Despite the protestations of nearly two dozen people in opposition, Effingham County commissioners approved the first reading of the Effingham Industrial Development Authority’s request to have nearly 2,600 acres rezoned as industrial.
The land, known as the Research Forest Tract, stretches from just west of Highway 21 to Hodgeville Road. Most the property is bordered by McCall and Hodgeville roads. Commissioners voted 5-1 in favor of the request to change the Research Forest Tract’s zoning from planned development to industrial. Commissioner Vera Jones, in whose district the Research Forest Tract lies, voted against the rezoning.
But 3rd District Commissioner Steve Mason, citing the need for more industrial growth in the county, put forth the motion for approval, and Chairman Dusty Zeigler added the second.
"We are a bedroom community," Mason said. "We have to balance our digest and get more industrial and commercial, which is going to attract the residential. I believe the industrial growth is paramount to our county. If we don’t have the industrial, we’re going to have to continue to look at the property owners to fund the services the property owners are asking for."
Effingham IDA CEO John Henry was glad to get the rezoning and to get the issue settled. The county’s planning board had recommended denying the zoning change, but Henry said the build out of the Research Forest Tract is a 20-30-year timeline.
"We’ll be able to continue to show it," he said. "But the odds of landing a megasite-type project in there are really low, given all the infrastructure requirements it’s going to take. We inch toward that over the years and get closer and closer to making that a reality. It could be a reality in 10, 15, 20 years."
Jones assailed the IDA’s plans for the tract, telling Henry that the plans didn’t go far enough. She was dismayed about the lack of plans for roads and transportation.
"I would never consider a place without road access," she said. "These are the things that need to be answered up front. They’ve waited six years to get it, and they’ve done nothing."
The IDA acquired the land through a friendly condemnation in 2005 for $31 million, and it was zoned as planned development-residential at the time. The original plan called for the development of 6,000 homes.
The IDA realized several months ago the land still bore planned development-residential zoning and began in February to get it changed. The IDA had been operating under the notion the zoning did not make a distinction between planned development-industrial and planned development-residential.
"That’s when we found out it wouldn’t accommodate industrial," Henry said. "It was my understanding that IDA was subject to local zoning. I wouldn’t be here (at the meeting) if it wasn’t."
Master planning for the tract has been ongoing since 2006, Henry added.
"I’ve got tons of plans. I’ve got tons of cost estimates," he said.
Also, full environmental, archaelogical and cultural resources studies have been done, Henry said, and those surveys found no endangered species or important resources out there. The IDA also is working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on its wetlands permit.
The proposed Georgia Portway/Effingham Parkway is designed to cut through the heart of the Research Forest Tract, but the defeat of the transportation special purpose local option sales tax is expected to delay when that road will be built.
The creation of the Georgia Portway has been since as critical to the tract’s development.
"This department has been based on the belief that ultimately there will be an Effingham Portway through there," Henry said. "We don’t necessarily believe it has to be a four-lane, divided highway. But whatever is built will determine what’s built upon our site. Nobody is going to go where there isn’t sufficient infrastructure or a plan for sufficient infrastructure."
Henry also said that the IDA will work with the county, the city of Rincon, the state Department of Transportation and any other necessary agency to develop a transportation plan for the tract. One of the stipulations of the zoning approval was the submittal of a traffic impact analysis with any development plan.
What roads might be needed in the future, Henry could not say, since they don’t know who their ultimate end users are.
"Right now, there’s nothing that’s needed," he said, "because there’s nothing in there."
Voices in opposition
Jones said the IDA’s decision to acquire the land may not have been a bad decision at the time. But she continued to question the IDA’s plans.
"And six years later, we don’t know what to do with it," she said. "You won’t find a person more for business, commercial or industrial growth than I am. Period. At the same time, I recognize the concerns of the citizens are fair. We’re looking at the citizens and saying, trust us, and they’re looking back and saying, it hasn’t worked so far.
"What they expect from us is better than what we’ve given them," Jones continued. "They’ve already paid $31 million and they want to know what we’re giving them back. And we’re not really showing them that. We owe them a real plan of how we’re going to do it rather than ‘trust us’ and do it."
Residents who live near the Research Forest Tract also voiced their concerns and opposition, with many of their objections centered on the expected traffic.
Teresa Bender said the zoning should be denied and asked commissioners to consider an environmental or recreation area for the tract instead.
"We’re very concerned about the whole plan and the environmental impact on Effingham County," she said. "You drew people here for its beauty. You have an obligation to these people to give them what they ask for. They deserve it. Stop it and re-look at it and create beauty or sell homes. We need this closed tonight. Not next week or not next year. If you can’t build it, close it and build something else — please."
Said Judy Perry: "I’m trying to wrap my brain around how we’re going to attract buyers, even if we change the zoning tonight, without definite infrastructure and definite roads."
Eric D’Angelo also said the IDA would have to come back to the "people who have spent tens of millions on this land to build roads."
"How many times have people’s property taxes gone down because of a large development like this?" he asked. "I think it’s a heavy burden for the people of this county to pay for when I don’t know anyone who wants smokestacks in their backyard. I really don’t think the county really needs it. People come here for the quality of life. They don’t come here to live near their job. They want somewhere with clean air, clean water and peace and quiet. I’m not sure what we’re gaining from this."
What it could mean
Henry cited a study from Armstrong Atlantic State University’s Center for Regional Analysis that said the Research Forest Tract could lead to 13,000 jobs, more than $710 million in annual payroll and an annual economic impact of $3 billion.
"The impact is greater back to the county than what we’re spending," Mason said.
Henry also defended the impacts of what industries and businesses in the Research Forest Tract could mean. The IDA’s plans call for light industrial in its westernmost area, near Lowe’s in Rincon, and for commercial, executive offices and recreation areas around Blandford Elementary School. Any heavy industrial will be in the center of the tract, buffered on the north and south by recreational wetlands.
Manufacturing jobs also are expected to raise the county’s per capita income, according to Henry. Thirty percent of the jobs in the county are in government, and another 40 percent are in the service-sector and other low-wage areas. There are about 2,100 manufacturing jobs in the county, with an average hourly wage of more than $20 an hour.
Henry also added that the IDA board has turned down prospects because they didn’t believe the project was appropriate for the community.
"We look at everything in detail," he said. "We look at the cost-benefit analysis over a 10-year, 20-year horizon, depending on the industry."
Adding to the industrial portion of the tax digest could help alleviate the burden placed on homeowners, Mason and Effingham Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Rick Lott said.
"For all the talk about the troubles we as taxpayers have, bringing industry in has to be on the forefront of how we shift that burden," Lott said.
Lott also said that could help sales tax dollars in Effingham, rather than having those dollars spent in Chatham County.
Mason also noted that the state took on construction of an access road to the Caterpillar plant in the Athens area after the company announced it was opening a manufacturing facility there.
"The impact is greater back to the county than what we’re spending," he said.
Mason also wondered how much traffic there would be should the original intent of 6,000 homes in the Research Forest Tract come to pass — not to mention the heavy trucks and equipment that would be needed to build those homes.
"The traffic count for 6,000 homes is much more than the traffic coming out of Georgia-Pacific today," he said.
Said Henry: "Twelve million square feet of industry doesn’t necessarily equate to 12,000 cars or 12,000 trucks."
Such a residential development would mean more schools and more roads, and the cost of government for residential services, versus industrial services, would be higher, Henry added.
Henry also refuted the notion that Hodgeville Road would be four-laned.
"It’s never even been discussed," he said.
The Research Forest Tract’s advantages are enormous, Henry pointed out. It is served by two rail lines, has 1.5 million gallon per day wastewater treatment plant within two miles and a 36-inch water line with a capacity of 21 million gallons per day.
"It is unheard of," he said. "You cannot bring that infrastructure somewhere else as cheap as you can build a road."
Henry also said whatever the Georgia Portway ends up being, if it is built, will determine what will be built on the site.
"Nobody is going to go where there isn’t sufficient infrastructure or a plan for sufficient infrastructure," he said. "We had traffic studies done on several different scenarios. We know what the roads need to look like; we just don’t know where they need to go yet.
"This is long-term project," Henry added. "We look at this as a legacy project. We don’t plan to go out and build tomorrow."