Rezoning gets group's denial

A group of property owners on Blanchard Road in Evans offered a figurative olive branch to area residents at a Columbia County Planning Commission meeting Thursday night. Homeowners said they felt the branch came with too many thorns, and Columbia County's planning commission agreed.

Superior Court Judge James G. Blanchard, Joe E. Blanchard and Billie June Morgan had requested in November the rezoning of more than 27 acres for commercial uses and about another 7 acres for professional uses, according to county records.

In response to public outcry, the Blanchards backed off the proposed professional rezoning of the seven acres and changed their rezoning request for the 27 acres from commercial to professional use.

The planning commission voted 2-1 not to recommend the rezoning after many Blanchard Road residents spoke in opposition to it.

Board members Dean Thompson and Jean Garniewicz voted against the rezoning, while Tony Atkins was the lone vote in favor of it. Brett McGuire recently resigned from the planning commission, and Chairwoman Deanne Hall was not at Thursday night's meeting.

Nearby homeowner Eric Leiden said the professional rezoning still conflicts with the county's growth management plan and should be denied.

It would send the wrong message, he said, if anyone could change the intent of the growth management plan at "the drop of a hat."

Columbia County Planning and Development Director Jeff Browning recommended that planning commissioners deny the initial request, citing the residential character of the area, the distance from an approved commercial node as dictated by the growth management plan and the increased traffic that commercial properties typically attract.

Mr. Browning cited those same reasons for recommending disapproval of the updated request by the Blanchards.

However, the deciding vote on the rezoning rests with the Columbia County Commission at its Dec. 18 meeting, Mr. Browning said. The planning commission is only a recommending body.

Columbia County taxpayers spent more than $1.6 million in December 2002 to buy about 153 acres from the Blanchard family for Blanchard Woods Park, which is near the land under consideration for rezoning.

County officials are negotiating with the Blanchard family to buy about 35 more acres to expand the park at a cost of about $2.5 million, said county Commission Chairman Ron Cross.

Some residents worry that politics might factor into the rezoning decision.

"I think in the back of everybody's mind you kind of wonder if it already has been accepted," Blanchard Road resident Lee Goolsby said. "Is it a kind of you-buy-this-we'll-do-that deal?"

At Judge Blanchard's request, negotiations for more park land were suspended until the rezoning is finalized, Mr. Cross said.

"He didn't want any hint of impropriety," Mr. Cross said of Judge Blanchard. "He said, 'Lets get that zoning issue out of the way before we go any further,' and I thought that was the proper thing to do."

Reach Donnie Fetter at (706) 868-1222, ext. 115, or donnie.fetter@augustachronicle.com.