Council rezones mill site

Facing a sea of “Vote NO Please” signs, St. Marys City Council voted 5-1 Monday to approve rezoning the old paper mill site as planned development industrial with 27 special conditions that place restrictions on odors, lighting, materials and other aspects of the development.

Potential developers submitted the rezoning application in November for a proposed industrial and logistics center on the 722-acre plot. LandMar had the zoning changed from industrial to mixed use before losing the property to bankruptcy in the late 2000s.

Council members cited the need for jobs and industrial growth among their reasons for approving the request. 

Council member Bob Nutter cast the lone vote against the motion, saying he didn’t believe the special conditions were adequate, that it would be irresponsible to rezone without knowing specific details of the project and its impacts and that developers were doing a grave disservice by not disclosing information about end users.

“We have before us a legacy decision tonight and I, for one, feel we need to move more slowly and more deliberately with an eye toward the future versus being mired in the present and clutching at fragile straws,” Nutter said in explaining his vote. “To do so is to risk sacrificing our existing assets based upon what is essentially nothing more than smoke, mirrors and pretty promises.”

After the question had been called, Nutter made a motion to postpone the issue until a referendum could be held. Once someone calls the question, however, council must cease discussion and vote on the motion.

Nearly 200 people attended the 2.5-hour special meeting Monday at St. Marys Elementary School. Many voiced their opposition by wearing “Vote NO Please” buttons, holding up signs and applauding at points.

More restrictions for barges

Early in discussion on the motion to approve, council member Linda Williams proposed an amendment to the motion to require special use permits for a barge port, which won’t be built unless a company needs it. That way an incoming company could have industrial zoning and only apply for the barge-related permits, giving residents and city council an opportunity to hear about that specific use in detail, Williams said.

After wordsmithing and two recesses for city staff and the applicant to confer, council agreed to add a sentence to special condition 19 that reads: “In-water and land-based structures servicing commercial barge activity and each industry seeking barge-based traffic requires a special use permit.” 

Condition 19 already prohibited the mooring of barges and other vessels in the North River.

What council had to say

In discussion, council members called the decision tough and said they had agonized over the issue.

“I sat down and studied and wrestled with this and had a lot of sleepless nights,” Williams said. “I know that what I proposed will not make either side really happy. It’s a compromised position, but I feel like it’s a compromised position that gives an industrial park with the ability to utilize the TAD (tax allocation district), with the ability to attract industry and clean up the mill site and provide new industries and jobs, which are certainly needed.”

Council member Elaine Powierski listed the significant facts that led to her decision. She noted the need to stimulate the economy as soon as possible; support a healthy middle class; conditions that address concerns of residents, protect the city’s voice in the project and allows the property to be marketable; and how the city went beyond its usual procedures to examine the proposal.

“I view this as giving us an opportunity to explore our options for development,” Powierski said. “Nothing will be developed on that property until we have a full business plan, which will include what will be produced, how many jobs will be created and what the land, rail and water traffic will be associated with it.”

Council member Dave Reilly talked about the need to balance industry with residential to create a tax base for services and that St. Marys didn’t need more houses like LandMar had proposed for the property. St. Marys needs head of household jobs and 5,000 additional water/sewer customers to replace the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) money that is going toward paying the city’s debt for building a new wastewater treatment facility, Reilly said.

“Where do we go with zoning? It is indeed a tough decision and one I know — whatever decision is made — will be difficult for some to accept. It is a decision that I anguished over,” Reilly said, adding that he would make a fact-based decision.

Council member Sam Colville said the property was an eyesore and council had an opportunity to make the land valuable to St. Marys.

“I have to look at the evidence,” Colville said. “And the evidence says that that property has been sitting there for 10 years and no use has been made of it. No one that has looked at the property has come to look for any use for that property other than for industrial use. I see no other use for the property. I see it still sitting there and unless we vote to rezone this property, then I see no reason that that property will be any different tomorrow or the day after or all the days after than it is today.”

Council member Jim Gant said St. Marys needs diversity to boost its tax base and can’t exist on retirees, homeowners and some commercial areas. City and county economic development groups have supported the rezoning too, Gant said.

“That is the only way forward,” he said. 

Gant pointed to the special conditions that restrict activities on the property and detail how it will be set up. He said he was looking for good jobs with high wages and clean industry.

“There’s no way that they can bring in just anything they want. It’s going to be controlled. We’ve got buffers. We’ve got height restrictions,” Gant said. “… They’re going to bring us back industry that’s not a mill. It’s never going to be a mill.”

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