A proposal for a large subdivision in Commerce was met with resistance, both from the public and some members of the Commerce Planning Commission during its April 26 meeting.
The plan for a 570-home development by Cook Communities of Gainesville is the first large-scale residential project to be proposed in Commerce, a situation that stymied a planning board which found itself divided on the plans. In the end, the board voted 3-2 to table action on the matter until its May meeting.
"This is a pretty big step for us," said planning board chairman Joe Leffew.
Commerce is facing the prospect of a lot of growth in the coming years, much of it stemming from the SK Battery plant development, which has sparked a lot of real estate speculation in the area. The town has already seen an uptick in proposed industrial projects, but is just now facing proposals for large residential developments.
Because of that, action on the Cook Communities proposal will be, to an extent, a litmus test for how the town handles large residential projects in the future, perhaps setting a precedent.
One of the issues the Commerce planning board faces is that the town currently lacks a zoning code for planned unit developments (PUD), a zoning category designed for mixed-use projects such as the one proposed by Cook. (Commerce is working on implementing a PUD category. City planning staff proposed to retroactively make the project a PUD, if it is approved now with a mix of current zoning codes.)
The Cook proposal outlined plans for 370 single-family homes, 200 townhomes and a commercial shopping area on 181 acres along Whitehill School Rd. and Hwy. 441 South, across from Strange Duck Brewery.
But to do that kind of housing mix will require multiple rezonings, in addition to having a small amount of the property annexed into the city.
In addition, the project — as proposed — would require the city to grant a number of variances, including allowing smaller lots, higher density and smaller setbacks.
The impact on the city's infrastructure — water and sewer — would also be significant, according to city planners.
And the effect of such a large development on Commerce's small school system was also a point of debate during the meeting.
"The impact on the school is a tremendous concern, considering the marketing of the homes to families," said the city planning staff's report on the proposal.
That concern was echoed by several people who spoke against the project, including planning board member Jimbo Stephenson, a former long-time employee of the school system.
"I'd be strung up if I left here and voted 'yes' on something that is fixing to double our schools," he said.
Cook Communities attorney Jane Range made the firm's pitch to the planning commission for the rezonings, saying that Commerce is going to be impacted by the SK project and that the town needs to address its future housing needs. She said the development would be a "superior product" with larger houses and multiple price points for housing in the planned community.
But she admitted that the project would have an impact on the city school system and said a study is being done to quantify that impact. She also said that a traffic study done indicated the project would have a major impact on the area and some traffic mitigation would be necessary.
Nicholson area resident Robert Akin also spoke in favor of the project, saying the additional rooftops would help revitalize Commerce's retail sector.
"This is an opportunity to embrace," he said.
But several area neighbors spoke against the project, saying the number of houses being proposed was too many.
"This much is way too much," said David Smith.
Other nearby residents complained about plans to put the project's townhouses abutting a property line with a neighboring subdivision.
But the most impassioned opposition came from board member Melinda Chocran-Davis, who said "there's nothing here I can support."
She said the grouping of townhouses in one corner of the project looked like "exclusionary zoning" and that the project's amenities looked like they were just put in as an afterthought.
Cochran-Davis was also critical of the proposed housing styles.
"These are not high-quality homes," she said.
She said the proposed design of the houses "does not fit Commerce."
That sentiment was echoed by city planner Jordan Shoemaker, who pointed to a Saturday discussion by the planning board and city council about housing "modulation," that is having a diverse style of houses in developments to avoid cookie-cutter neighborhoods.
"Things have to work for us, that work for the City of Commerce" she said of proposed residential developments.
Chairman Leffew said he liked "these kinds of developments" and thought they would work in Commerce. He also said he thought the houses would be a high-quality product.
"I think they (Cook) would make this beautiful," he said.
But he said he had some questions about the proposal that he couldn't answer.
"I don't know enough about it because we haven't done this (before)," he said of the mixed-use plans.
He pointed out that the county had not yet responded to the proposed annexation aspect of the development, a possible legal sticking point.
But Cochran-Davis said the proposal "flies in the face of everything we talked about" at the Saturday planning retreat with the city council.
"Lipstick on a pig," she said of the plans.
The board first voted down a motion by Cochran-Davis to deny the rezonings 3-2. It then discussed the possibility of just passing along the project to the city council without any recommendation, but decided against that after Shoemaker said such a move probably wouldn't be welcomed by the council.
Leffew then made a motion to table the request until May, a move that was approved 3-2 with Cochran-Davis and Stephenson opposed.