The Putnam County Board of Commissioners approved the rezoning of 57 acres of land along Collis Road, clearing the way for a new $45 milion, 175-room hotel complex to be built. It is expected to mean at least $1.5 million in annual tax revenue to the county. The vote was unanimous.
It came at a public hearing during the June 16 county commission meeting following a controversial planning and zoning process.
Developer Josh Sprayberry first filed the rezoning request at the end of last year. A conceptual design drawing of a three-building hotel, swimming pools, buffers and lots of green space was submitted. But the waters got murky when he also filed a proposal for a 124-unit multi-family townhome project on exactly the same site.
Sprayberry frequently compares the project to The Ritz-Carlton at Lake Oconee, which not only has main hotel buildings but individual cottages on the property. He pointed out that the switch from Agriculture (A-1) to Multi-Family (RM-3) zoning would allow houses, hotels, townhomes, mid-rises, as well as recreational facilities, and he needed flexibility in design due to the changing hotel market.
The P&Z Board recommended approval of the rezoning of the five adjacent parcels that he needs for the project, but there were 10 conditions. They included setbacks from Lake Oconee, exterior construction materials, limits on the number of rooms with refrigerators, required buffer zones, the number of trees per parking space and only one entrance to the property that must be off Collis Road.
The county had already agreed to reconstruct and improve Collis Road from Wards Chapel Road to the hotel entrance after the hotel is substantially completed.
The developer balked at the 10 conditions. He told the The Eatonton Messenger he would consider pulling out of the project rather than agree to them, setting up a showdown at the June 16 public hearing.
High profile Atlanta attorney Douglas Dillard, known for his representation of developers in zoning disputes, appeared to surprise the commissioners when he laid out four conditions that the developer would agree to in order to get the RM-3 re-zonings.
They agreed to build a hotel using three of the parcels but indicated they might also build townhomes, condominiums, cottages and accessory buildings. They said the other two parcels, totaling almost 24 acres, should be rezoned without any indication of how they would be used. They also agreed to two of the conditions the P&Z stated. They will locate the main entrance on Collis Road with an emergency-only side access road off Collis Marina Road. Finally, they said they would agree to a condition that the rezoning would be conditioned on the resurveying and recordation of the parcels.
More than a dozen area residents at the hearing were not impressed.
The hotel site is near the Waterfront on Lake Oconee condominiums and the Waters Oaks subdivision where Denise Moore lives.
“You bring a hotel in that’s got great, wonderful money coming in for the county, that’s one thing,” said Denise Moore, complaining about the impact traffic will have on her neighborhood. “Put it somewhere else. Find some property that, maybe, doesn’t have these families that are trying to bring their kids up in the community.”
A lot of the opposition came from people living on Capps Lane, directly across the narrow inlet from where the hotel would be built.
“This area,” said homeowner Pete Wardlaw, “is already two times more densely populated than any other development on Lake Oconee in Putnam County. Fifty percent of all townhomes outside of Great Waters and Cuscowilla are located on Collis Road.”
He urged commissioners to delay action for more study or at least require more buffer zones around the project.
Four doors down from Wardlaw, Lori Reeves and her husband knew nothing about the project when they bought their home in April. She invited commissioners to visit their dock and look at the property across the inlet.
“It is 450 feet,” Reeves said. “It’s very close. I mean, I can wave at the people in the hotel rooms and say ‘hey, how are you doing?’”
Local realtor Cynthia Wallace was one of a few residents who spoke up in support of the rezoning.
“We want to see Putnam County grow by tourism,” Wallace said, “to help out local businesses, our restaurants and possibly even bring some industry into our community. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain.”
After the public spoke, Dillard stepped up, and following a long pause, the hammer came down.
“You know, I got mine. You got yours, but what is yours is mine,” Dillard said. “These people don’t understand the burden you’ve [commissioners] got, which is great. And that is that all of us has a constitutional right to use our property for any lawful purpose. And that can be only interfered with through a proper exercise of police power.”
Commissioners tried unsuccessfully to convince Dillard and the developers to be more specific on details for the hotel and, especially, the two parcels without designs. Chairman Webster said that trusting the developers was one thing, but if they decided to sell the land instead of developing it, new buyers would be able to do whatever they wanted within the RM-3 zoning.
With nothing much left to say, District 3 Commissioner Bill Sharp made a motion to approve the rezoning with the four conditions drafted by the developer.
Sharp explained that the county needs the $1.5 million in additional tax revenue. He said the new plan for improving fire service throughout Putnam County is estimated to cost $1 million a year for the next 10 years.
“I think everybody that’s out there,” he said, “doesn’t want to see their taxes go up five mils in the next 10 years. And it might be six mils. And that’s exactly where we’re headed if we don’t do something like this.”
District 2 Commissioner Daniel Brown pointed out that, when his family members visit, they usually don’t stay at the two hotels in the county.
“Putnam County,” he said, “has needed a nice hotel that people didn’t have to go stay in Baldwin County, Morgan County, Greene County.”
Commission Chairman Billy Webster, who does not vote, was less gracious, taking a parting shot at the applicants.
“I’m extraordinarily disappointed,” Webster angrily said, “that the applicant came in here with four conditions – take it or leave it – and was not willing to discuss any other conditions.” The vote was anti-climactic.
The vote was anti-climactic. District 1 Commissioner Kelvin Irwin joined Brown and Sharp for a unanimous approval of the rezoning. Later, opponent Pete
Later, opponent Pete Wardlaw said, “They are actually allowing a blank check to the developers, and I don’t see how they’re going to actually assure that the hotel is built.”
Sprayberry said he has partial funding so far and figures it will be 9-12 months of design and other work before ground can be broken. And at least 14-18 months to build it.