Athens-Clarke County might lose another business to Oconee County following a decision this week by county commissioners to deny a rezoning.
“This is not meant in a threatening way, but our plan B and C are across the line in Oconee County,” said Andy Thomas, COO of The Commercial Bank, which hoped to construct a new building on two parcels totaling about 1.6 acres on the corner of Epps Bridge Parkway and Timothy Road. The plan required a rezoning from residential to commercial.
Already operating out of a building near that location, Thomas said the bank wished to expand and also add more jobs. The commission’s decision to deny the rezoning means losing seven jobs and three or four more positions Thomas said the bank wishes to add.
“As a resident (of Athens), I want to know from you guys what are you going to do to stop the bleeding?” Thomas asked commissioners.
A possible answer, according to commissioners, is to conduct a study.
Despite denying the rezoning and potentially losing The Commercial Bank to Oconee County, commissioners said they hope to prevent businesses from relocating elsewhere.
Commissioner Mike Hamby figuratively pointed to Atlanta Highway as an example of “spot zoning” gone awry. In years past, he said, commissioners allowed rezonings along the corridor as requests were made without heeding to any particular plan. As a result, many business that once operated on Atlanta Highway now do so in Oconee County.
Indeed, former Atlanta Highway-based retailers that relocated to Oconee County include Best Buy, Gap and Old Navy.
“Opening the door to this opens the door to other lots that could go commercial,” said Hamby. “… You rezone this and the next person who comes up wants to rezone another parcel along there and point to this rezone for justification.”
Five other commissioners agreed with Hamby’s sentiment in their vote to deny the rezoning.
“We’ve got to get it together and have a plan, have a policy about how we address these situations where we’re getting commercial intrusion into our neighborhoods, or abutting our neighborhoods,” said Commissioner Melissa Link.
Commissioner Diane Bell and three others disagreed and voted to rezone the parcels. She sided with others who called the bank a good business for that location and called it myopic to believe that land fronting the Athens-Clarke County side of Epps Bridge Parkway will remain residential.
“What else could we study to decide to put on this property that could be better than a commercial bank?” she asked. “… What will (end) up being there if we wait for another opportunity?”
Hamby offered an answer.
“It’s not just about a bank. It’s about where this corridor is going,” he said. “This is a pivotal moment for the corridor. We can either pivot to doing it the right way or pivot to doing it the way Atlanta Highway does.”
In making a motion to deny the rezoning, Hamby asked fellow commissioners to consider adding a request for proposal to examine the cost of conducting a corridor study along Epps Bridge Parkway. He hopes to discuss it further when the commission looks at contracts for corridor studies of Atlanta Highway and Lexington Road.
The commission was scheduled to discuss those corridor studies this week, but tabled it until next month.