Industrial or not? Commission seeks input
St. Marys residents will have two opportunities this month to voice their opinions and learn more about a request to rezone the old mill site. Potential developers have proposed building an industrial and logistics center on the land and have asked to change the zoning from mixed use to industrial.
The St. Marys Planning Commission will hold public hearings from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 18, and Thursday, Feb. 25, at St. Marys Elementary School. Comments can also be submitted in writing to the commission or emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Once the planning commission makes its recommendation, the request is expected to come before city council.
The Port of St. Marys LLC, headed by Chris Ragucci of Worldwide Group, submitted the rezoning application in November for the 722-acre parcel. A zoning change is needed to attract companies to the site, Ragucci said in December.
The idea is for manufacturing companies to populate the site and bring in raw materials by rail or barge, then send out the final product the same way for domestic and international distribution. A barge dock would only be added if a company needs it and the amount of usage makes the investment feasible. An end user has not been named.
Because of its size, the project was deemed a development of regional impact and reviewed by the Coastal Regional Commission in 2015. St. Marys’ planning staff have also reviewed the application and issued its report on the request last week.
According to the report, the planning commission could recommend conditions for council to consider. These conditions could cover landscaping, setbacks, hours of operations, types of construction and the location of docks, parking and signs.
Adding conditions gives the city a chance to guide further development, according to the report.
“The reason conditions are so pertinent to a rezone application is that it gives the city further assurance on any future development that the applicant will have stricter standards, more pertinent standards to live by,” the report reads. “Without a concrete development attached to the zoning request, the conditions and perhaps a development agreement, will be the avenue for the city to share its expectation of prospective industrial development.
“Just as the Port of St. Marys has a picture of what they are hoping to achieve with this rezoning, the city, mainly through the conditions, can offer their own vision. Greater environmental controls, through higher standards than state or federal demands, or greater control of public access, or traffic movements could be imposed, with the trade-off that future developers will have the understanding that these wishes must be met, weighing any initial cost or long-term commitment to any development plans and the protections necessary to insure a healthy future.”
The planning staff suggested 22 conditions, including the following:
• creating a mandatory property owners’ association with a fee to maintain common areas;
• a 25-foot buffer on marsh, 200-foot buffer on conservation area and 300-foot buffer between storage and processing areas from residential lot lines;
• limiting truck access to Finley and St. Patrick streets;
• and requiring the applicant to conduct a traffic study prior to development.
The application proposes limiting traffic to Finley and St. Patrick streets off of Highway 40 and estimates traffic at 3,400 trips a day. LandMar, which sought to build a mixed use development on the site in the mid-2000s, listed 3,800 trips in its zoning application to change from industrial to mixed use.
Traffic on Osborne Road was counted at 4,200 daily trips with 148 trucks per day in 2011, according to the report. In 1990, the daily traffic at Osborne and Meeting streets was 7,849 vehicles.
The report also includes traffic numbers for other regional ports, such as Brunswick, which has 12,600 vehicles a day and 1,095 in truck traffic. Planning staff note that the intersection of Osborne and Dandy Street, a few blocks west of the proposed entrance, already sees 13,800 vehicles a day with 789 trucks passing through.
“Where a port would increase traffic and truck numbers, from looking at similar areas, with similar concerns, and looking at historic numbers, we can see that a shift to industrial would not likely over-burden current traffic facilities,” according to the report. “Any further development, we must remember, would demand a traffic study, with concessions made by the developer to meet local and state improvements where required.”
The report also discusses the projected job numbers for the site and calls the calculation of 5,300 jobs “unattainable.” The report then explains that these numbers are high to show the full potential impact and created from an engineer’s table related to past manufacturing.
St. Marys as a whole has 6,800 jobs and the mill employed about 1,000 people at its peak.
“We must also couch all of these projections in the DRI (development of regional impact) process, where it is looking to show the upper-limits to what a region might face if every inch of the development was maximized,” according to the report.
The report covers, too, the importance of this piece of land and its potential impact.
“This application is the largest contiguous piece of property under single-ownership in the City of St. Marys, holding quite conceivably the single most impactful piece to a downtown renaissance the city might see in the next 50 years,” the report reads. “With limited ‘greenfield’ or ‘brownfield’ opportunities remaining in the city proper, this rezone provides an opportunity to place an employment center in that vital stretch between downtown and midtown St. Marys.”
Additionally, the city’s tax digest has fallen in recent years and the city has a limited number of sites zoned for industrial use.
“In a comparison to other port communities, the City of St. Marys has just 4 percent of land dedicated to industrial uses. Comparing comparable coastal communities, Fernandina Beach and Brunswick have a much greater proportion of their land dedicated to industrial,” according to the report.