Originally created 02/24/02

Hub of activity



The four-lane blacktop leading from the new Evans Wal-Mart Supercenter to Lincolnton, Ga., is dotted with subdivisions. Commercial development fades into more subtle earth tones, where no one is selling anything but the American dream of a two-car garage and a white picket fence.

Statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau show a population shift in this direction. Columbia County grew by 35 percent between 1990 and 2000; Richmond County grew by just 5 percent. The population in Evans increased 114 percent to nearly 20,000 - the fastest rate in the county - and the annual median household income in 1997 hovered near $60,000.

Numbers like that make retailers salivate. Columbia County officials, aware that retailers generally follow residential development, are planning more commercial development.

Evans' new Wal-Mart is just the beginning. The area is set to grow - and officials are determined not to suppress it.

"We know what's going to happen, or what's likely to happen, and I think we're prepared," said Jeff Browning, county director of planning and development.

"We're ready for it."

Set the table More than 300 acres in the Evans Town Center is zoned for commercial development, and double that amount is available to be rezoned for commercial purposes.

New development will be consistent with the Evans Town Center concept: A mixture of residential, commercial and office space designed to be a hub of activity and discourage strip development, Mr. Browning said.

But infrastructure improvements will have to be addressed first. At a recent meeting with county commissioners, the head of the state Department of Transportation, gave tacit approval for widening Washington Road between Belair Road and Faircloth Drive.

The project, which would create a center turn lane, is part of a larger plan to widen Washington Road to William Few Parkway, accommodating the growing population west of Evans.

The county also talked with transportation officials about extending Riverwatch Parkway from its present end at Baston Road all the way to Belair Road near the Evans Towne Centre.

Officials also would like to create a better roadway to get people from the north side of the county to Fort Gordon and widen Flowing Wells and Davis roads in a joint project with Richmond County - an endeavor closely tied to improvements at Interstate 20's interchange at the Bobby Jones Expressway.

At this point, no definitive plan or time line has been approved for any of these projects. The county is busy gathering information for review, said Ronnie Hutto, pre-construction engineer for Columbia County.

"These projects all involve money," said Columbia County Commissioner Jim Whitehead, "and like everyone else (the transportation department) is talking about how little money they have to spread around."

The projects not only will make the land more practical for commercial development, but also relieve a good portion of rush-hour congestion in Martinez and cut down on the number of traffic accidents, Mr. Whitehead said.

The improvements will become even more important once the new courthouse annex opens June 1, adjacent to the government complex near the Evans Towne Centre, and two years from now when a new $12 million public library opens nearby.

"We'll be looking at a tremendous hub of activity in the Evans Town Center," Mr. Whitehead said.

Actual development Infrastructure improvements mean little without a master plan. Columbia County officials want to avoid duplicating the calamitous, unbroken neon of Washington Road's commercial strip in Richmond County.

Strip development is out; cluster development is in. Evans' five-year plan specifically rules out commercial-strip development along the area's arterial roads - Washington and Belair roads.

"We do not wish to have Washington Road to be one continuous line of commercial development," Mr. Browning said. "The big plan specifically states that commercial development should occur in a more concentrated fashion."

The idea is to mix in multifamily, office and townhome developments as well. The chief cluster is Evans Towne Centre. A smaller town center at the intersection of Washington Road and William Few Parkway is three to five years away, said Steve Brown, former chairman and current member of the county planning commission.

Other full-service hubs could go in Appling, Harlem and Grovetown, he added.

The problem is, land zoned for commercial use along an arterial road is worth a lot of money. If landowners want to sell to commercial developers, there's not a whole lot the county can do.

Mr. Browning predicted that the issue will spawn a "battle" before the county's planning commission, but the plan to cluster development might be aided by the fact that most of the property along the arterial roads is zoned commercial, but under a C-1 classification.

C-1 zoned property limits the size of the building to 40,000 square feet. C-2 zoned property, which is what the new Wal-Mart was built on, is not as limited.

"I think, because of those restrictions, if you do see commercial development it will be neighborhood service-oriented business," Mr. Brown said. "I hope that any strip development is neighborhood-oriented. We don't want another Martinez, where it's so difficult to serve the merchants because of the traffic pattern."

Reach John Bankston at (706) 823-3352 or john.banks@augustachronicle.com