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Editorial: How can we prevent another situation like the McEver warehouse?
Nearly 400,000 square feet of distribution facility space is being proposed on some 34 acres off McEver Road in South Hall.

The practice of property owners and developers pitting one government entity against another by shopping around for favorable zoning decisions is certainly nothing new in the suburban Atlanta area, but few instances seem as blatant as the ongoing effort to build a warehouse on McEver Road by having property rezoned from agriculture/residential to light industrial.

Developers of what is projected to be a $50 million warehouse development first asked the Hall County government to rezone 34 acres off McEver Road for the project. The county planning commission denied the application, and it was withdrawn before the full county commission voted on the request.

Property owners then went to Flowery Branch to ask the city government there to approve an annexation and rezoning to allow the warehouse construction. Flowery Branch also turned down the proposal.

Now, the project awaits a decision from Buford, which also has been asked to annex the land into its city limits and then rezone it for a warehouse.

The possibility of Buford becoming involved in rezoning the property led to a review by a state arbitration panel when the process was challenged by Hall County. That panel ruled last month that Buford could proceed with the annexation and rezoning as it was in line with other property uses on that stretch of McEver Road. The Buford Planning Commission will consider the request next week.

The fact that a third governmental entity is about to consider the same rezoning request on the same piece of property points out some rather obvious weaknesses in governmental land -use planning and zoning regulations.

It also shows inherent problems with annexation laws that allow municipalities to stretch out and take in more land in order to boost their tax base without any other real justification for doing so.

In this case, whether the zoning requested is justifiable is of secondary consideration to the process that allows it to still be a point of discussion.

When the project was considered by Hall County and Flowery Branch, local residents were vocal in their opposition to having a warehouse distribution center built near their neighborhoods. Residents vote, and elected officials tend to pay attention when they speak up.

But there are few residential areas affected by the rezoning that are within the city limits of Buford, and officials there don’t have to worry about what residents of Hall County or Flowery Branch think of their decisions.

From Buford’s perspective, an annexation will bring new tax money into the city while requiring virtually no additional city services. After all, Buford isn’t going to be providing police and fire protection, isn’t going to be picking up kids there for its schools system. For Buford officials, it’s a move that would benefit those voters to whom they are answerable by improving the city’s overall financial picture. Maybe not the neighborly thing to do, but an understandable rationale from a business perspective.

While the issue is ugly and complex, it’s not one easily defined by what is obviously right or wrong.

The arbitration panel found that light industrial zoning is appropriate for the area, based on other nearby properties. That makes it harder to argue the zoning “doesn’t fit,” though technically that decision can still be challenged in court. If the rezoning is appropriate, it’s hard to fault the developer for trying to find a way to get it approved, even if doing so means paying an additional set of property taxes.

The entire McEver Road corridor needs major improvements to handle traffic volume, and the addition of more industrial traffic is going to make the situation worse. The developer has promised to make some road improvements, but even if that happens in the area of the rezoning, it’s not going to cure all the road’s problems from the Hall County line to Gainesville.

Those who own homes in the area already have spoken out against the rezoning to two governing bodies. The fact that neighboring residents do not want a particular land use approved is not in itself a satisfactory legal basis for denial; if it were, there would never be a landfill, sewer plant nor jail built. But moving the decision to a body with no electoral ties to the voters in the area doesn’t do much to advance the cause of representative government.

The developer in a case like this has rights as well, and if, indeed, the proposed use is consistent with other similar properties, fits within land-use guidelines and satisfies zoning laws, then denial based solely on the complaints of vocal residents is inappropriate regardless of who is hearing the request.

So how do you prevent situations like this in a growing area like ours? There aren’t easy answers, but a good starting point would be by addressing the ease with which municipal governments can annex properties for the purpose of rezoning them.

Maybe you impose a deadline that requires rezoning to wait a certain amount of time after property is annexed; maybe you require the annexing government to reimburse the government from which the property is annexed for a certain period of time; maybe you look at government agreements on land-use plans and zoning regulations that cross city-county borders for the sake of consistency, or create special zoning buffers in areas adjacent to municipal boundaries. Those would be decisions for the state legislature.

With a $50 million investment at play in the competitive world of economic development among government entities, maybe there isn’t a real solution beyond hoping you have good neighbors at the jurisdictional line.

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