City approves Hazelbrand annexation

COVINGTON — The Covington City Council approved a controversial annexation and rezoning request Monday night for an industrial development on Hazelbrand Road.

The property is 167 acres bisected by Hazelbrand Road, east of the city limits and about 1 mile from Home Depot. The owner/applicant is William G. Gainer.

The council approved annexation of the property and rezoning from county agricultural residential to city heavy industrial. Eight acres of the property were zoned city neighborhood residential.

Jerry Silvio, president of Silvio Development Company, hired to find developers and potential users for the site, has stated that it will likely be used by one or two large industries.

Residents packed City Hall Monday night, making it a standing room only venue, but the council limited public comment to 10 minutes, so only two spoke.

Johnny Stone lamented the impact the development could have on nearby homes and the lack of a detailed plan on what will be developed.

"It's not that we're fighting progress. We're afraid of what's going to happen," Stone said, noting that he had a petition from more than 30 residents who were opposed to the Gainer's annexation petition.

"We pay our taxes. We spend our money in Covington. All we're asking for is a fair shake," he added.

Bruce Sorrels said there's a better way to make revenue off the property. He suggested placing wind turbines there.

"You don't get but one chance for that property over there and if you mess that up, you're not only going to mess up that area but also mess up Covington and that side of the county," he said.

Sorrels worried that chemicals could contaminate residents' well water supply.

Planning Director Randy Vinson said noxious uses, such as chemical plants and oil refineries, would not be allowed.

One member of the public who didn't get to speak was an employee of the Georgia Wildlife Federation, which has opposed the project from the get go. On Tuesday, GWF President and CEO Jerry McCollum did the talking for his agency, which is adjacent to the development.

"The Georgia Wildlife Federation is very disappointed in the city's vote last night, and we think that this is a project where nobody's been willing to answer the hard questions, but we intend to see those hard questions get answered before anything gets built over there," McCollum said. "Building a place next door to such a pristine wetland complex and a pristine river system ... is an outrageous proposal for this mayor and city council to approve."

McCollum said the property is surrounded by wetlands that the county has now purchased, at the request of GWF, as a buffer zone. McCollum said he was concerned that the initial plan was to merely let runoff flow into the wetlands without treatment.

"This is adjacent to a nationally recognized natural area and it is the northernmost stand of Tupelo gum trees in the state of Georgia. This is the home of the Georgia Wildlife Federation, and we don't intend to go anywhere. We are going to be here 24 hours a day, seven days a week scrutinizing any building project over there," McCollum said

A zoning condition requires that a stormwater master plan addressing water quality, detention and controlled release of runoff be addressed. The council agreed to consolidate that condition, along with several others, to state that the applicant must meet all local, state and federal regulations.

Another condition stating that any development plans should come back before the Planning Commission was also removed. Instead, the plans will go to the city's engineering department.

"We want to be treated just like any other. It's a very competitive environment we are in," Gainer said, adding that after spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on documents and studies, the investor "would certainly want to deal with other professionals in the engineering department."

A condition that the developer or property owner bear all expenses associated with increased burdens on infrastructure and any road improvements to maintain the current level of service was kept in place.

"There are no improvements planned as there isn't anything waiting in the wings to be developed right now. The whole argument that the landowner was using was that the property cannot be marketed at the state economic development level until it is zoned appropriately. No industries or businesses will consider properties until they have already been properly zoned," Vinson said.

Silvio said at a work session prior to Monday's meeting that several prospects have turned away from the property because it was not yet annexed into the city, and Gainer later said that had it been annexed and rezoned at the time General Mills was looking to open a distribution center, that project might have stayed local rather than going to Social Circle.

In 2008, the Northeast Georgia Regional Development Center found that the project was not in the best interest of the region due to potential development as a regional transportation/distribution center. The amount of traffic and potential storm water runoff issues were the reasons cited in the report.

"The Planning Commission recommended conditions to address those concerns. The heavy transportation/distribution uses were prohibited and a larger buffer was required to offset the stormwater concerns," Vinson said.

Originally, the concept plan called for 2.5 million square feet of industrial space that could generate an additional 14,000 vehicle trips per day. But the Planning Commission limited the impervious surface amount to 60 percent to address stormwater concerns, meaning the build out won't be that large, Vinson said.

"They haven't done another concept plan showing what could possibly be built under the new conditions," Vinson said.

Another condition is a requirement for a 75-foot replanted, undisturbed buffer where the property borders agricultural residential zoned property.

The Planning Commission approved the petition on its first go round, after which the City Council approved a first reading. After the applicant asked for revised conditions, it was sent back to the Planning Commission and approved again.

"We rely on the guidance and expertise of our Planning Commission. It was sent back to them for re-review. I don't know how we're going to vote tonight but this is not a rash decision or rushed decision. This has been given a lot of thought," said Mayor Kim Carter.

The vote to approve the rezoning and annexation was 3 to 2 with Councilmen Keith Dalton and Chris Smith and Councilwoman Ocie Franklin in favor and Councilwomen Hawnethia Williams and Janet Goodman opposed.

Councilman Mike Whatley was absent.