Developer Robert K. Bell Jr. can move forward with creating an up to 62-house subdivision on 60.2 acres of previously agricultural land on Shuman Road and Old River Road, since the Bulloch County commissioners voted 4-2 on Sept. 5 to approve the zoning change.
At a previous meeting, Aug. 3, the commissioners had deferred their decision by one month, also on a 4-2 vote. Neighboring property owners and other county residents spoke against the request at each step of the process, including a July 13 session of the appointed Planning and Zoning Board and the Aug. 3 and Sept. 5 meetings of the elected Board of Commissioners. At its July meeting, the P&Z board had voted 4-0 to recommend denial of the zoning change. County staff members who reviewed the rezoning request had recommended denial but suggested two conditions for the developer to meet if the commissioners approved it anyway.
At the Sept. 5 commissioners meeting, 81 people signed up to speak in opposition to the request. Because the board gives each side a total of 10 minutes to speak, just three of the opponents spoke.
The one speaker for the request this time wasn’t Bell, whose R&H Development Co. Inc. owns the Old River Road site and applied for the change from AG-5 agricultural to R-40 residential zoning, or surveyor Jim Anderson, who had also spoken for the project in August.
Instead, on Sept. 5, local attorney Steve Rushing addressed the commissioners on behalf of R&H Development. He noted that Bell has successfully created several subdivisions, including Chatham Place, Ashford and River Bluff.
“There is already a great demand for housing all over the county, particularly the 30415 ZIP code area, and that’s at present,” Rushing said. “This does not even count the anticipated growth that will come from the Hyundai plant in nearby Bryan County or the opening of the five other plants right here in Bulloch County that are expected to come on line in the next one to two years.”
That 30415 is Brooklet’s ZIP code, which covers a swath of the southeastern portion of Bulloch, where the commissioners imposed a partial moratorium on rezoning from August 2022 until early April 2023. That allowed time for a rewrite of the county’s zoning regulations and revision of its Smart Bulloch 2040 Comprehensive Plan and Future Development Map.
As AG-5, the property could have been divided into residential lots no smaller than five acres each. The county’s Subdivision Ordinance, with road paving and other requirements, would not apply with agricultural zoning, but with AG-5 zoning, the 60 acres could have been divided into no more than 12 lots.
Before the moratorium, Bell had first submitted an application to rezone the tract to R-25, Rushing noted. That would have allowed for more houses than R-40, since R-25 requires a minimum lot size of 25,000 square feet or a little more than half an acre. R-40 requires a minimum lot size of nine-tenths of an acre.
Now Bell “is prepared to meet or address all of the provisions of the new Subdivision Ordinance, which was added during the moratorium to benefit and protect the citizens of Bulloch County,” Rushing said to the commissioners. “As you may recall, to remain in an AG-5 zoning residential development, such Subdivision Ordinance would not apply, so all of these benefits and protections would be lost.”
In that case, the larger lots, with no new roads, would each have their own access to the public roads, instead of the one access road onto Old River Road, he said. Old River Road is paved, but Shuman Road is a dirt road.
The homes to be built in the new subdivision will be in the $325,000-plus price range, according to Rushing.
“Now more homes will be permitted on less land than in the AG-5 zone, so granting this application will address the housing demand, it will result in a higher quality development that is subject to the Subdivision Ordinance that was put into place by this commission and will better protect the concerns of these members of the community,” he said.
Rural, not suburban
Although the subdivision is planned to comply with the ordinance, the tract is not in any area designated for subdivisions in the updated Future Development Map that accompanied the revised Comprehensive Plan. The map approved by the commissioners in June created a “suburban neighborhood” character area and “suburban corridors” in the southeastern part 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.
The Future Development Map does not have legal force, county officials have said, but serves as a guideline for staff and planning board recommendations.
Eleanor Ellis, owner of Evermore Farm, a horse farm and equestrian center that neighbors the R&H Development tract, alluded to the designated suburban areas when she spoke to the commissioners Aug. 5.
“We do know that there’s a lot of development coming,” Ellis said. “You’ve created a road map to dealing with these changes with the Smart Bulloch 2040 Comprehensive Plan, and then you took the time to amend this plan based on these changing times.”
She quoted a county description of the revised Comprehensive Plan, which stated: “The intent is to direct the likely growth into a more defined area for development for planned infrastructure while at the same time protecting as much agricultural and rural residential land as possible. If successful, we can prevent the fiscal risks and fallout to the taxpayer that leapfrog development creates.”
Ellis said the R&H Development subdivision would be “leapfrog development” because it places a subdivision “in the middle of nowhere” with only “farmland and “AG-5 houses” around it.
“Please have the courage to stick with the plan that you and your zoning commissions have come up with,” she said to the commissioners.
The second opposition speaker, Amy Taylor, and her husband and their son live in home they moved to in 2019 to follow “dreams of country living,” she said. Their house is on a five-acre lot across the road from the subdivision tract.
When Taylor asked everyone who was there in opposition to the zoning change to stand, most of the people in the chairs filling the commissioners’ chambers stood up. She and Ellis both referred to a petition with more than 600 signatures of people opposing the rezoning, but this was not presented to the commissioners’ clerk.
The final opposition speaker, Tamas Havar, Ph.D., noted that the county staff review of the project had counted no positive impacts, but four neutral and seven negative impacts.
The Board of Commissioner’s first motion on the rezoning was one made by Commissioner Toby Conner to deny the request. Commissioner Jappy Stringer seconded that motion.
“Around this whole thing is AG-5. Most of it’s all new residents; they have bought this,” Conner said. “Why should we allow the whole opposite of what the landscape is already set for being, change it for these people who have spent their life savings to come here? … This is not where this needs to go.”
But Conner and Stringer were the only commissioners who voted for their motion, while the other four voted against it. So, Chairman Roy Thompson called for a new motion.
Then Commissioner Anthony Simmons made a motion to approve the request “with the conditions,” and Commissioner Ray Mosley seconded that motion. Simmons, Mosley, and Commissioners Curt Deal and Timmy Rushing raised their hands to vote “yes.” Conner and Stringer voted “no.”
The only two conditions were that the principal uses of the property will be an R-40 single-family district as shown in the developer’s sketch plan and that all structures “must be site-built traditional construction according to state minimum building codes,” with no manufactured buildings permitted.