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City dodges lawsuit
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The Richmond Hill City Council has repeatedly denied the request of developer Ellis Skinner to zone his Colonial Marsh subdivision on a 187-acre tract bordering Sterling Creek subdivision.

Skinner, in turn, threatened legal action against the city

But it appears now that the two sides may be close to a compromise.

Here’s a look at what has taken place so far.

The reasons given by council members and others for voting against Skinners’ project were twofold.

Skinner’s density projections were too high and the increased traffic would cause safety concerns at the proposed entranceway.

Sterling Creek resident and city council candidate Marilyn Hodges led a petition drive against the construction of Colonial Marsh, citing the above reasons in addition to drainage concerns.

"After all that rain we just had, Sterling Creek was high and dry," Hodges said. "That’s because all the excess water drains into Elbow Swamp (nickname for the Colonial Marsh tract). When you backfill that swamp, it’s absolutely going to cause backup into Sterling Creek."

Earlier this year, Skinner raised the point that the city, by law, must zone his land. After his third rezoning request was rejected by council, Skinner’s attorneys decided to sue the city of Richmond Hill. Earlier this month, city officials reported an agreement has been reached to avoid litigation and allow Skinner to begin the next step of Colonial Marsh, which is the creation of a conceptual master plan.

"This turned out the way I knew it would from the very beginning," Richmond Hill Mayor Richard Davis said. "You can’t deny someone the use of their land. The only way is to buy it from them, and we’re certainly not prepared to do that. I think we did quite a remarkable job reducing the density, and I think the project will end up being quite nice with a lot of greenspace."

A timeline:

- July 2005: The tract, which Skinner purchased from Rayonier, was approved for annexation by council. The following month, a governmental Development of Regional Impact study endorsed the project.

- March 2006: Skinner’s rezoning request to council of his land from undeveloped to planned development was tabled by council. But not before a petition from Sterling Creek residents against the project was presented to council. A public hearing a week prior saw 70 Sterling Creek residents show up in opposition. Proposed were 475 units.

- July 2006: After multiple workshops which included the developer, city, residents and DOT, the rezoning is presented before council. Skinner's request is denied. The number of units requested was a lesser 392.

- February 2007: Skinner lets his attorney Harold Yellin do the talking at Colonial Marsh’s next presentation before council. A petition is again presented, with more signatures from Sterling Creek residents. The density is reduced slightly to 373, and Yellin indicates multiple adjustments have been made to the planned subdivision. Council denies the rezoning request.

- February 2007: The city is presented with a lawsuit from Skinner for not giving his land for Colonial Marsh a zoning classification.

- February to August 2007: The city has closed session consultations with city attorney Ray Smith and negotiations with Skinner and Yellin go back and forth.

- September 2007: City Manager Mike Melton announces everything has been worked out between the two parties. Yellin informs Melton of his intent to hold a public hearing in the interest of following the correct legal procedures. The density of the subdivision is decreased to 250 units with a 40-acre passive city park.

"The main thing right now is that the property has no zoning classification whatsoever," Skinner said. "The main thing I’m doing is preserving my rights to protect my property rights."

Skinner said he is frustrated because he truly believes his proposed Colonial Marsh subdivision is "the highest and best use for this property."

He said opposition to Colonial Marsh has decreased since the original proposal.

"The whole picture needs to be looked at," Skinner said. "When we first started this, we had standing room only (in opposition) at the P&Z Board. It went down to about 70, and then we went down to about 50. There were about 30 at this last one. I never expected to get 100 percent approval on this," he said.

"Everybody likes to move into a desirable area, but nobody wants it in their backyard."

Hodges remains opposed to the project.

Mayor Pro-tem Floyd Hilliard said he requested the city attorney add a condition to the recent agreement that all safety requirements be met for the entrance way in the subdivision’s forthcoming master plan.

"We can’t stop it," Hilliard said. "We can just do the best we can to keep everything within guidelines."

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