Audience members opposing a rezoning cheered Monday night as the Effingham County Planning Board recommended denying the Effingham Industrial Development Authority’s request for more than 2,400 acres.
The vote, unanimous among the present board members, recommends the Effingham County commissioners do not grant an industrial zoning to the Research Forest Tract. The IDA has owned the Research Forest Tract since 2006.
It was zoned as planned development — with the original master plan calling for as many as 6,000 homes — and the IDA didn’t know until about six months ago that the P/D zoning remained.
“Which means it could have everything, from homes to industrial,” said Chairman David Burns.
Planning board and audience members questioned the IDA’s plans for transportation and future uses, and they were expressly unhappy with the lack of details and plans.
“They don’t have a plan for how they’re going to get in there,” said Eric D’Angelo. “You buy a piece of land, and you don’t know how you’re going to get into it. To me, that’s insanity.”
The IDA sought rezoning on three parcels, the largest being 1,600 acres. Most of the Research Forest Tract lies between Hodgeville and McCall roads, and the proposed Effingham Parkway bisects the massive holding. The IDA also plans to connect Hodgeville with Highway 21 in Rincon through an east-west corridor.
But any roads for the park — especially after the defeat of the Transportation Investment Act — and any buildings to be erected in it are at least several years away, said IDA CEO John Henry.
“We are very far down the road in planning for this,” he said. “We just can’t get any farther with a master plan until we hire a land planning firm. Not knowing what our property is zoned, it didn’t make much sense to spend any more taxpayer money until we could develop it.”
Henry also pointed out that the tract has several hundred acres of wetlands that the IDA would like to turn into recreational areas. Those areas would serve as a buffer for the heavier industrial uses in the heart of the tract.
He also noted that he has turned down industrial prospects because he didn’t believe they were the right fit for the county.
“I am probably much more a green-friendly and analytical person than most economic developers,” Henry said. “I’m not a smokestack chaser. I look at what is going to provide the most impact to the county, to increase the quality of life in Effingham County.”
Planning board member Bill Sillers told Henry that if the board erred in a decision over a 100-acre tract, the impact would be not nearly as significant as doing the same for such a large parcel as the Research Forest Tract. Industrial site plans also do not necessarily have to come back before the planning board for review.
“If we approve this, we don’t have any place where we could look at this to see if it’s in the county’s best interest,” he said. “I need to know my money is being spent wisely.”
Allen Bazemore said he’s seen too many promises made that weren’t kept and also questioned the planning.
“I want to stay in Effingham the rest of my life, but I’m tired of these empty promises,” he said. “I understand we need industry. These trucks are detrimental to the highways.
“You want this industry, you really need to look at the road situation. You’ve got to have a better plan than what’s been presented here.”
County Commissioner Vera Jones, in whose district the majority of the Research Forest Tract lies, also worried about the park’s details.
“I am very much an advocate for having industrial property in Effingham County,” she said. “I know what I would be required to meet if I were asking for this rezoning, and that’s not happening here.”
The Coastal Regional Commission’s development of regional impact study said the Research Forest Tract’s industrial zoning would benefit the county. The DRI estimated the value at buildout to be $1 billion, with $10 million a year in annual local tax revenues. It is also projected to have 4,500 vehicle trips per peak morning hour.
County commissioners will take up the matter at their Sept. 18 meeting, two days before the next scheduled IDA meeting. Henry said it is likely he will ask for an IDA board meeting before the commissioners act.
“We’ve got several alternatives now,” he said “We’ll have to look at the options that are out there. We could always go out and put a for sale sign on it. We could drop the issue for several years until we know better what the situations with the roads are going to be.
“We can go back to court if need be. We want to avoid that,” Henry continued. “We don’t want to spend any more taxpayers’ money on this. Otherwise, we’re saddled with a $31 million piece of property we can’t use. If it gets developed for 4,000 or 6,000 residential units, there is going to be a heckuva lot more traffic than there would be from our industrial park. There’s no way we can show who the end users are going to be. But we can show what the uses are going to be.”