Liberty County commissioners approved a rezoning off Islands Highway in a split decision — and to the dismay of many residents who oppose it.
The rezoning will take 139 acres, owned by Newbridge Residential Parks, from agricultural to industrial, and property owners plan to turn that tract into a warehouse site.
Commissioners, in a 4-3 vote, approved the rezoning, after two motions to either delay or deny the rezoning failed to pass. The Liberty Consolidated Planning Commission had given a unanimous approval recommendation for the rezoning, provided there was no direct access to Islands Highway, a 100-foot vegetative buffer between the site and neighboring residential tracts and light manufacturing and warehouse operations only would be allowed on the site.
Commissioner Marion Stevens, citing a lack of infrastructure, particularly on roads, initially offered a motion to deny the rezoning, getting a second from Maxie Jones.
“We have not talked about safety and this is a safety issue,” Stevens said, who represents the 1st District, which includes the area east of the I-95 and Highway 84 interchange. “I have watched traffic in the afternoon and it backs up. Now we’re going to add more employees. They must have a way of going out and coming in.
“It’s like putting in a kitchen sink without putting on a countertop.”
After that motion failed with only three votes in favor, Commissioner Justin Frasier made a second motion to table the item. Though it got a second, that motion again failed to get enough votes to pass.
Commissioner Eddie Walden eventually made a motion to pass the rezoning request, including the planning commission’s recommend special conditions. That motion passed 4-3, with Walden, Lovette and Commissioners Connie Thrift and Gary Gilliard voting in favor.
Walden bristled at social media comments that the commissioners were taking money under the table to approve the rezoning.
“I think that’s wrong,” he said. “I didn’t really appreciate it.”
The tract is bordered on the north and west by Tradeport East. It is part of a larger 308-acre tract and much of the remainder is wetlands and will be a natural buffer between the property and neighboring residents, Liberty Consolidated Planning Commission director Jeff Ricketson pointed out. The remainder of the property is being left in agricultural zoning. The land that could be developed there, under its current zoning, would have to be low-density.
Entry to the tract will be off M.L. Coffer Court. It will not have direct access to Islands Highway, though trucks coming in and out will be using the Tradeport East intersection with Islands Highway near Interstate 95’s exit 76.
The vote drew a harsh reaction from the residents in attendance, some of whom scolded the commissioners, reminding them their seats will come up for election again.
Nancy Maier echoed the lyrics of the Joni Mitchell song “Big Yellow Taxi” in voicing her opposition to the rezoning, telling commissioners they were paving paradise to put up a parking lot.
“Why are doing this?” she said. “Why are you even considering this drastic step for our county? I cannot understand it. Everybody has their own impression and feeling about what paradise is. I am pleading for the people who live there to not continue paving our paradise.”
Martha Dykes, whose property is across the street from the tract, said a vote approving the rezoning would be “a slap in the face” to Liberty County residents.
“I am beyond mad,” she said. “I am emotionally, physically and mentally drained at the thought of these warehouses in our neighborhood. Warehouses should be confined to an industrial setting, not in our front and back yards. You’ve already decimated a large percentage of woodland in our area to house these buildings. Is your plan to continue destroying what’s left before all the beauty of the coastal area is destroyed?”
Dykes implored commissioners to hold off on action until after a December 8 meeting to get public comments on future land use for the eastern end of Liberty County.
“If these rezonings are approved,” she said, “it will prove you are not listening to the lifelong taxpaying residents of this area. Say no to this madness. Say no to this encroachment. Say no to the continuation of the decimation of eastern Liberty County.”
Ronda Dorney also questioned if commissioners were hearing residents’ concerns but not listening to them.
“It’s got to stop,” she said of the continued rezoning requests on the east end. “You need to vote no.”
Area resident Keith Gaskin said those living off Islands Highway near Stevens Road are getting flooded because of industrial development.
He also questioned if county leaders were paying heed to the residents.
“Do we really have a voice in what’s going on?” he asked.
Susan Inman, the coastal advocate for the environmental watchdog group 100 Miles, asked commissioners to adopt an industrial rezoning moratorium such as those in place in Bloomingdale, Port Wentworth and Effingham County.
“The residents of the east end of Liberty County feel they are in quicksand with this fast-paced industrial rezoning,” she said.
Inman asked commissioners to table the request for 30 days in order to find solutions to residents’ concerns.
“Liberty County is not missing out if you don’t approve warehouses to be built in this area,” she said. “You’re actually ahead of the game.”
Bianca Croft, who owns a nearby hobby farm, said she wanted to see the wetlands put into a conservation easement.
“I don’t want to look at warehouses,” she said.
We purchased on Islands Highway to get away from the lights, the noise pollution, the traffic.”
Croft also urged commissioners to stop industrial rezoning unless the remaining areas already zoned for industrial use are full.
Lack of space for development
Liberty County Development Authority executive director Ron Tolley said the acreage available in Tradeport East is shrinking rapidly. It has gone from more than 1,400 acres to 232 acres, and verbal agreements on future developments have spoken for 85 acres of that remaining land.
The LCDA’s lack of land, especially on the east side of the interstate, which is closer to exit 76 than its holdings of nearly 800 acres in Tradeport West, has taken the county out of consideration for larger projects, Tolley said.
“These acreage limits have deleted us from larger scale projects we could have handled in the past but can no longer support,” he said, noting that if a larger user such as the Target warehouse were to come along now, the LCDA would not able to accommodate it.
“The rezoning of new property for industrial use is crucial if the commission wants to have continued growth and development in Liberty County,” Tolley added.
East end residents also brought forth concerns over fire protection for warehouses at Tradeport East. The LCDA has a 500,000 gallon elevated water tank in the park just for that purpose.
Liberty County has more than 4,100 jobs in warehousing, manufacturing and transportation, Tolley pointed out, with total wages of more than $254 million.
The county has added an average of 150 new jobs each year with the development of Tradeport East, Tolley said.
“The authority wants to continue this momentum. We hope the commission wants to do the same,” he said.
In the LCPC’s survey of the property, it was determined that it would not pose an undue burden on roads but it could lead to a “domino effect” of more building.
Frasier reminded commissioners he has issued warnings about development sprawl before.
“We know it’s going to cause a domino effect. I told y’all this is about to come down,” he said. “And here we are now. I am a huge supporter of economic development but I just want to make sure that we do it right, do it right the first time so we don’t have to go back.”
Frasier also called on commissioners to complete an agreement with developers that would require prospects and developers to bear a burden of the costs needed to make way for those projects.
Newbridge Residential Parks will call the tract the Liberty Logistics Center and has plans for a 1 million square foot warehouse, which will be set back by 1,700-1,800 feet from Islands Highway. The tract itself is separated from Islands Highway by several hundred feet, Ricketson noted.