A rezoning request to build a shopping center on Zebulon Road has divided area residents, positioning the zoning commission for a high-stakes balancing act.
Birmingham, Ala.-based developer Blackwater Resources wants to rezone seven contiguous parcels totaling 25 acres between 5801 and 5885 Zebulon Road. The company plans to invest about $30 million in a shopping center with 200,000 to 250,000 square feet of retail space, including five outparcels. Blackwater is developing the project under the name Development Co. LLC.
The company is looking to rezone the property from a single-family residential district to a planned development district that would allow the retail development. If the property is rezoned, developers also would need to apply for approval of the final site layout, site plan details and final building design.
The application is scheduled to be heard at the Macon-Bibb County Planning & Zoning Commission meeting at 1:30 p.m. Monday at Macon City Hall, 700 Poplar St.
John Abernathy, director of development and leasing for Blackwater, said he plans to bring new retailers to Macon that want to be close to the people they serve, but he did not reveal any companies hes negotiating with.
He said the shopping center would bring new jobs and new tax revenue to the county.
But the proposal has already picked up opposition.
Several residents and others who oppose the project say it would bring traffic congestion and noise, too intrusive for the residential neighborhood.
The commission has to weigh the benefits of the developer and the (property) owners and retailers against the benefits and impacts to the nearby neighborhoods and in the corridor, said Jim Thomas, executive director of the planning and zoning commission. You cant provide a benefit to the developer at the growth detriment of the neighborhood, and vice versa, you cant stop development because of some minor concern that doesnt really affect the neighborhoods.
The property where the shopping center would be built is surrounded on three sides by residential properties with a mix of commercial and other uses on the fourth side of the site extending to Interstate 475. The developer intends to maintain a 20-foot buffer between the shopping center and residential property lines.
Not the first battle for residents
The stretch of Zebulon Road between I-475 and Forsyth Road has been a hotbed of controversial projects for years, including Zebulon Roads widening to five lanes.
Neighbors fought plans for the Wal-Mart store and Carlyle retirement community, which eventually were built. But they have fought and won many more battles, including several proposed projects going back to 1997 along Zebulon Road. Plans for a day care center, funeral home, animal hospital, dentist office and a bank failed to locate along the corridor.
Glenn Smith, who lives at the intersection of Zebulon and Foster roads, has fought every commercial development proposal since he moved there 18 years ago.
We didnt know we would be in the epicenter of zoning issues, Smith said. We liked it for its residential character.
He said it was smart zoning, smart land use planning to have the church and school as a buffer between residential and commercial uses.
It has served us well for two decades now, he said. There is no reason to change that today. ... (The developer) is trying to dress this up and put a happy face on it. Its a huge development and totally inappropriate.
Thomas tends to agree in the commissions staff report, which he wrote.
Rezoning this parcel will further diminish the residential nature of within the corridor making it more difficult in the future to maintain the intent of the future land use plan, the report said. It should also be noted that the proposed development is of a size that is more in line with a regional-type shopping center and would be larger than the existing Wal-Mart, Kohls shopping center, or the Kroger anchored center located along Zebulon Road.
However, Jack Poole, a Macon native who lives on Whittle Road about 5 miles from the proposed project, said he can remember when Zebulon was a dirt road.
It should definitely be zoned (for) some type of commercial property by now, said Poole, who signed a petition supporting the rezoning.
He said he feels sorry for the owners of the seven parcels if a developer doesnt buy their land.
They probably want to move, but nobody is going to buy their (property) for a residence, he said.
Poole, who sat on a zoning board when he lived in Mississippi, said he is aware of situations that contribute to the need for variances or rezoning.
I think this is a pretty clear-cut case where that area does need to be rezoned, he said. I just think its time for that to happen. Its certainly not going to get any better for residences along there.
Poole said he would like to see an office supply store or a upscale restaurant locate in the proposed center.
It would be nice to have a white tablecloth restaurant, he said. I hope (the rezoning) goes through.
Developer: Its where retailers want to be
Zan Thompson, a land planner with ZT3 Placemaker Studio, worked with Southern Pine Plantations years ago as it developed the large retail areas on Zebulon Road. The commission and most of the neighbors agreed that Sonny Carter Elementary and what is now Northway Church would be the transition needed to buffer the residential areas from the retail areas.
We made the comment (to commissioners) that the church and the school make a line in the sand, and as long as the commission holds onto that, you will never have to worry about retail development on Zebulon Road, Thompson said.
Ever since, Thompson has supported residents who opposed other developments on the road. He has been hired by some of the areas residents again, along with Macon attorney Bill Larsen with the Martin Snow law firm, to fight the rezoning.
Abernathy said his company targeted Macon and chose this location because it most closely matched what retailers are looking for.
Developers used to quickly choose a spot near an interstate interchange and build a shopping center. Now, they are more deliberate about the location and want to be closer to where people live and go to church or school.
Abernathy said hes working with a specialty grocery store, which would be new to Macon, thats interested in the new shopping center. Abernathy said he also is targeting retailers that might be ready for a second location in the area.
Even though there is a lot of vacant land already zoned for retail use in Bibb County, the tenants Abernathy has been working with have told him if the Zebulon Road location doesnt work out, they might not be interested in Macon for a year or two, he said.
Thomas said hes concerned retailers will just move from other locations in Bibb County, leaving vacant spaces behind.
Im not sure what the net gain would be with jobs and tax revenue, he said. Im not an economist, but there are only so many grocers that an area needs.
It doesnt add to the economy if people are just moving dollars around in the same area, he said.
Thomas said its not surprising that Zebulon Road continues to be looked at for development.
Its near a main interchange, he said. Traffic counts are high, and its an area of the county that has a lot of disposable income.
To contact writer Linda S. Morris, call 744-4223.