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Statesboro City Council rejects Fair Road zoning change
Would have allowed Enmark and hotel beside botanical garden
City of Statesboro seal

New evening meeting time

Tuesday's City Council meeting was the last to begin at 5:15 p.m.

In one of their first votes of the evening, members changed the time for the second meeting each month to 15 minutes later. This had been announced last month as a change in the meeting ordinance.

The first regular meeting each month is at 9 a.m. on the first Tuesday. The second meeting will now begin at 5:30 p.m. on the third Tuesday.

— Al Hackle

Probably surprising nobody, Statesboro City Council has denied a zoning change and a height variance needed for a gas station and a four-story hotel to be built between Georgia Southern University's Garden of the Coastal Plain and First Presbyterian Church.

The requests, from the estate of the late Martha Benson for her former family home at 1301 Fair Road, came to the council with a unanimous recommendation from the city Planning Commission that they be denied. When the mayor and council held their hearing last month, more than a dozen people spoke against the zoning change.

Many were residents of the Woodlawn Terrace neighborhood, across a five-lane section of Fair Road, also known as Georgia Highway 67, from the Benson property. The site is on the corner with Georgia Avenue, and the city also received a letter registering objections from the church, which is on the same side of the highway but beyond Georgia Avenue. Dozens more neighbors signed petitions opposing the project.

"I will do anything in my possible power to help you, to help us all, find a suitable something for that property," Councilman John Riggs said Tuesday, directing his remarks to Dr. Robert M. Benson Jr., the executor of his mother's estate, and others involved with the project.

Riggs said he hoped they would understand that city officials just do not feel that this project is right for the location. He and the city staff are at the property owners' disposal to help find a suitable use for the property, Riggs said, adding that he would say the same to Enmark, the Savannah-based convenience store and gas station company, for help finding another location.

"I think it's a fantastic concept ... just not across from Woodlawn subdivision," Riggs said.

Reasons in writing

The council had continued its Jan. 21 hearing until Tuesday night so that its reasons to deny the request could be put in writing. The resolution stating those reasons was in council members' agenda packets before the meeting.

Riggs moved to deny the request. Councilman Gary Lewis seconded the motion, and Councilman Will Britt joined in the 3-0 vote. Councilman Phil Boyum arrived at the meeting several minutes after the vote, and Councilman Travis Chance was absent.

In the resolution drafted by City Attorney Alvin Leaphart, the city states its reasons for denying the change as reasons for keeping the existing zoning. That zoning is R3, or medium density, multi-family residential, which would allow multiple duplex apartments to be built on the 4.4 acres.

The proposed Enmark station and the hotel, which would have been operated by an unnamed hotel brand, would have required a change to a commercial zone.

But now the council has ruled that the site's residential zoning is consistent with the zoning and uses of surrounding land.

While acknowledging that property is "almost always" worth more if zoned commercial, the resolution asserts that the site's value is "not significantly diminished" by the current zoning. The resolution states that some residential-zone properties nearby sold for $172,000 to $228,000 per acre in 2013 and 2014. Bob Mikell, as attorney for Woodlawn Neighborhood Association members, submitted similar sales figures, which included buildings, at the previous hearing,

The resolution also cites two Georgia Supreme Court decisions.

In one, from 1931, the court upheld the city of Savannah's restriction of new construction to residential buildings around Forsyth Park, stating that having business structures nearby would "tend to destroy" the park's "loveliness and beauty."

"We find that allowing commercial structures adjacent to the Garden of the Coastal Plain would tend to destroy the integrity of this public asset," states the Statesboro resolution.

In the other Supreme Court decision, dated 1987 and involving a Clayton County church, the justices held that noise, light and traffic affecting adjoining residential property values are valid zoning concerns.

Attorney Steve Rushing represented the Benson estate at the Planning Commission and City Council hearings, and his firm had a court reporter take down what was said at the Jan. 21 hearing. The property owner or prospective buyer could, if they wish, appeal to the Bulloch County Superior Court, seeking an order to reverse the decision.

Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.

 

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