Effingham County commissioners unanimously approved a much-debated and controversial rezoning request Tuesday night.
By a 5-0 vote, commissioners gave the go-ahead for the 1,077 acre Exley tracts to become a planned development-mixed use site.
The northern tract of the site will be multi-family residential while the southern and larger portion will be a mix of industrial uses, ranging from warehouse and distribution to light industrial.
There also is a sliver of commercial property along the eastern boundary, fronting Highway 21.
“I am not a developer. I am not a contractor,” said 5th District Commissioner Verna Phillips, in whose district the Exley and New Savannah tracts lie. “I feel like everybody is trying to do the right thing. We have talked through this. You have voiced your concerns. They have tried to address those. It’s not going to be perfect.”
Thomas and Hutton engineer Chance Raehn said the project is significantly different in its now-approved form. The rezoning plan had to go back through the state’s development of regional impact evaluation.
“The project is still in the best interests of the state and of the county,” Raehn remarked of the DRI findings.
He also pointed out that while the original plan called for industrial zoning in the northern tract, the reworked proposal now has a similar zoning adjacent to the single-family housing along Goshen Road Extension. The existing zoning allows for 2,400 residential units, and developers are planning on approximately 1,350 units of townhomes, condominiums and apartments.
“Due to the concerns of the adjoining neighborhood, we have put a lot of time and effort in providing answers to virtually every question asked, and we’re now ready to move forward with a new and improved plan,” said Murphy McLean, representing the New Savannah development group. “We have proved our development will not adversely affect the adjoining neighborhood.
“The location of industrial is ideal,” McLean said, pointing to a wetlands and a berm that will separate the industrial south portion of the land from the residential area in the northern part. “We want a project everyone can be proud of.”
Separating industrial from residential
The industrial park will be at least 1,000 feet away from the existing residences in the area and those who move into the planned residential on the north tract will know beforehand there is an industrial park there. The separation between the planned residential and the current neighborhoods will be at least 100 feet.
But residents of the Goshen Hills area, bordering the northern tract, vehemently opposed Tuesday night’s rezoning, much as they had earlier this year when the plan was all-industrial.
“It’s not about ‘not in my backyard,’” said Carl Mirsky. “It’s about responsible growth and putting the right type of property in the right type of area. The fact remains there is still going to be an industrial park there. There is still going to be people impacted.”
He also asked that if the developers intend to put residential on the northern side, they should ask for a residential zoning.
“They even said it themselves, it’s just a plan,” Mirsky said. “It’s a picture of what could be there. One of the concerns is though they said they’re going to put residential, as long as it’s PD-MU, they can put anything they want to there.”
Said Bobby Lathem: “It appears to me this county is driven by contractors and real estate people. I feel we need to get a handle on this rezoning and development business.”
Residents also questioned if the county had any hazardous material trained personnel and equipment in its fire and rescue department.
“We do have firefighters who are haz-mat certified,” interim county administrator David Crawley said, noting the county’s department is a mix of paid and volunteer firefighters.
Raehn also noted that the Georgia Ports Authority said it needed 40 million square feet of warehouse capacity as the port of Savannah is now the No. 2 container port along the Eastern seaboard. Half of that desired space has been built, he said, leaving a shortfall of 20 million square foot — and the New Savannah tract is only a few miles from the port via a four-lane highway.
Exley and New Savannah representatives don’t have specific site plans yet and don’t have specific tenants for any industrial uses in mind. The new plan calls for 6 million square feet of industrial and warehouse space. The previous plan had 9 million square feet.
Many residents opposed to the new plan said it will put those who move into the multi-family units in the northern tract in harm’s way.
“Residential (uses) should not be this close to industrial,” said Wendy Gillespie. “Accidents can and will happen. The potential is there.”
“I think anyone who wants to move out of Goshen Hills should be offered an obscene amount of money for their homes, right now, that is good for 12 months,” said Jerry Lander. “They can either decline it and stay where they’re at or leave and improve their chances for a better residence where the wisdom of the county commissioners won’t put another industrial development at their back porch.”
Property owners and developers originally submitted a proposal for an all-industrial type use, but they withdrew their request in May. After reworking the plan, they offered a new proposal last month.
“We have reworked the plan to put residential uses adjacent to one another and to separate the industrial from the neighboring residential,” Raehn said.
The wetland between the north and south tracts and the berm to be built should be plenty of separation between the residential and industrial tracts, according to McLean.
“They won’t even know we’re back there,” he said.
Raehn also pointed out that only 2 percent of the land in the county is zoned industrial and the south tract is the closest site in Effingham County to the ports. He also said the ability to bring in more industrial and commercial could lower the tax burden placed on homeowners and that industrial use brings in 13 times more per acre than residential uses.
“Taxes have been increasing so much,” said Donald Nelson, who spoke in favor of the rezoning. “One thing about industrial is, you don’t have to build schools.”
Exley tract owners also have spent $3.5 million in water and sewer infrastructure for the site and are ready to pay another $3.7 million to finish it.
“(It) is ideally located to provide the county increased tax base without significantly impacting the county’s infrastructure,” Raehn said.
Raehn also went over the air, noise and water quality studies that the developers conducted in the spring at the request of the neighboring residents. He said the Floridan aquifer, the primary source of drinking water, is recharged many miles away and won’t be affected by the development.
Goshen Hills residents also questioned the methodology used in the studies and asked for another public hearing.
“I believe we have adequately addressed the studies,” Raehn said. “Yes, it is a PD-MU, but the text states what that use for the north tract will be and the number of units.”
“We really think we have a great site for an industrial park,” McLean said. “We’re excited we’ve got something that the county likes and that is going to increase the tax base and create a lot of jobs here. With the growth of the port, this is going to be a great asset for Effingham County.”