After an hour and a half of explanation and debate, Statesboro City Council approved a zoning change with conditions Tuesday evening for a 239-home subdivision to be built between Cawana Road and the current end of Aspen Heights Drive off Fair Road.
The proposed main street through the planned neighborhood of 209 townhomes and 30 detached houses will link heavily trafficked Fair Road and Cawana Road. So, despite curves and several three-way stops intended to discourage cut-through traffic, its safety remains a concern for the city’s planning and development staff.
But local builder Keely Fennell of NeSmith Construction and others representing the project suggested that the hurdles it has faced illustrate how the city’s rules and procedures impede the development of new neighborhoods with homes for purchase.
“In all respect, I’ve been battling this for eight months,” Fennell told the mayor and council during Tuesday’s hearing.
She said this while rejecting a suggestion that the council be allowed to wait until June 1 to vote on the zoning request and while, on the other hand, acknowledging efforts by Planning and Development Director Kathy Field to encourage home construction in the city limits.
“Kathy was so gracious, because it’s the first time I’ve ever had any city planner come to me and say, ‘What can I do to get you to build in Statesboro?’ …,” Fennell continued. “But y’all, it’s been eight months. You know how long it takes me to do a development in the county? Three, start to finish. So my dollars are being banked up right here and being held up by city government, right now.”
She meant three months for county zoning and planning processes to arrive an initial go-head for detailed design, in contrast to eight months to reach this point with the city.
In the end a compromise was reached Tuesday evening, and City Council voted 4-1 to grant the request for a change from R-4 high-density residential to PUD, planned unit development, with a list of eight conditions required of the developers.
Valnoc LLC, a limited liability company of which local builder John E. Lavender is registered agent, and PDC Statesboro LLC, of which Donald NeSmith, Fennell’s father, is registered agent, had applied for the zoning change for the almost 65-acre site. From Fair Road it is behind Aspen Heights, beyond the bypass. However, the apartment complexes at Aspen Heights are under different ownership, and this new development is not related.
Staff advised ‘no’
When this property was annexed into the city in January 2013, the mayor and council of that time set conditions on its development.
One of the conditions was that a road with curbing, gutters, bike lanes and sidewalks be developed through the property on an 80-foot-wide right of way. This would be a “collector road” linking traffic from the subdivision and surrounding properties to Fair Road and Cawana Road.
But beginning in 2020 with the current plan, the developers proposed a narrower, 60-foot right of way, suggesting that the streets through the subdivision would be only “local streets,” still including a sidewalk on one side but no bike lanes and with a reduced setback distance to homes.
The city’s development staff then recommended that the zoning change request be denied because the developers’ plan violated conditions of the 2013 annexation.
“The argument is, if you don’t build a collector road which will serve all of the Cawana Road development as well as this development, you lose the opportunity forever in the future, and there really aren’t very many connections at this point with the exception of this property right here,” Field told the mayor and council.
Planning board ‘yes’
While recommending against the zoning request, the planning staff also made a short list of conditions in case City Council chose to approve it.
Meanwhile, the issue had gone twice to the city Planning Commission. When the developers presented a revised plan May 4, the appointed board voted 4-0 to recommend approval with a 60-foot right of way allowed but also a longer list of required conditions.
When the question came to the mayor and council during Tuesday’s regular meeting, Fennell and two attorneys, Francys Johnson and Steve Rushing, and an engineer, Joey Maxwell of Maxwell-Reddick & Associates, spoke on behalf of the plan.
“Statesboro needs additional housing, this is a very good plan, and your commitment as a council is not to some fidelity to annexation conditions adopted years ago, especially in the changing climate, economic and otherwise, but to serve this present age, and this development is a fair compromise,” Johnson said.
Price of road
The current estimated price of the 80-foot roadway would be $1.2 million and this would make the project prohibitively expensive for development as housing to be sold, Maxwell said.
”The city wants a collector road, but it’s being placed on the back of the developers,” he argued. “Go build me an 80-foot road and it’s $1.2 million and give it to the city and then you can do your thing. I get it, but it’s hard to do that on this property.”
So instead, the developers proposed the “local streets” on a 60-foot right of way. These will still comply with other city requirements and be as wide as some existing streets in Statesboro.
Rushing said the developers did not want the zoning change to be approved without the removal of the requirement for an 80-foot road. If the change had been denied, they would have had to revert to the original idea of building a big, rental apartment complex with 1,200 units under the previous R-4 zoning, He and Maxwell asserted.
Maxwell noted that the developers’ plan adds curves and multiple three-way stops as “traffic calming” measures, meant to slow drivers down and discourage the use of the main subdivision street as a through road.
Backing into it
But some council members worried that the plan will create a situation where residents have to back into a busy street from their driveways.
“I would love for us to put in a development like this that has single-family homes and townhomes. I’m sure there’s a real market for it. …,” said District 5 Councilwoman Shari Barr. “My concern from the very beginning has been the fact that there’s so much traffic out there already and if we’re cutting through – if we’re encouraging people to cut through – that that can create a real hazard.”
City Manager Charles Penny said this remained a serious professional concern for staff members who will need to work with the developers in further planning to make the development as safe as possible.
But he helped arrive at the compromise, removing a condition stating that all subdivision regulations “must be adhered to, including prior approval by the City Engineer of the proposed local street alignment.” The developers will still have to comply with all city ordinances, Penny said.
The other eight conditions, including a requirement for a traffic study, which Rushing said has been done awaiting a report, remain in place. In this form, the zoning change was approved on a motion from District 4 Councilman John Riggs, seconded by District 2 Councilwoman Paulette Chavers.
Barr cast the one vote in opposition.
Marcus Toole, community outreach coordinator for Habitat for Humanity of Bulloch County, also spoke in favor of the zoning amendment. He said development regulations here and elsewhere tend to promote construction of large homes, too expensive for even middle-income people to afford.
“We need to allow for smaller houses on smaller lots and smaller setbacks, and we actually need this as a precedent because if we don’t get this as a precedent, then it limits what we want to do all over Statesboro in building affordable, decent, homeowner-owned houses,” Toole said.
The target price range for homes in the subdivision is $140,000 to $170,000, said Fennell, who suggested this should be affordable for school teachers and police officers and some recent Georgia Southern graduates.