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Gainesville votes for RaceTrac gas station; resident says they were betrayed by City Council, mayor

POSTED: May 17, 2008 5:00 a.m.
SCOTT ROGERS /The Times

John Snyder speaks in opposition to the rezoning of land next door to Seasons on Lanier during Tuesday afternoon's Gainesville City Council meeting at the Georgia Mountains Center.

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Seasons on Lanier residents won the first battle against the Atlanta developer trying to change their neighborhood, but it was Easlan Capital of Atlanta Inc. who won the war.

Despite a standing-room-only crowd who stood in opposition to it, the majority of the Gainesville City Council voted to allow a rezoning that will eventually result in a RaceTrac gas station on the edge of the Seasons on Lanier property.

Councilman Danny Dunagan made the motion to approve, which was soon seconded by Mayor Pro Tem Ruth Bruner, citing the fact that the proposed gas station would be far enough away from the Seasons on Lanier residents that it should not cause any problems with their hoped for quiet, pedestrian-friendly neighborhood.

"This is a tough decision, and Seasons on Lanier is a jewel and this development is so disconnected that ... I’m going to recommend we approve this development," Dunagan said.

The vote for approval was not unanimous, as most votes with the Gainesville City Council go. Councilman George Wangemann, who represents the district where Seasons is located, and Councilman Bob Hamrick voted to oppose allowing Easlan to rezone 10 acres of the planned unit development to make room for a RaceTrac gas station on a development that originally barred all auto-related businesses.

"This is just not the place for this in my opinion, and I will demonstrate that in my vote," Wangemann said.

The argument was hard fought by both sides, each of which brought in reinforcements for the meeting. The wall to the right of the council was lined with attorneys and representatives of both Easlan and RaceTrac, holding large diagrams and fervently taking notes when those who opposed them spoke.

One of them, Jacksonville attorney Keith Daw, promised to donate $225,000 of the company’s proceeds to the city for infrastructure, and promised to honor deposits Seasons residents paid on their homes to Levitt and Sons, the original developer of Seasons on Lanier, before the company filed bankruptcy in early November.

"Even though we don’t have their deposit, because that is long gone, we honor their deposit and we move forward on the sale of their home on the terms that they had negotiated," Daw told the council of the way the trustee is currently handling other Levitt and Sons properties in Georgia.

Attorney Wes Robinson, who represented Easlan in its rezoning efforts, gave the council papers he said were a petition with 70 signatures of surrounding residents who wanted the gas station on Browns Bridge Road.

Yet, the rest of the room was filled with gray-haired men and women who elected one spokesman, John Snyder, the president of the Seasons On Lanier homeowner’s association, to speak for the 55 and older community.

Snyder started by reading the zoning requirements for a planned unit development that state that auto-related businesses conflict with a pedestrian-friendly development pattern.

"It’s our main argument that this should not include a RaceTrac gas station," Snyder said.

Snyder said the community has pulled together, keeping the community clean and negotiating with the new developers to try to preserve the community they bought into. And Seasons residents also had an offer for the city of Gainesville.

"I pay a lot of city taxes, but we have our own streets, our own lights that you’re not responsible for, and none of us have kids, yet we’re paying school taxes," Snyder said. "When that builds out, when we have 750 homes occupied, that’s going to have a great economic impact on the city of Gainesville."

But Mayor Myrtle Figueras assured the crowd that the council "cares about people first, before taxes. ... Yeah, we need the tax money, but we do not vote because the city needs the tax. We vote for people."

There were rebuttals and rebuttals of rebuttals, but in the end, Seasons residents left with an approval for a RaceTrac nearly 1,000 feet from their homes, and Easlan Capital left with plans to complete its purchase of the Browns Bridge Road megadevelopment in bankruptcy court.

Snyder said he felt betrayed by Figueras and the council members who voted against what the residents wanted.

"I feel like the City Council was bought out by big business," Snyder said. "In particular, Mayor Figueras, when she made her statement that the people count (and then voted in favor of the rezoning)."

"Wachovia brought in all their big guns and offered the city $225,000 and it defeated us," Snyder said. "This is a big business deal that came in and defeated the people on what the people wanted."

Yet, Snyder said the residents would cooperate with Easlan and said "We’ll just swing with the punches."

Even council members confessed that they were making a tough decision.

After the vote, Bruner could be heard telling Figueras "you never know if you’re doing the right thing."



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