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Proposed development draws fire
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Keller resident John Barker confronts the Bryan County Planning and Zoning Board during last week’s hearing. Barker was opposed to a proposed townhome development in his neighborhood. The board voted to deny the rezoning request. - photo by Photo by Ross Blair
What is normally a very calm and sparsely attended meeting was anything but on the evening of Feb. 1 for the Bryan County Planning and Zoning Board.
Close to 100 people showed up for a meeting at the Richmond Hill Courthouse Annex that comfortably fits a capacity of about 15 people.
Most were residents of the Keller area there to voice their opposition against two proposed townhome projects. About half a dozen residents of the Lanier area were there to oppose a commercial project. All attending residents had the common objective of fighting development for what they felt was an effort toward preserving their neighborhoods.
The tension was in the air as the opposing residents filled the meeting room and the corresponding hallway. Richmond Hill resident Tia Thompson, who noticeably got caught in the shuffle with her home business permit request for Mrs. T’s Catering, broke the ice a bit by saying that everyone was there to see that her delicious baked goods would hit the market. After being granted her license, she told everyone, “We love you. Free cupcakes for everybody!”
Planning and Zoning Board Chairman Ted Akins looked around the room, sighed and stated, “We’ll need some of that love in a little while.”
The Board, made up of a volunteer group of citizens, was certainly in the hot seat as the large group of concerned citizens was intently looking to them for a resolution on blocking the townhome projects.
As Akins stated to those in attendance, the Bryan County Planning and Zoning Board is a recommending body only, with the decision on all the discussed proposals to be ultimately decided by the Bryan County Board of Commissioners at their March 6 meeting.
You couldn’t tell it by the emotion level of the crowd, though, as they cheered and jeered on every comment, despite Akins plea for them not to do so.
The first Keller project was an elaborate 5-acre townhome tract off Hwy 144 entitled Demeries Townhomes, presented by Mark Gjekaj and Bob Massey. The project called for 18 town homes and an adjacent boat dock.
Gjekaj presented a conceptual rendering of the project, detailing that all the proper permits have been acquired. He boldly stated that the project did not include “condos”. This was in response to many in attendance who heckled him by expressing their dislike for condo projects in the area, and that are indeed “townhomes” – the difference being that they are not additional family units built on top of each other.
Many residents animatedly opposed the project which included complaints such as:
•    Resident Bob Dilmore, who lives less than a mile from the proposed project, said that he spoke to hundreds of local people about this project, and they were all opposed to it.
•    Another resident said that the townhomes “would violate the sanctity, integrity and beauty of the kind of community that we moved there to be part of.”
•    One resident expressed that the Ogeechee river keeper deeply opposed this project, stating concerns over the run off into the marsh and presenting documents to back this claim.
•    Another stated that it does not conform to the look of the neighborhood, and will therefore reduce the value of their property.
Ghejak rebutted that all the opposing statements were opinions, and that it is a fact that he has gone through all the proper channels, and the project will enhance the community.
The Board unanimously denied the townhome project, which was met with a roar of approval from the attending residents.
Next up was land owner Michael Stefanick with another Keller townhome project, entitled McAllister Row Townhomes. He brought Savannah attorney Tom Mahoney with him to present his 16-unit, 5.6-acre project which is located next to the Dutchtown subdivision on Jean’s Way.
Stefanik displayed the conceptual drawings of the project as Mahoney explained its positive points which included a bike trail, 60-foot entranceway, a DNR-approved community dock and 30-foot floral buffer between it and Dutchtown. Mahoney said that the project is a “win-win situation” for the community with its high-end units that will retain the oak trees and add some palm trees.
Like the previous project, McAllister Row also received a steady flow of opposition. The comments from attending residents included:
•    Resident Pat Wall said that the 3-story buildings will dwarf the neighbors, and the project will add too much traffic.
•    Resident Chris Berry said that the reason she bought her home there was because it was an area that was free of these kinds of projects.
•    Resident John Barker loudly expressed his anger at the proposal. He pointed his finger at Chairman Akins, urging him to deny the request while telling him, “You’ve got a responsibility to do the right thing here!”
•    Resident Diane Krause said that the project will bring noise, light and flooding to the neighborhood, and that “the bottom line is you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone that is for this development.”
The Board denied this project as well, much to the delight of the vociferous audience.
A common complaint that was raised by some, and applauded by the rest, of those in attendance was a seemingly common consensus that there is more to this than just the incoming townhome projects themselves, but opposition is geered closer to the current lack of a comprehensive master plan for the county. Also brought up numerous times was the fear that these incoming projects will turn out like the ongoing River Oaks projects, which is regarded as congested and uncomplimentary to its surroundings by those who spoke of it.
Bryan County Planning and Zoning Administrator Christy Stringer, who, along with her staff, recommended that the board approve the townhome projects, shares the frustrations of the master plan dilemma.
“The one we have is so expired and outdated,” said Stringer.
She explained that the Department of Community Affairs (DCA) dictates when it is to be done, and they have postponed it twice. The DCA currently has it scheduled for 2013, but Stringer said they are in the process of trying to make it happen sooner.
“2013 is way too late based on the amount of development that the county is experiencing,” Stringer said. “A lot of people want a moratorium on construction until the new plan is here, but there a lot of problems that come with that.”
She said that she is not surprised at the board’s denial of the requests, explaining that the board is very representative of the people, “and they do a good job at that.”  
She went on to state that she feels the residents at the recent meeting were driven by emotion and trepidation perhaps caused by the River Oaks project which “ended up being a lot more dense that when it was originally approved by the commissioners.” She said that the River Oaks project changed when it got annexed into the city, straying from the original, less-congested plan.
County Administrator Phil Jones, who attended the meeting, said that he took note of the outcry for an updated master plan. He also, like Stringer, felt that the townhome projects were complimentary to the neighborhood. He noted that the Commissioners will have to look strongly at both sides, taking into consideration both the legal rights of the landowners and the concerns of the public, before rendering a decision at their March meeting.
In other business, several residents from Lanier had come to the meeting to state their opposition against a commercial rezoning effort from W.K. Polk.
Polk brought Bryan County attorney John Harvey with him to speak on his behalf of his effort to rezone his 7-acre tract at Highway 280 and Paradise Lane into a commercial venture. Harvey and Polk stated that there was commercial property throughout the surrounding area, and it therefore should not be a problem.
The Lanier residents stated that, due to it being located near a sharp curve, it was too dangerous for the increased traffic that would come along with the tract turning commercial.
The Board approved the rezoning request with a 4-3 vote, with the conditions that a tree buffer be added, it be limited to just two commercial lots, and that Polk work with the county engineer to ensure safe access.

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