A contentious rezoning request that could bring a new apartment complex to north Forsyth was a hot topic at a well-attended planning commissioners meeting.
On Tuesday, Sept. 27, planning commissioners heard a request from applicant Cottages at Shady Shores LLC to rezone 57.7 acres off Pilgrim Mill and Holtzclaw roads and Freedom Parkway from the current lake residential zoning to master-planned district.
The proposal included a request for 314 apartments with a proposed density of 5.44 units per acre, 29,300 square feet of commercial space with 148 parking spaces and 29.6 acres of open greenspace.
The developer also proposed to build a new public road to connect Holtzclaw Road and Freedom Parkway called Creekside Parkway that would run parallel to Pilgrim Mill Road.
A variance was requested to increase the percentage of total residential units for apartments from 20% to 100%.
According to Vanessa Bernstein-Goldman, deputy director of the Department of Planning and Community Development, county staff was not supportive of the request because the project is in the Lanier Character Area, and an MPD is not in conformity with the county’s comprehensive plan for that area.
The project also did not provide a “creative arrangement of land uses,” she said.
Those in favor
Ethan Underwood, an attorney representing the project, began his presentation by stating that he and the developer were aware that traffic on Pilgrim Mill Road was a “major, major problem.”
“We now have an opportunity to either do something about it and put an application that we think would be better and alleviate that traffic, or we can leave it as is, do nothing, and [traffic is] just going to get worse,” Underwood said.
One way to mitigate traffic concerns, Underwood said, was to build Creekside Parkway, which would be an expense of the developer.
“Truly, we think that [road] is the reason that an MPD is substantiated on this application,” Underwood said. “To provide businesses, residents and other folks who are just, frankly, using Holtzclaw Road as a cut-through, a way to get off of Pilgrim Mill [Road], allow the residents of Pilgrim Mill to go on their way, and everybody not be bogged down there with as much traffic.”
Underwood also explained that the project was directly adjacent to the Hammonds Crossing Regional Node which, according to him, “allows the most dense, most intense development of anywhere in Forsyth County.”
Such development could include six-story commercial buildings along Freedom Parkway, he said.
In an effort to provide a “transition” piece, Underwood said it was the intention of the developer to create a land use that would smoothly transition from “high intensity non-residential” development on Freedom Parkway to the residential areas down the Pilgrim Mill Road peninsula.
Resident Mark Morris also spoke in favor of the project, saying it would provide “generational housing;” a place for recent college graduates to return home to Forsyth County and live, work and play in the space they were previously raised.
According to Underwood, the project would be a “class A” residential community marketed toward mature adults and young professionals with rent prices between $2,000-2,500.
With only one and two-bedroom apartments available, Underwood also said the impacts on local schools would likely be low.
Those in opposition
Long-time and new residents of the peninsulas of Pilgrim Mill and Shady Grove roads alike came to the meeting to oppose the project.
Most concerns raised by residents were centered around traffic, specifically about safety, noise and the current gridlock that occurs during rush hour on Pilgrim Mill Road.
Residents explained how traffic backs up as far as Ga. 400, forcing them to sit still in the right-hand lane on the major highway as cars “fly by at 75-85 miles per hour.”
Other residents were concerned about people cutting through traffic on Keith Bridge Road by taking the backroads off Holtzclaw Road to get to Gainesville. During a rebuttal period, even Underwood admitted he was “part of the problem,” as he took those roads as cut-throughs.
Most of all, residents were concerned with keeping their way of life in the area, with many stating they would prefer to keep the LR zoning on the property and develop it into 85-95 single-family homes.
One resident asked what would come next if the project was approved against the county’s comprehensive plan, asking if it was possible then to put a runway on Freedom Parkway for airplanes.
“This is not what we want, and we are asking you to please [deny],” he said. “Pay attention to what we’re saying.”
Before planning commissioners discussed the item, Tim Dineen, the planning commissioner for District 5, said that the project had caused him “tremendous conflict” because he took “the opinions of Forsyth County residents … very seriously.”
“I’ve literally lost sleep over this one,” Dineen said.
Dineen shared his thoughts, weighing the value versus the cost of the development.
Among the values Dineen said were the connecting road, greenspace and opportunity for office space.
Some of the costs included the apartments and going against the comprehensive plan and staff recommendations.
“I don’t ever like to go against the comprehensive plan,” Dineen said. “I don’t like to put high-density residential in peoples’ backyards. I avoid it at all costs.”
Dineen also said that if the property was to be developed as a LR neighborhood, the project would not come before the board, prohibiting the county from putting certain conditions on the property.
Speaking about traffic concerns, District 3’s Jessica Thorsen said she, along with the other board members, had driven the roads off Exit 16 during rush hour.
“I was challenged to drive [the roads] during rush hour, so I did,” Thorsen said. “To be honest, it is not much worse than driving Post Road at rush hour.”
Thorsen said she was also inclined to like the project after hearing Morris speak about generational housing, which “[hit] home with [her]” as she has a daughter in her 20s that would someday need a home of her own in the county.
Providing a counterpoint, District 4’s Nedal Shawkat thought the value of Creekside Parkway was “questionable.”
He wondered if the road would provide as much value in the future if road widenings took place on Pilgrim Mill and Keith Bridge roads.
He also said Creekside Parkway could become a cut-through road for traffic going toward Browns Bridge Road and might possibly encourage more cut-throughs.
According to Shawkat, county engineers have never proposed to build a road to connect Freedom Parkway and Holtzclaw Road, which he said informed his decision about the road.
Looking at a map, Shawkat also said it seemed like the Hammonds Crossing Regional Node faced more west along Freedom Parkway where the Lanier Character Area faced eastward towards Holtzclaw Road.
“It appears that the intention there was to delineate that if you’re a parcel facing Freedom Parkway, and your traffic is coming from Freedom Parkway and going on [that road], then you’re going to be part of this very intense node,” Shawkat said.
Finally, Shawkat said it was the responsibility of the county to maintain “expectations of the community” by upholding the comprehensive plan.
If someone new was moving to the county, Shawkat said they might look at the comprehensive plan or ask county officials about specific locations to find a home suitable for them based on different character areas and the standards within them.
However, he acknowledged that the area off Exit 16 is rapidly changing, especially with the county campus relocating to Freedom Parkway.
Thorsen asked Shawkat if he believed the current LR zoning would be less impactful to the surrounding community than an MPD zoning. Shawkat said yes, he believed it would be.
Before wrapping up discussion, District 2’s Stacy Guy said he did not want to go against the comprehensive plan, so he was “also a ‘no’” on the project.
Dineen made a motion to recommend approval of the rezoning request with the variance and conditions presented. The motion passed with a 3-2 vote with Guy and Shawkat opposed.
“I wish I had more options here,” Dineen said. “If we deny this, and it’s Lake Residential, we can’t do anything about it…. There’s no conditions we can put on it.”
Following a recommendation from the planning commission, the item will appear before the Board of Commissioners who have final say over approval or denial.
The item is scheduled for the Oct. 20 Board of Commissioners meeting, but the date is subject to change if warranted.