The city of Richmond Hill is set to nearly double in size as City Council Tuesday night approved an application to annex more than 5,000 acres.
The city is currently at about 6,400 acres.
The application for the annexation was made by Raydient Places + Properties LLC, the real estate arm of Rayonier. It includes property along Belfast Keller Road, Belfast River Road and Harris Trail, including land that could include the proposed new Richmond Hill High School and a new elementary school.
The largest of the four pieces of land is 2,000 acres identified as map and parcel number 049-003, which is off Belfast Keller Road near I-95 and Warren Hill Road. The other pieces of land include parts of tracts under map and parcel numbers 057-100, 055-060 and 049-004.
About 2,100 of the 5,000 acres has been identified as wetlands.
Bill Cunningham of Raydient Places told the council it is unlikely Rayonier would seek to build on the wetlands.
“It gets very expensive to mitigate when you impact wetlands and the Corps of Engineers is not favorable toward that,” he said.
Assistant City Manager Scott Allison said the property abuts the city's current boundaries along Belfast Keller Road east of I-95 near the Belfast Commerce Centre and also off of Harris Trail near Port Royal Road. The property extends along Harris Trail to Belfast River Road and down to Belfast Keller Road.
“Over the years we have worked with the city and county on bringing Caesarstone here and on the new interchange,” Cunningham said. “We look forward to working with the school board moving forward.”
Caesarstone is located in the Belfast Commerce Centre, which previously was Rayonier property, and the company granted a right-of-way to the county for the new I-95 interchange at Belfast Keller Road.
Previously approved zoning allows for several thousand homes to be built on the land.
"As the annexation application moves forward, we'll concurrently start the zoning process according to our ordinances," Allison said. "Rayonier as the owners are already entitled to a certain number of units from PUDs approved by the county, but the density will be much less."
Mayor Harold Fowler said the council “heard loud and clear” at its July town hall meeting that residents want “infrastructure ahead of development” and this step ensures that.
Councilman Russ Carpenter agreed.
“Development is coming on this property,” he said. “This puts infrastructure ahead of development and addresses the concerns about impacts on transportation and schools.”
Allison said the city’s recently revamped ordinances will ensure that neighborhoods built in the area will be bound to higher construction standards and require more amenities and open spaces. He said the development could also include commercial pockets.
“This doesn’t change the pace of growth in that area, it only defines how the development will move forward,” Allison added. “This is not an overnight thing. Looking at the long-term big picture, it will be 20 years out.”
A transportation study commissioned by the city and county in 2015 called for a connector road to be built between Harris Trail and Belfast Keller to relieve congestion on Highway 144. Allison said the annexation will make that a reality.
"That is going to cut a ton of miles off of routes for school buses and also for other vehicles," he said. "There are actually a lot of old logging roads in place that can be utilized."