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City extends permit for academy

COVINGTON - Covington Mayor Kim Carter cast the tie-breaking vote to extend a special-use permit for Peachtree Academy Private School LLC to locate a school on McGuirts Bridge Road.

The special-use permit was approved by the City Council in February, with numerous conditions, including a stipulation that the permit be renewed in five years.

Applicant JaNice Van Ness appealed that condition, asking for an extension of the permit for 20 years or for perpetuity.

"The extension to perpetuity would allow us to invest the money we need to. We're uncomfortable going to a bank saying we only have a five-year guarantee," she said.

The Planning Commission agreed to extend the permit for perpetuity at a special hearing on April 28.

Van Ness was also seeking clarification on how many students could attend and the use of modular buildings.

The Planning Commission agreed the ordinance allows a maximum of 1,100 students; Van Ness is aiming for an enrollment of 625.

The commission also clarified that modular buildings would be allowed if they meet zoning ordinance standards.

Located on approximately 30 acres at 70 McGuirts Bridge Road off U.S. Highway 278, the school would be developed in three phases, ultimately resulting in more than 50,000 square feet of building space and 90,000 square feet of outdoor space for ball fields and tennis courts.

One condition of approval was that a traffic study and signal warrant analysis be conducted to address transportation concerns.

The traffic study must be approved by the Newton County engineer, since McGuirts Bridge Road falls in the county's jurisdiction, and will also be reviewed by the Georgia Department of Transportation, before a building permit is issued.

Wayne Digby, who works as the police chief in Porterdale, said the project will only worsen congestion on U.S. Highway 278. He said traffic is already bumper to bumper to the Alcovy River.

"The only way I get out (in traffic) is because I'm with the Police Department and sometimes people will see you and let you in," he said.

McGuirts Bridge resident Olin Webb said his driveway will be blocked if the school is built due to traffic backlog.

"Why do you want a business in here that pays no taxes and creates traffic, and the only excuse is she has the right to sell her property? Well, yes, she does, but she does not have a right to sell her property in a way that causes hardship," he said.

Carter said many businesses don't pay taxes, including nonprofit organizations, but are still valuable to the community.

She said the city enjoys a balanced tax base, with more dollars coming from commercial and industrial than residential.

She pointed out the property could be developed residential as zoned, and governments spend more money providing services to residences than they receive in revenues.

"Yes, we might be foregoing tax dollars, as you said, but it would also be foregoing extra expense," she said.

Councilman John Howard, who voted against the petition initially, made a motion to accept the Planning Commission's recommendation to extend the special-use permit, saying he doesn't approve of the location, but believes the traffic study could be the end of the project.

"I'm going to tell you right now, (the DOT) is not going to agree to it ... That would kill the project, wouldn't it?" he said to Van Ness, who nodded yes.

In February, County Engineer Kevin Walter told the council the school would likely generate up to 1,000 new vehicle trips per day. He added a traffic signal will be needed for safety reasons.

Also, the McGuirts Bridge intersection with U.S. Highway 278 is at an 80-degree angle, which could prove dangerous for so much traffic, Walter said. The intersection of Smith Store and Salem roads is at a 60-degree angle, and there have been several fatalities there, he said.

Councilman Mike Whatley, who also opposed the petition in February, said he would vote no again.

"It's not a good place. It's not a good thing. There's going to be kids coming out here using their cell phones and texting and they're going to be a T-bone from hell," he said. "I'm not against a private school. I think y'all do a great job. It's not the right place for it."

The vote was 3-3 to extend the special-use permit for perpetuity, with Howard, Ocie Franklin and Janet Goodman in favor and Whatley, Hawnethia Williams and Keith Dalton opposed.

Carter broke the tie in favor of the extension.

"I agree the location is not ideal," she said. "Traffic is a huge consideration. I hope you have really deep pockets because the improvements are going to be tremendous to not impact those residents."

Because the Planning Commission only gave clarification on the student population and modular building requirements, no action was necessary on those items.

Crystal Tatum can be reached at crystal.tatum@newtoncitizen.com.