’s water and wastewater utility fund.

The approved budget is projected to require a millage rate increase from 3 to 6 mills to fully fund, though half a mill of that increase would stem from the city’s plan to remove the $50-per-parcel streetlight assessment from tax bills and absorb that service into the General Fund, or the regular millage rate.

The proposed increase triggers three public hearings before an adoption of the millage rate. Those meetings will be held July 29, Aug. 2 and Aug. 3, at 6 p.m. each evening at the Winder Community Center, 113 East Athens St. A vote by the council is slated to be held on Aug. 3 following the final public hearing.

The proposed increase is projected to raise taxes by $210 over the year on a home with a fair-market value of $175,000 and $750 on a home valued at $250,000, according to the city’s public notice on the millage rate hearings. If the millage-rate increase is not approved, the council would have to go back and make a series of amendments to the approved budget.

During the public comment portion of Tuesday’s council meeting, residents — along with the council members in opposition — again hammered the city over what they viewed as a rushed process in voting on the budget and one that lacked transparency. Resident Amber Eskew said a four-page letter she sent to council members and city officials with questions about the budget July 9 went unanswered. And Yvonne Greenway, a Winder resident and former employee of the city’s planning department, said the city should not be approving a budget before the hearings on the millage rate are held.

“It’s irresponsible and it’s unethical,” Greenway said. “It may be legally correct, but it’s just not right. To me, it tells the citizens that (the city doesn’t) care what they think and that you’re going to do what you want to.”

Terrell echoed several of the residents’ points, bemoaning the fact that the council had not held any additional meetings or discussions between the July 6 public hearing on the budget and Tuesday’s vote. That public hearing followed two lengthy discussions at separate meetings last month that resulted in no council consensus over a much larger proposed millage increase and a July 1 work session less than 24 hours after the proposed budget with the increase to 6 mills was posted publicly to the city's website.

“I’m not comfortable with our preparation of this budget,” Terrell said.

But councilman Chris Akins — who was joined by council members Sonny Morris, Kobi Kilgore and Travis Singley in support of the budget — pushed back on the criticisms over the city’s transparency surrounding the budget. Akins has been the most vocally supportive member on the council for fully funding the city’s goals established over the past few months.

“This is an extremely hard decision to make, but it’s (one) that we need to make,” Akins said.

Mayor David Maynard and Cody have said the budget that they presented delivers on several priorities identified by council members over the last several months — including beefed-up public works services, recruitment and retention measures in the fire and police departments (including additional positions, pay increases and higher starting salaries, among others) and $500,000 in funding for the downtown development authority with an emphasis on downtown property redevelopment and master-planning, a drastic step-up from the $8,000 that was budgeted for DDA funding in FY21.

The budget also includes a $1.5% cost-of-living pay adjustment for city employees and the opportunity for a 3% merit-pay raise for all employees not receiving a rate change.

Under the approved budget, the city will decrease its General Fund spending by 4.5% with several expenses being shifted to various user- and impact-fee collection methods. And it will lower by a little over $1 million its reliance on utility-fund transfers to balance the General Fund, though officials have said the transfers are not sustainable long-term given the utility departments’ increasing revenue needs with continuing population growth in the city and county.

Still, residents and council members Terrell and Sheats have continued to be critical of the city’s proposed spending levels in certain areas and have contended it is moving too rapidly to fund priorities by placing more burden on citizens than necessary at one time.

Terrell said that while he understands proposed increases in solid-waste rates and stormwater rates may be needed, he cautioned that the increase from $18 to $23 per month in solid waste and $62 to $87 per year in stormwater will place too much strain on residents with fixed incomes.

“I just think we need to revisit this,” Terrell said. “I think we can cut another mill (roughly $500,000) out of this budget.”

Sheats has been critical of the budget in multiple areas with much of her comments in recent council meetings centering on a proposed $1 million planning department budget that is fueled by what she views as the city’s excessive use of outside professional planning services with an ongoing department head vacancy.

“I’m very disappointed in the way this has fallen out,” Sheats said. “I think that the merit increase and the desperately-needed pay adjustments for our public safety employees are extremely important and should be prioritized over everything else in this budget. Unfortunately, I’m being placed in a position of not being able to consider it a priority because it’s lumped together with other things that I don’t feel like are important enough to be placing on our citizens.”

County planning commission backs rezoning for new subdivision near West Winder Bypass

Barrow County’s planning commission last week threw its support behind a master-planned residential subdivision with more than 170 single-family homes off Highway 211 near the terminus of the future West Winder Bypass.

During its monthly meeting Thursday, July 15, the panel recommended approval of requests to rezone, change the future land-use map designation for and grant a special use for 64.5 acres of the Royal W. Hardigree estate property on Highway 211 Northwest, just south of Pinnacle Drive. The vote was 4-1 with Kevin Jackson opposed and commissioner members David Dyer and Ray Fowler absent. The commission’s recommendation now heads to the county board of commissioners for an Aug. 10 public hearing and vote.

If the requests receive final approval from the BOC, Blue River Acquisitions & Development of Cumming plans to build 171 homes between three existing subdivisions (Pinnacle Oaks, Bellingrath Plantation and Overlook). Six of the homes would be built on land that is located within the Winder city limits and will be part of a separate request before the city, Jeff DeLoach, the attorney for the applicants, said.

The subdivision would be known as Royal Estates as a tribute to Hardigree and is planned to include several recreational amenities. DeLoach said those would include a swimming pool, cabana, clubhouse, tennis court, volleyball court and open space on 12.8 acres. In addition, 11.8 acres will be set aside as a “primary conservation area” along Cedar Creek, DeLoach said.

Under conditions for approval recommended by the planning commission and offered by the applicants, at least 50% of the homes will have a minimum of 2,200 square feet; no more than 30% would be 1,850 to 2,200 square feet; and no more than 20% would be between 1,650 and 1,850 square feet. No vinyl siding would be allowed, as has become custom with housing developments approved by the county in recent years.

DeLoach said price points would start in the $330,000s for the smaller homes and range from $375,000-$450,000 for the larger homes.

The planning commission also recommended approval of three requested variances for the project — reducing the front and side lot setbacks (from 30 to 25 feet and from 10 feet to 7.5 feet, respectively) and a reduction in required entrances to the subdivision from two to one.

DeLoach said the reduction in entrances was needed because the Georgia Department of Transportation would not approve one only a couple hundred feet from the intersection of 211 and the bypass, which is projected to be completed and opened later this year. DeLoach said an additional grassed driveway entrance would be provided for emergency vehicles and would be up to code.

There were no public comments in oppositions to the requests Thursday.

Auburn council heads toward approval of Fowler Farms annexation, rezoning

The Auburn City Council will vote Aug. 5 on the request to annex and rezone the Fowler Farms property off Apalachee Church Road and turn it into a mixed-use development with over 500 single-family detached homes and townhome units, along with commercial space.

Following its Thursday, July 15 work session, indications were that the council was heading toward approval of the requests after city officials and council members reviewed the findings and recommendations of a traffic study completed for the project and expressed confidence that improvements can be made be made before much of the homebuilding is completed.

Chafin Land Development is seeking to annex and rezone the 172-acre tract to the east of the Auburn Station subdivision, south of Atlanta Highway, and build a “planned suburban village” with 335 single-family houses, 174 townhomes, 20 “model units” and commercial uses, including potential office and/or restaurant space.

The family that has been on the land since the 1940s is planning to sell the property because current owner Ray Fowler has said he and his wife are no longer able to properly maintain it and younger generations of the family are not interested in keeping the property. If the requests are approved, home construction wouldn’t begin until 2023 and would be phased in with an anticipated five-year buildout.

Several neighboring residents off Apalachee Church Road voiced opposition to the project in June, saying it would strain the road and exacerbate traffic woes. The council tabled the request last month in order to wait for the completed traffic study to come in. Officials had said a vote on the request was possible at Thursday’s work session, but the body will hold off until its monthly voting session Aug. 5.

The traffic study by Marc R. Acampora Traffic Engineering has recommended improvements along Apalachee Church Road and at its intersection with Atlanta Highway (Highway 29), which would include a new right-hand turn lane onto Atlanta Highway and a potential roundabout or traffic signal at the intersection.

“The existing side street volumes do not appear to be sufficient to warrant signalization,” the study’s authors write, and Mayor Linda Blechinger said a potential traffic light would require approval from the Georgia Department of Transportation and would need “a little more thought” because it could impede traffic flow with existing lights already nearby on Atlanta Highway at Hill’s Shop Road and the Townes of Auburn.

Either way, city planning and community development director Jay Miller said, improvements will certainly be needed on Apalachee Church Road and at the intersection — even if the Fowler Farms property never gets developed, as the Atlanta Highway corridor continues to grow in capacity. The right-turn lane onto Atlanta Highway is recommended by the study regardless of whether the new subdivision is ever constructed or not.

The improvements would involve the collaboration of the city, Barrow County and the developer, officials said. Blechinger said any work the city might be responsible for could be paid for with part of the city’s proceeds from an anticipated new round of special-purpose local-option sales tax (SPLOST) money.

The study also recommends separate left- and right-turn lanes out of the proposed subdivision as well as a southbound deceleration right-turn lane and a northbound left-turn lane into the subdivision off Apalachee Church Road. The developer would either put those in or would pay the city to do it, Miller said.

City officials also said they were confident that additional improvements planned in association with the future Rowen development in Gwinnett County between Auburn and Dacula will lessen the burden the new subdivision would cause at the Apalachee Church Road/Atlanta Highway intersection.

Miller said the study “didn’t really take into account” the Rowen project, a massive planned mixed-use development on 2,000 acres along the Gwinnett and Barrow line north of State Route 316. GDOT has plans and money and resources allocated to construct an interchange at Drowning Creek Road and 316 with a projected completion date of 2027, Miller said. He added that Rowen developers will connect the Lawrence Road/Drowning Creek Road intersection to the interchange, and therefore, residents of the new or existing subdivisions off Apalachee Church Road could go to Brown’s Bridge and Lawrence Road and have a direct route to 316.

“You’re talking about a significant traffic improvement that would alleviate a lot of the pressure on (the Apalachee Church Road/Atlanta Highway intersection),” Miller said.

“The thought is most people in Auburn go toward Gwinnett County for work,” Blechinger said. “We were really glad to hear (from GDOT) that the interchange is happening. That gives me more confidence in us being able to handle the traffic (from the new subdivision). (The interchange) is the biggest, to me.”

With the council now seemingly heading toward approval of the request, that approval will likely come with several conditions similar to those attached to a separate annexation/rezoning request to the west of the Atlanta Highway/Hill’s Shop Road intersection that received approval last month. That project, another “planned suburban village,” is planned to include 253 townhomes, 133 single-family homes and commercial space. Among them are that approved building permits will be spaced out over a few years.

“I think that’s what a lot of people (with concerns and opposition) are overlooking,” councilman Bill Ackworth said. “It’ll be stretched out over a significant period of time.”

Miller said the traffic study recommendations also would be roped into the staff-recommended conditions for approval of the requests.

After the Fowler Farms vote, the council will turn its attention to another annexation/rezoning request by Chafin Land Development and Clayton Properties on the opposite end of Auburn. That request is to annex and rezone 98 acres at 277 Carl-Cedar Hill Rd. and build 315 single-family houses. The council tabled the request earlier this month for further review, following a tabling by the city’s planning commission. The planning commission will take up the request in August, and the council is currently scheduled to vote on it in September.

Despite worries from some residents in recent months about the rate of growth the city is experiencing and their opposition to the annexations and rezonings, other residents and most city officials have said development in the areas already zoned for residential uses through the county is inevitable and that annexing the properties gives the city greater control over the development there with the ability to attach numerous conditions that would address the various concerns.

County commissioners to reconsider Hoschton-area rezoning request next month

The Barrow County Board of Commissioners is aiming to reconsider next month a request to rezone land in unincorporated Hoschton for a mixed-use residential and commercial development about a mile south of the intersection of highways 211 and 124.

The board voted July 13, following a closed session, to reconsider a request by Ridgeline Land Planning and developer Holt Persinger to rezone and change the county’s future land-use map designation for 53.2 acres at 1308 Lec Stone Rd. in order for 280 apartment units and 158 townhomes to be built while the developer would set aside roughly 8.5 acres for 130,000 square feet of commercial space.

The BOC voted 5-2 during a contentious public hearing in October to deny the request, following along with the recommendation of the county’s planning commission, amid strong pushback against the project from nearby residents.

The developer and the property owners, the Stone Living Trust, who are under contract for the sale of the property, filed suit against the county, and the parties have agreed to stay the litigation while the requests are reconsidered by the board. The developer is also seeking a variance on stream buffer setback requirements, from 100 feet to 50 feet.

Because “contract zoning” is not allowed in Georgia, the county’s agreement to reconsider does not guarantee that the board will approve the applicants’ requests. If it does, the plaintiffs have agreed to file for dismissal of the suit within 35 days of the decision. If the requests are not approved, they reserve the right to resume the litigation.

If the requests are approved, they would likely come with 19 conditions. Some of the key ones include:

•that a traffic study be prepared by a registered engineer in Georgia and submitted to the county’s planning department, and that the developer must comply with any and all recommendations, standards and requirements set by the county and the Georgia Department of Transportation.

•that the owner/developer dedicate right of way necessary to “safely realign” the intersection of Highway 211 and Freeman Johnson Road.

•that the commercial component of the development not include any mini-warehouses or storage units or “grocery stores smaller than 30,000 square feet.”

•that the residential portion of the development have restricted gate access.

•that the attached residential units be a minimum of 1,800 heated square feet with no vinyl siding.

•that there be a mandatory homeowners’ association and that the residential streets be privately owned and maintained.

•that there be amenities for residents — including a pool, clubhouse, fitness center, walking trails and open space.

The new terms and conditions will not be put before the planning commission, but will go straight to the BOC for an Aug. 10 public hearing and vote, county attorney Angie Davis said.

That public hearing, set for 6 p.m., will be advertised in The Barrow News-Journal.

Off-duty Auburn police officer one of two killed in crash

The Georgia State Patrol is investigating a head-on collision between two vehicles in Auburn early Saturday morning, July 17, that killed two people, including an off-duty officer with the Auburn Police Department, and seriously injured four others.

According to GSP spokesman Lt. W. Mark Riley, Officer Jacob H. Peek, 25, of Bogart, was driving a Ford Mustang north on Carl-Midway Church Road just after 12:15 a.m., when, for “unknown reasons,” he lost control of the vehicle and traveled into the southbound lane, striking a Toyota Corolla that was being driven by Zachary C. Smith, 28, of Auburn. Both men were killed. Three passengers in the Mustang with Peek — two females and a male — and a male passenger in the vehicle with Smith all sustained serious injuries and were transported to Gwinnett Medical Center. Their identities were not confirmed at the time of the report.

“The investigation is ongoing with the assistance of the Georgia State Patrol Troop B Specialized Collision Reconstruction Team,” Riley wrote in an email, adding that a crash report was incomplete as of early Monday afternoon, July 19.

An obituary for Peek provided to The Barrow News-Journal said he was formerly employed by the Winder Police Department prior to joining the APD. He was a 2014 graduate of Winder-Barrow High School. Further information on Smith was not immediately available.