After residents of nearby subdivisions bent their ears for nearly two hours, Athens-Clarke County commissioners rejected a rezoning last week for an 83-home 55-and-up development off Epps Bridge Parkway near Timothy Road.
While attorney Jim Warnes touted the need for housing for seniors and refuted criticism, potential neighbors raised issues of density, traffic, environmental damage from grading and affordability. “Just because this development targets the older demographic doesn’t excuse the serious faults in this plan,” St. Ives homeowners association president Jane Sullivan said.
“The things that concern me in this project haven’t changed,” Commissioner Mike Hamby said. “It’s the density and the mass grading. We can talk about the 55 and older. That’s a laudable goal for us to have. But this body, this government, doesn’t have any control over that.”
Athens is growing, though, and the population regionally is aging, Commissioner Kelly Girtz said—if Athens doesn’t add senior housing, outlying counties will, and those people will still drive through the city. “I think this is a good project,” he said.
“The more we can find these pockets and increase our density slightly, the less we’re going to have to build these ginormous high-rises that definitely do impact neighborhoods, and the less we’re going to be inviting people who have more wealth to displace people in our existing neighborhoods,” Commissioner Melissa Link said.
Commissioner Mariah Parker argued against the development’s $300,000-plus prices. “We do have a desperate need for senior housing, but we have to encourage senior housing that is accessible for people with varying income levels,” she said.
Parker also noted that the majority of speakers were opposed to the development. “I think it’s important to look out for the people who already live in Athens and stand with them, rather than look ahead to how we can attract people here,” she said.
The developer didn’t make any concessions in exchange for higher density, Commissioner Jerry NeSmith said—not even a traffic light. “We’re not getting anything in return for this, except the promise that wealthy people from other communities will move into our town,” he said. “That’s not good enough.”
Link, Girtz and Bell supported the Epps Bridge development, which was denied by a 7-3 vote.
As expected, the commission unanimously approved historic districts on Milledge Circle and Castalia Avenue in Five Points. What was surprising was the margin: The districts passed unanimously, with even Bell in support. Bell had angered many constituents (and colleagues) when she allowed a tear-down to move forward on Milledge Circle last year, then refused to explain herself. She did speak on the topic last Tuesday, and it’s worth quoting in full:
“This is a very incredible journey for me, and I want you to know, there is no one who likes the preservation any more than I do, but what I don’t like is the route that sometimes it takes, and this has been a journey for a lot of people. And what I want to address right now is the people who do not want to be a part of [but] are being forced to be a part of a historic district. The flexibility we will be giving—and this will come in just a minute, I hope—but I want them to know how much I care about them. What has happened is under the rules. What has happened is under the preservation demands. I respect that, but I want it to be done the right way to respect those other people that don’t want to go the angle that this forces them to.”
The flexibility Bell referred to was a tweak to the districts protecting structures built before 1949, instead of 1964, as originally proposed.
The third major zoning item drew far less discussion but could have a greater impact on the city as a whole: a 10,000-seat amphitheater off Commerce Road just north of the Loop. After a motion to deny by Hamby—who had environmental concerns—failed, the commission voted unanimously to approve a rezoning for the amphitheater.
Commissioners also put off a decision on proposed changes to the Southern Mill development off Chase Street, wanting to learn more about the latest iteration of the project.
Showing ’Em Who’s Boss: State law requires the ACC Commission to approve the Clarke County school board’s millage rate. Usually it’s a formality, but Hamby pulled it off the agenda to make two points. First, school taxes make up 60 percent of taxpayers’ bills, but when people complain about their property taxes, they generally complain to commissioners, which has always irked them. Second, Hamby wanted to advocate for more collaboration between ACC and the Clarke County School District.
“This board and the school board should be looking for opportunities to work together,” Hamby said. He pointed to the vacant West Broad School, where the Athens Land Trust, which runs a community garden and farmers market on the property, is pitching a community center. CCSD plans currently call for turning the school into administrative offices, although Superintendent Demond Means recently proposed pre-K classrooms. If CCSD accepts the land trust proposal, the West Broad study group chaired by Hamby has offered $3 million in SPLOST youth development funds, and ACC could also make room for CCSD central offices in a government complex commissioners are discussing for the next SPLOST in 2020.
Bar Bottles: The commission also unanimously passed incentives for bars to serve canned beer rather than bottled. County Solid Waste officials recently told commissioners that they want to minimize the amount of glass they have to pick up downtown. It’s heavy, cuts through bags, injures workers and doesn’t sell for much on the recycling market, they said. They proposed giving bar owners a break on their alcohol licenses—potentially saving them thousands of dollars—if they move away from bottles. At least one bar owner, Flanigan's Jason Leonard, has already made the switch.
Speaking of bars, the commission also passed a new policy that will give it a little more control over how many bars open downtown and where. A recent “health and safety” study found that packed bars close together present a hazard. The new policy will require commission approval as a “special use” under ACC zoning law for any new bar downtown with a capacity over 100, as determined by the fire marshal. The policy will not affect any existing bars, or even a new bar replacing one that’s closed; it only kicks in when a bar is proposed in a space that has not been used as a bar for at least 12 months.