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Commissioners defer vote on latest Old River Road subdivision rezoning
Bell’s revised request came back with P&Z board, county staff and neighbors opposed
Developer Robbie Bell, standing, speaks to the Bulloch County Board of Commissioners, who deferred action by a 4-2 vote Aug. 1 on his request to rezone 60.2 acres on Shuman Road and Old River Road to R-40 residential. Seated at right in the background is county Planning and Development Director James Pope. - photo by AL HACKLE/Staff

By a 4-2 vote this week, the Bulloch County Board of Commissioners postponed a decision on a zoning change request that would allow a developer to build up to 62 houses by turning a 60.2-acre field on Old River Road and Shuman Road into a subdivision with paved streets.

That application, for a change from AG-5, or agricultural five-acre, zoning to R-40 residential is the latest version of proposals for this land that have been brought to the county’s Planning and Development Department – and have repeatedly drawn neighborhood opposition – since last summer. One earlier version sought a change to R-25, for which the minimum lot size is 40,000 square feet or a little more than half an acre, for development of more lots. R-40 carries a minimum lot size of nine-tenths of an acre.

“The biggest reason we’re here is everything that’s happening at the ports, but more specifically in the last year and a half, it’s Hyundai, and the fact that we’ve got this super site with 8,000 jobs directly, and many more jobs indirectly, and a lot of people coming to Bulloch County,” said developer Robbie Bell.

His R&H Development Co. Inc. now owns the Old River Road site and applied for the change.

Bell noted that the Bulloch County Board of Education has recognized the population growth expected in the southeastern part of the county and is now planning for a new Southeast Bulloch High School, expandable to 3,200 students, and that the commissioners “are looking at raising the millage rate to offset inflation but also to add services,” including hiring more Emergency Medical Service and Sheriff’s Office personnel.

During a partial moratorium on rezoning requests for higher-density subdivisions the commissioners imposed from August 2022 until early April, staff members and a citizen committee rewrote the county’s zoning regulations and drafted an amendment to the Smart Bulloch 2040 Comprehensive Plan and its Future Development Map. The amended map, approved by the commissioners in June, created a “suburban neighborhood” character area and “suburban corridors” in the southeastern portion of the county. These are in areas around Georgia Route 67 and Old Highway 46 proposed to be served by county-operated water and sewer systems, which have yet to be built. New R-8 zoning will be available, with lots as small as 8,000 square feet (about one-fifth acre), in these areas, Bell noted.

“This is a fantastic plan, but the infrastructure is not in place yet, and it will be many years before it is, and we will have many people wanting to locate in the lower part of the county before this happens,” he said. “That being said, our county is growing and developing, we’re expanding our infrastructure to support these new jobs and new students, but we are lacking in housing.”

This snapshot of the county's livestreaming screen in the lobby shows a large portion, but not all, of the crowd attending the Bulloch County commissioners meeting Tuesday evening, Aug. 1, 2023. A majority of citizens in attendance indicated they were there to oppose the Old River Road rezoning request. Seen at the lectern is Kerrie Mason, an Old River Road resident speaking in opposition. - photo by AL HACKLE/Staff

He noted county projections that 4,000 to 6,000 new residents, beyond previously expected growth, could arrive by 2030.

“With 5,000 new residents beyond normal growth, the area would need 2,000 new housing units in the southeastern portion of the county,” Bell said. “Every day of the work week for the next seven years, five days a week, we’ll have to build a house every single day to keep up with this.”

Homes in the proposed subdivision would occupy approximately one-acre lots along paved streets and would be priced in the range of approximately $325,000 to $350,000, said surveyor Jim Anderson, who also spoke on behalf of the project.


Strikes against it

But Bell’s request came before the elected commissioners with some strikes against it. First, the county staff panel that reviewed the application recommended denial of the zoning change. Second, the appointed county Planning and Zoning Board, which held a hearing on the request during its July 13 session after a previous deferral, voted 4-0 to recommend denial as well.

And meanwhile, a crowd of community residents opposed to the project brought a petition and appeared at both the mid-July P&Z meeting and the Aug. 1 Board of Commissioners meeting to voice objections. At the Board of Commissioners meeting, 31 people signed up to speak against the proposal. But Chairman Roy Thompson followed his usual practice for the zoning hearings. He allowed both sides – those in favor of the request and those opposed to it – 10 minutes each and left it to those on each side how many individuals would divide that time.

Mark Nemec, whose home is on Shuman Road about a quarter mile from site, was the first of the four opposition speakers who spoke before their collective 10 minutes ran out. He asked everyone in the crowd behind him who was there in opposition of the rezoning to stand up. Most of the crowd stood.

“This group behind me is only a small fraction of the residents in the community impacted by this rezoning application and who are in opposition to it,” Nemec said. “We have more than 600 signatures on a petition against changing this rural section of Bulloch County to a residential area. We realize that growth in Bulloch County is inevitable, but we are not convinced that this is the best and most suitable location for that growth to occur.”

He said many of those present saw the development “as a threat to their rural lifestyle, to the agricultural income of local farmers, and to the characteristics of the land surrounding our homes.”

After the commissioners heard from the other speakers, Commissioner Curt Deal asked if Bell would consider adding sidewalks – not generally required for R-40 subdivisions – and making it a gated community. Sidewalks could significantly reduce the number of lots, and gating the development would usually prevent the county from accepting the streets as public roads, Bell said, but added that he would consider these steps if county officials want.

Commissioner Ray Mosley, who participated by phone, asked if it would be possible for Bell “to work out some additional details to have less density and still make this project work.” County Manager Tom Couch asked if Mosley wanted to make this a motion for deferral.

“Hearing all the comments from the citizens in the area, I agree 100% that we need more housing, but I would like to see if there is some way that we can meet somewhere in the middle,” Mosley said.

Deal seconded Mosley’s motion to defer the decision until the first meeting in September, which will be at 5:30 p.m. Sept. 5. Four commissioners voted in favor of deferral, but Commissioner Toby Conner and Commissioner Jappy Stringer voted against it.

Conner, observing that the commissioners previously turned down a similar request, had said, “What’s good for one is good for all.”


Staff recommendation

County staff members, in their review of the request, which was completed with a recommendation for denial prior to the Planning and Zoning Board meeting in July, stated that the proposed development would increase traffic counts on Old River Road – which is a paved, county-maintained road – by 98%. A Georgia Department of Transportation count found 640 trips occurring daily on the road, and the development was projected to add 623, according to the county report.

Another reason for the recommendation to deny was that the site remains in a “rural open space” character area where R-40 zoning is not generally allowed, said county Planning and Development Director James Pope.

“It’s over seven miles – I don’t know exactly how many miles – away from our designated suburban neighborhood area that we just approved,” he said Thursday. “So it’s rural open area, and comp plan guides for zoning say AG-5 or R-80 would be presumed zoning classifications. So it went against the amended comprehensive plan that was just adopted.”
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