Supporters, foes left with questions over drag strip

Photo by Nate McCullough

Photo by Nate McCullough

SOCIAL CIRCLE -- Tuesday's work session appeared to leave Social Circle Planning and Zoning members as well as supporters and critics of a proposed drag strip with more questions than answers.

"I really thought we would have hard data (to consider). It may not be cost-effective to mitigate these conditions, but that is a business decision," Social Circle City Attorney Joe Reitman told Donnie Clack, the property owner who has petitioned to rezone 322 acres with special conditions to allow a motorsports complex.

A committee of the Planning and Zoning Commission, along with a group of residents opposed to the plans and Clack, met Monday night for a work session designed to hammer out special conditions on Clack's rezoning request.

Clack has requested to rezone the 322 acres north of Interstate 20 and west of U.S. 278 -- land that lies in both Newton and Walton counties and was annexed in 2008 into the city limits -- from agricultural use to general commercial. Clack is seeking conditional use on approximately 120 acres that would be used for a motorsports complex, including a 1/8-mile drag strip. The property abuts residential property along Willow Springs Church Road and would affect other subdivisions, including Surrey Chase and River Cove.

The Planning and Zoning Commission voted in November to recommend approval of the rezoning request with certain special conditions. The City Council was slated to take action on the recommendation during its public meeting in December; however, due to overwhelming public attendance and comments at the meeting, the City Council voted to defer the matter back to the Planning and Zoning Commission to hammer out the details of the special conditions.

"This is a fact-finding issue for us," Planning and Zoning Chairman Kent Adams told the crowd gathered Monday night in the Community Room.

He said more public hearings will be held in the future, but Monday's meeting was for the Planning and Zoning members to hear questions and answers from both sides of the issue.

Clack tried to dispel what he considered to be misinformation circulating about his plans and said there will be "no jets, no Top Fuel, no funny cars. We don't run 24/7; it's not an airport," he said.

Clack emphasized his opinion throughout the evening that the motorsports complex will bring much-needed economic growth to the area that, like most places, is stagnating due to the recession.

On the other hand, the primary concern of opponents to Clack's plans centered on noise and air pollution. Tommy Pate, a resident invited to participate in the work session, said he lives near the property in question that is already adversely affected by trucks entering and exiting the General Mills facility and Solo Cup distribution plant on Hightower Trail. A drag strip would only compound the noise, Pate said.

Jenny Cole, who is heading Concerned Citizens of Social Circle, a group organized in opposition to the drag strip, asked Clack whether or not his vehicles will violate the city's or Walton or Newton counties' noise ordinances. Her question prompted a discussion about noise and decibel levels from other motorsports events.

Cole then fired off a series of questions to Clack regarding the potential pollution of groundwater -- "most residents are on a well there" -- the installation of retention or detention ponds, the mitigation of noise and light pollution and traffic concerns.

Reitman attempted to focus the discussion on the standards the Planning Commission, and ultimately mayor and City Council, must consider when weighing whether or not to grant a conditional use permit. Reitman read from the local zoning ordinance, delineating many of those conditions, including determining whether the conditional use will be "contrary to the public interest." Among the questions that need to be answered are:

* Will it be "injurious to the use and enjoyment of the ... other property in the vicinity" or will it diminish and impair property values within the surrounding neighborhood?

* Will it increase cost for serving the neighboring properties or maintaining infrastructure?

* Will it impede the "normal and orderly development" of surrounding property?

* Is the "location and character consistent with a desirable pattern of development?"

Planning commissioners asked Clack to provide specific data on noise, traffic, and to supply a business model with substantive data on revenue projections.

"The way I see it is the burden of proof lies on Mr. Clack," said Planning Commissioner Frank Sherrill. "I would ask that he bring documentation of the issues addressed here tonight and in the zoning ordinance."

Sherrill also asked that opponents bring documentation supporting their concerns, but stressed that Clack bears the primary responsibility.

After the meeting, however, Clack said he has already provided the city and the Planning and Zoning Commission much of the information they requested, pointing to a noise study he presented on the Zmax drag strip in Concord, N.C., and was not clear about what more they may need. Clack said he was looking to city officials to tell him the standards they require and he would work within those.

"I feel like they want us to write the book for them," Clack said.

Adams said he would not impose a timeline for Clack to provide the information since the issues are very complicated. In the meantime, Adams said he will purchase a decibel reader on behalf of the city and take it to measure the sound from other drag strips, like one in Albany to get an idea of what may be in store for Social Circle.