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Development slowdown prompts reassessment of planners' role
Oakwood Planning Director Larry Sparks looks through a proposal from a local business on a sign change recently at his office in Oakwood City Hall. Recent changes in the economic status has forced changes in the way area planners perform their duties.


Oakwood Planning Director Stan Brown talks about the "refocus" of duties during tougher economic times.

The economy hasn’t throttled growth in South Hall, but it has changed the duties somewhat of key planners in Flowery Branch and Oakwood.

"We’ve been able to refocus ... talk to our planning commission about our development status and go over areas in the city that are growing, look at project-by-project things going on," said Larry Sparks, planning director for Oakwood.

"(When the group) gets caught up in doing this, this and this when they’ve got a big agenda, they don’t (get to) think about what’s our future land-use plan look like, what’s our comprehensive plan say."

Tonight’s Oakwood Planning Commission meeting is a prime example. Members will see "None" under new business on its agenda and "Review of Project Development" under other business.

In better economic times, residential and commercial growth was hopping in South Hall. City officials kept busy with such projects as the Stonebridge Village regional shopping center in Flowery Branch and the Wal-Mart Supercenter/Sam’s and outparcels in Oakwood.

Bill Andrew, Flowery Branch’s city manager, has said that at one time, the city was regularly fielding calls from potential developers interested in sites around the city.

There are signs throughout the area where residential development has started and stopped, and places where business growth has stalled or is on hold.

At the same, however, grading is under way for a Walgreens pharmacy and possibly another retail building at Hog Mountain and Spout Springs roads.

Waffle House plans to start building a new restaurant off McEver Road in Flowery Branch, and a Texaco Xpress Lube Center is under construction on Spout Springs Road.

In Oakwood, a 300-unit apartment complex, The Walden at Oakwood, is being built south of Robson Crossing Shopping Center off Winder Highway.

Overall, the slowdown has provided the cities something of a breather, officials said.

"We’re in the process right now of updating our comp plan, so this will give me time to deal with that — looking at long-range ideas and thinking about that a little more," Sparks said.

The city is preparing to look at some annexation possibilities, following up on a voluntary initiative late last year, "and we might have delayed that (effort) if we had stayed so busy," he said.

Flowery Branch doesn’t have a planning board. Instead, city officials take requests for annexations and rezonings, among other petitions, to the City Council.

"Just because we don’t have items going before (the council) doesn’t mean we don’t have activity happening," Planning Director James Riker said.

"We get a lot of people who come in, who are looking to get information ... or want to talk about doing development that wouldn’t necessarily need (approval by the council) but would be done at the staff level."

Riker added that Flowery Branch also has used the slowdown "as an opportunity to organize our files, procedures and forms, our Web site."

Flowery Branch and Oakwood also are looking at future infrastructure projects, such as sewer and roads, to spur development once the economy rebounds.

Andrew has that city officials were going to meet with property owners around Thurmon Tanner Parkway at Phil Niekro Boulevard on issues regarding "right-of-way acquisition and/or donation."

The city, which is considering a traffic light at that busy intersection, "is wanting to try to design the layout to really be the final design for what would be the highest use of that site," Andrew said.

Large tracts of developable land surround the intersection, particularly the Hall Creek Village property between Thurmon Tanner and Interstate 985.

And construction has begun on the final 1.3-mile stretch of Thurmon Tanner, between Plainview and Mundy Mill roads, in Oakwood. Officials in that city unveiled in the fall plans for what the city will look like, encompassing part of Thurmon Tanner, in 2030.

But here in 2009, officials are grinding it out, hoping for better days.

Sparks said he was speaking recently with City Manager Stan Brown, who has been deployed for a tour of duty in Iraq as a U.S. Air Force reservist.

"He was asking me how things were going ... and I said, ‘We’re staying busy, but we’re not making any money,’" Sparks said, laughing.