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Planning commission recommends approval of rezoning for residential development across from Home Depot

A proposed large residential development of townhomes and apartments across from Home Depot in unincorporated Bethlehem cleared another hurdle last week, gaining an endorsement from the Barrow County Planning Commission despite pushback from a large group of neighboring residents.

By a 4-2 vote Thursday, April 15, the panel recommended approval of a request by Westplan Investors of Lawrennceville to rezone 43.7 acres just west of the intersection of Carl-Bethlehem Road and State Route 81 in order to build “Accent Springs,” a development of 288 apartments and 150 single-family townhomes, a reduction of 38 townhome units from the originally-proposed project. The recommendation now heads to the county board of commissioners for a scheduled public hearing and final vote at its 6 p.m. meeting May 11.

Accent Springs, which is planned for one phase and is being targeted for completion by summer 2023, would bring more than 400 units to an area near the SR 81/SR 316 interchange that is already experiencing intense commercial growth with a planned boom of residential development on the way. Sixty-seven acres of property on the other side of SR 81, to the east of the Barrow Crossing shopping center have been approved by the Winder City Council for a rezoning that would allow for over 300 living units. The developer of that project has requested a change in conditions that would change the scope from 300 apartments and 99 townhomes to 349 townhomes and no apartments, but the city council earlier this month postponed a vote on that request until its May 3 meeting.

Concerns with traffic and capacity issues at county schools within the zone Accent Springs would fall under have driven opposition to the project. Some residents who spoke against the request during a public hearing last week said they have doubts the county’s infrastructure is prepared to take on the additional residences. Residents living off Hoyt King Road, which runs along the property, said the road already has a significant issue with cars cutting through to avoid the SR 81/Carl-Bethlehem Road intersection.

“We’re not opposed to development; we only ask that (the county) work to achieve a goal that we all share, and that is what’s best for Barrow County,” said Kenneth England, a resident of neighboring subdivision Cambridge Estates and the organizer of an online petition against the rezoning request, which had swelled to over 800 signatures within a week by the time the planning commission met. “We look forward to working with the property owners to find a happy median, but my challenge to (the planning commission) is, is this really what’s best for Barrow County?”

The planning commission’s vote — with Robert Lanham, Barry Norton, Deborah Lynn and Bobby Ray Fowler in favor, Ronnie Morrow and Kevin Jackson opposed, and David Dyer absent — lined up with more than a dozen staff-recommended conditions for approval, including that none of the apartments be more than two bedrooms and that no playground be allowed as an amenity.

Shane Lanham, the attorney representing Westplan Investors, said those conditions should help ease school-capacity concerns, contending they would likely dissuade families with children from moving there.

Regarding traffic, Lanham said the developer would follow recommendations from county staff and the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission in Developments of Regional Impact (DRI) report to incorporate pedestrian and bicycle paths connecting the development with commercial parcels in an effort to relieve some of the pressure near the intersection.

The 43.7 acres proposed to be rezoned are part of a larger 73-acre tract currently zoned for commercial development, though there are no current plans to develop it. Still, Lanham said rezoning more than half of the property residential would eventually reduce the amount of projected traffic at the bustling intersection.

“We anticipate more commercial development in that area, and I think it’s safe to say it would generate more traffic (if the land is left zoned entirely for commercial),” Lanham said.

REZONE REQUEST FOR LARGE RESIDENTIAL DEVELOPMENT OFF TOM MILLER ROAD TABLED

Meanwhile, the planning commission at its meeting last week tabled a request by Ashton Atlanta Residential of Alpharetta to rezone 328 acres at 979 Tom Miller Rd. and add 506 single-family homes and 123 townhomes to one of the largest remaining open swaths of land near the Apalachee High, Haymon-Morris Middle, Yargo Elementary school complex.

The county staff’s recommendation for approval includes conditions the county has typically attached to single-family residential projects in recent years (minimum of 2,000 square feet for detached homes and no vinyl siding), avoiding a “monotonous” appearance of homes and minimizing disruption to existing water bodies and streams on the property — a concern that was also raised in a DRI report for the proposed project.

Mike Busher, division president for Ashton Woods Homes, said the developer was proposing a mixture of lot sizes to help accomplish the avoidance of monotonous home appearance and encourage a “multi-generational” neighborhood.

Michelle Patterson, president of the homeowners’ association of the neighboring Kensington subdivision, said the property owners there were not opposed to the proposed development as a whole but had concerns with the size and scope of the project, with traffic and school-capacity issues again at the forefront. Patterson said they would prefer to see the subdivision built with only single-family detached homes and no townhomes and that they support a re-widening of Tom Miller Road to handle an increase in traffic, along with a traffic signal at Ben Johnson Road for safety reasons.

Busher said the developers would be willing to hold additional meetings with the residents to address concerns in more detail, which prompted Norton to motion to table the request.

“You’ve got the two parties here willing to sit down and talk, and there’s obviously some differences,” Norton said.

The planning commission will take up the request again at its May 20 meeting, which presumably would put the item before the board of commissioners for a final vote in June.

OTHER ITEMS

Following public hearings on other items Thursday, the planning commission:

•unanimously recommended approval of 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 and is near the former Trinity Rail train car facility, which the board of commissioners last week approved for a rezoning to allow for housing materials manufacturer DIV005 to open a new plant there. The county’s planning staff had recommended denial of the requests due to concerns that the subdivision would be too close to properties zoned for industrial development, but offered recommended conditions for approval, including that it be developed as a less-dense conservation subdivision. However, Holt Persinger, the developer of the proposed project, said the project would make more sense as an R-2 development as proposed because public water and sewer infrastructure are already in place. Planning commission member Robert Lanham, who made the motion to approve the request, agreed and said the subdivision would also make sense because it would provide nearby housing opportunities for future employees at the DIV005 facility.

•unanimously recommended approval of 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. John Stell, the attorney for the applicants, said 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.

•unanimously recommended denial of 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 drew opposition both from a neighboring resident and a representative of nearby Barber Creek Baptist Church’s deacon board over traffic concerns. The applicant for the project did not appear before the panel.

The BOC is scheduled to hold public hearings and make the final determination on those requests May 11.


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Players, colleagues, family members remember relationships with late former WBHS football coach Jones

Phil Jones won 213 games in 37 seasons as a head football coach at the high school and college levels. But as Gary Whitlock, one of his former assistants at Winder-Barrow High School, summed it up, Jones didn’t stress “wins and the scoreboard” as much as the relationships he developed, fostered and maintained with everyone around him.

That was apparent Sunday, April 18, as family members, friends, former colleagues and the community held a celebration-of-life service at W. Clair Harris Stadium for Jones, who died in December at age 74 following a prolonged battle with Alzheimer’s disease.

Jones, who coached at Winder-Barrow from 1984-1996 before joining the college ranks as an assistant and later started and guided the program at Shorter University for 12 seasons before his retirement in 2015, remains Winder-Barrow’s all-time wins leader with 81 and led the Bulldoggs to their most successful season in school history in 1993, when they finished 11-3 and reached the GHSA Class AAA semifinals.

But while Jones was remembered by former players and coaches from his days both at Winder-Barrow and Shorter as a great “strategizer” and aficionado of the veer offense, the primary focus was on his leadership and influence as a father-like figure both for his fellow coaches and his players, and as a faithful servant of Jesus Christ.

“His hard work and dedication and vision will always carry on here,” said Al Darby, one of Jones’ former players at Winder-Barrow, who later became principal of the school and is now the Barrow County School System’s chief officer for athletics and student affairs. “He taught us empathy. He taught us humility, and most of us all he taught us compassion.”

“Phil instilled in us that we all needed to be a family and that nothing was stronger than family,” added Isaiah Berry, one of Jones’ Winder-Barrow assistants and now a Barrow County commissioner.

Darby and other former players recalled Jones saying “I love you,” to them, when most of them had only ever heard that from their fathers or no other man at all.

“He taught us life. He taught us to believe in those who God sends to us and to pull them up and train them up, so that when any of us fall down, we remember how to get back up,” said former Bulldoggs receiver Eric Polite, now a pastor in Dacula. “Yeah, we sweated, we bled, we cried, we fought, we played games. But when it came down to it, the memories we truly hold are of God and him showing us God in a man.”

‘HE STILL COACHES US’

Polite recalled feeling devastated his senior year when he dropped a crucial pass in a game the Bulldoggs lost at Dalton, but said that Jones’ faith in him never wavered.

“He said, ‘Son, after all the work you’ve put in, and who you are, I’m throwing you the first pass next game,’” Polite said.

That belief in others — even when they didn’t always see it in themselves — and his ability to “get every single ounce out of” his players was among Coach Jones’ strongest attributes, his son and former Winder-Barrow quarterback Philly Jones said.

“He would have loved this scene today. He was a uniter, and I think having friends, family and the community here today would really move him,” said Philly, who remembered his father as a great motivator. He envisioned the coach, “with a fully restored mind and body,” delivering a pre-game speech in heaven.

“Those of you who ever experienced one of those moments with him know how he was able to just capture the room, unite the room and just convince us that we could do anything, motivated by the love that we all shared for each other,” the younger Jones said. “Those were moments when Dad was at his best.

“…Even though he’s not physically here with us, he still coaches us — because his spirit lives with us, and he’s still, to this day, calling us to do better.”

AN ‘UNBREAKABLE’ BOND

But for all the strength he displayed and motivation he provided for others in need, Jones wasn’t without his own personal demons, and his daughter, Connie Jones, remembered that it was when they talked their struggles through together during her young adult years that she truly got to “know” her father.

“I saw my dad so differently and the same as others, too,” Connie said. “I wanted to be everywhere with him. …I saw the magic of his coaching, I heard the motivation in his speeches, and I witnessed the beautiful way in which he built programs, everywhere he went, from the ground up, and brought together teams, people and communities like only he could. Often, I was on the outside of that, a bystander. And to be honest, it was really hard.”

Connie recalled her struggles as a college student with anxiety, depression and a debilitating eating disorder that eventually forced her into a residential treatment program. When her father missed his first football game to join her for several days of “intensive family counseling,” it was the start of a much deeper relationship between the two, she said, adding that he eventually opened up to her about his own personal struggles — from a childhood of emotional abuse through battles with anxiety and depression in his adult life.

“My dad and I had a bond that was unbreakable,” Connie said. “We talked through things that nobody knew but us. We thought the same. We struggled the same. And I realized along the way that I was my father’s daughter, that I was his legacy.

“Gosh, I miss him. I miss his eyes. I miss his wisdom. I miss his funny cracks at my mom. I miss his presence that calmed me, his voice that eased me, his heart that moved me. We had some awesome years together.”

And even though the advanced Alzheimer’s in his final years robbed Jones of his ability to speak, the look in his eyes always reassured the family, Connie said.

“His beautiful heart was right there until the end when he went to be with Jesus,” she said. “But his love and legacy still live within us.”


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Statham Council approves dropping speed limit on Broad St., backs speed-detection devices in school zones

The Statham City Council on Tuesday, April 20, approved reducing the speed limit on Broad Street from 35 to 25 miles per hour between Dooley Town Road and 8th Street and also endorsed a plan to install speed-detection devices within school zones in the city.

The changes come as several council members have advocated for improved pedestrian and children safety around the schools, particularly Statham Elementary on Broad Street.

“I don’t want to wait for somebody to die for us to do something,” councilwoman Tammy Crawley, who sponsored the measure to reduce the Broad Street speed limit, said during a council work session earlier this month.

The speed-limit reduction on the road within the city limits will take effect almost immediately, as the city installs new signage.

The council also approved signing on to an agreement with Blue Line Solutions to place laser-technology speed-detection devices within the school zones at Statham Elementary and Bear Creek Middle. The agreement stems from a countywide effort led by the Barrow County School System and Barrow County Sheriff’s Office to place the devices in every school zone. A traffic study of the Statham school zones determined that a speeding problem “does exist,” Mayor Joe Piper said earlier this month. A 30-day warning period will be issued to the public upon implementation, and after that citations would be issued automatically to a vehicle owner’s address, Piper said.

Blue Line Solutions will install and maintain the devices at no cost to the city, and, under the agreement, the city would get 65 percent of money collected from fines, which would go into the police department’s budget. The company would keep the remaining 35 percent to help offset maintenance and any necessary repair costs.

The signs are only allowed by law to be in use during and for certain time periods before and after school hours, Piper said, though license plate readers will remain turned on at all times.

The vote for the speed-limit reduction and the speed-detection devices was unanimous Tuesday among council members.

“I think both of these will significantly help us with the speeding issue,” McCormic said at the April 8 work session. “If it does help, we may not have to put in those pesky speed bumps that nobody wants.”

OTHER BUSINESS

In other business Tuesday, the council:

•approved a one-year insurance agreement with the Georgia Interlocal Risk Management Agency (GIRMA) for May 1, 2021, through May 1, 2022, to cover general liability, cyber-security, property, automobiles and officials’ errors and omissions with a $25,000 deductible per occurrence. The coverage comes at a cost of $75,402 to the city, a 6-percent increase over the past year. City attorney Jody Campbell said the city accountant had spoken with two additional insurance providers for cost estimates and been told that they would not offer a quote because they deemed the city “uninsurable” due to a bevy of lawsuits against the city in recent years, primarily dealing with police and open-records and open-meetings issues. Councilwoman Betty Lyle voted against approving the policy. Crawley said she voted for it “reluctantly.”

•approved a unified development code amendment that requires a major subdivision (more than five lots) to have a preliminary plat that would be subject to council review and approval.

PIPER MISSES MEETING DUE TO COVID

Piper was not in attendance for Tuesday’s meeting after testing positive for COVID-19 last week. The mayor confirmed his diagnosis in a post on the city’s Facebook page Friday, April 16, saying he began experiencing symptoms on April 12 and that he had not been at city hall since April 10.

Piper said he was feeling better and hoped to return to work later this week.

McCormic, who is currently vice-mayor, presided over the meeting in Piper’s absence.


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County leaders eye another round of SPLOST; November ballot targeted for referendum

Barrow County leaders agreed Tuesday, April 20, that they would like to place another SPLOST renewal referendum before voters this November in hopes of addressing a wide-ranging swath of capital-improvement needs around the county. That direction comes as collections on the current 1-cent sales tax are rapidly outpacing projections, creating the possibility that the county could go several months without collections.

County manager Kevin Little and chief financial officer Rose Kisaalita told the board of commissioners during its annual planning retreat Tuesday that, at the current rate of collections for SPLOST 2018 — which took effect July 1, 2018, after being approved by voters the previous fall — the county will reach the $56.6 million threshold that was established by September 2022. The extension of the SPLOST came with the stipulation that collections would stop at the end of June 2023, or if the money threshold was reached before then.

Even if voters approved the renewal this November, SPLOST 2023 would not take effect until July 1 of that year, meaning the county and its municipalities could go up to nine months without collecting the extra penny in sales-tax revenues. Some commissioners suggested Tuesday that the amount should have been capped higher, as sales-tax collections have remained strong, even amid the coronavirus pandemic, with additional people and businesses locating in the county.

November’s general election, when municipal elections are set to be held, is the next opportunity for a SPLOST referendum to appear on the ballot, and if it were to fail, it could not be brought back before voters until November 2022, BOC chairman Pat Graham said. Rather than risk losing several more months, commissioners agreed they’d like to see a referendum on the ballot this year.

But to do so, they’ll need to move quickly over the next several weeks in identifying county projects and engaging the municipalities on their lists of projects that would be compiled into the referendum that residents would ultimately vote on.

Little said the board would need to approve sending the referendum question to the county’s elections office by late August at the latest in order to get it on the ballot, and Graham noted the county would be required to hold a joint meeting with the municipalities at least 30 days prior to then to discuss their projects.

For county projects, officials are leaning toward again forming a citizen SPLOST committee to hear proposals from department heads, vet the projects and boil them down to a list that they would take to the BOC. A core group of citizens on the previous SPLOST committee in 2017 lobbied intensely for the expansion of Victor Lord Park, a project that was at the forefront of the renewal approved by more than 70 percent of voters that November. The expansion was completed last year.

Potential expansion of the judicial facility on Barrow Park Drive, a wide range of road and infrastructure projects and an additional fire station in the county were among the ideas commissioners broadly discussed at Tuesday’s retreat.

Each municipality would have their own method of developing a project list.

If a renewal were approved, shares of the collections for the county and each municipality would be based on population totals from the latest-available U.S. Census Bureau data, but the county and cities would have more flexibility to take money off the top to retire debts if an intergovernmental agreement were reached.

The county had used collections off the top from the SPLOST pot in previous cycles to retire debt, but municipal representatives, particularly from Winder, objected to that practice and an IGA during the SPLOST 2017 referendum discussions.

Little said he will bring more information to the board about potential projects in the coming weeks.


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