Statesboro's Planning Commission has recommended against a zoning change and height variance for a four-story hotel and an Enmark gas station proposed to be built on Fair Road at the Georgia Avenue intersection.
Eleven residents of nearby neighborhoods, among them Statesboro's mayor, Bulloch County's school superintendent and the Garden of the Coastal Plain's director, spoke against the proposed development during Tuesday's meeting of the city planning and zoning board. A lawyer also spoke on behalf of some residents, and the planning board received petitions signed by more than 80 residents and a letter from First Presbyterian Church, all opposed.
But City Council will decide when it meets Wednesday at 5:15 p.m. Steve Rushing, attorney for the estate of the late Martha C. Benson, which owns the property, said he intends to present the zoning requests to the council.
"We're certainly disappointed that the P and Z committee is proposing to recommend denial to the City Council, but, of course, we have that opportunity next week to appear before the City Council, give them perhaps a different perspective, and hope for a different outcome," Rushing said.
In speaking to the planning board, Rushing said that as executor of his mother's will, Dr. Robert M. "Bobby" Benson has a responsibility to handle the property "in the most efficient and most effective and prudent manner." The family's home from the 1940s, it had originally been a farmstead, and Benson and his sisters grew up there.
But the neighborhood evolved so that Benson, who also attended the meeting, realized that a family residence is no longer the best use of the property, Rushing said.
"Now, he first attempted to reach an agreement with Georgia Southern University," Rushing said. "In fact, that was started not long after his mother's death in 2009, and there have been multiple proposals to the university, but that has been unsuccessful. So, Dr. Benson opened up the property to the market."
This led to an agreement for Enmark Stations Inc., the Savannah-based convenience store and fuel station chain, to buy the property, contingent on the zoning change. The area currently is zoned R-3, or medium density, multi-family residential, the zoning required for duplexes. The requested new zoning would be commercial retail.
But the building height still would be restricted to three stories, or 35 feet, without the variance to four stories. Enmark would own and operate the station, but another company would build and operate the hotel, said Doug Carroll, director of real estate for Enmark Stations Inc.
Planning Commission member Holmes Ramsey asked Carroll what hotel company that would be. Carroll said he couldn't say now which hotel brand would operate there, but he did say the hotel would be "upscale" and "business oriented."
The hotel would have 90 to 100 rooms, and about 18,000 cars a day already pass on Fair Road, Carroll said. The station, he said, would take advantage of existing traffic.
"Adding 90 cars to that 18,000 a day is a drop in the bucket, so to speak," he said.
Rushing unveiled an architect's concept drawings of the gas station, showing trees and other plants and a muted color scheme.
Bounded on the west and south by Georgia Avenue, the 4.41-acre site is separated on its northwest end by Martha's Lane, a narrow street, from Georgia Southern University's botanical garden, the Garden of the Coastal Plain. To the east, a five-lane section of Fair Road, also known as Georgia Highway 67, separates the site from the Woodlawn and Wendwood neighborhoods, where many of the people voicing opposition reside.
Rushing noted the commercial developments west on Georgia Avenue, at Lanier Drive and Chandler Road. Although First Presbyterian Church is across Georgia Avenue, he noted that East Georgia Regional Medical Center is beyond the church.
"If you look to the east, you'll see virtually no commercial; it is primarily (single-family residential), and there is no commercial area, basically, until you get near the bypass," he said. "But when you look to the west of Highway 67, you see a whole different picture, and we believe that we should be treated more like those properties located to the west of Highway 67."
However, the residents expressed concerns about traffic, noise, and light pollution. One worried that hotel patrons in the upper stories could see into her yard, making privacy an issue.
Speaking as a resident of Benson Drive, Mayor Jan Moore said it is no coincidence that three of Statesboro's last four mayors have come from this neighborhood.
"It is an established neighborhood," Moore said. "It has people that are committed to Statesboro, Georgia, continuing to be what Statesboro, Georgia, has been and should be, and to plop a four-story hotel in between a church and a botanical garden in a neighborhood is beyond me."
Moore said she realizes the property will evolve. She said she would support rezoning to allow for some mixed uses in the neighborhood and "a progressive vision for the Benson property" but had to "vehemently disagree" with the idea of it becoming another convenience store and hotel.
Superintendent of Schools Charles Wilson, who recently moved to the neighborhood, also spoke in opposition to the zoning change.
Garden of the Coastal Plain Director Carolyn Altman lives nearby and often walks to work. Crossing Fair Road is "virtually impossible ... by foot, bike or car," the curve on Georgia Avenue has seen numbers of accidents, and the added traffic would worsen these dangers, she said.
"Speaking as a resident, I'm also concerned that the rezoning will degrade one of Statesboro's best achievements," Altman said. "The garden, right next door, is enjoyed by thousands who make a special effort to come and learn about our rich natural and cultural history."
Some Woodlawn Terrace residents had retained Attorney Bob Mikell.
"If we don't plan now, we're going to lose a crown jewel of this community in the botanical gardens," Mikell said, "and I'll just briefly note that protecting parks is ... something that the Supreme Court has held is a valid public interest."
The Georgia Supreme Court case he referred to, Howden v. Mayor and Aldermen of Savannah, dates to 1931 and concerned that city's prohibition of certain buildings around Forsyth Park.
Zoning Commission Chairman Nick Propps reported that he had received no correspondence from neighbors in support of the zoning change but several emails and statements opposing it. Member Rick Barr made the motion for denying the change, which was seconded by David McLendon. April Stafford made a separate motion, seconded by Barr, to deny the height variance.
Both motions were accepted on voice votes, with no objections heard. As Rushing noted, the board's actions are only recommendations to City Council.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.