Friday, February 13, 2004

Brown joins Wieland in West Village annexation plan


Steve Brown, taking off his mayor’s hat, has confirmed he is working alongside developer John Wieland on a plan for Peachtree City to annex about half of the isolated property known as the West Village, which has been the center of debate for years, including during his own election in 2001.

“It may cost me the next election, but I feel that strongly about this,” Brown said recently in a private interview in which he outlined the plans for about 1,000 acres.

Still in its earliest stages, the schematic drawings show a mixed-used development located beyond the termination of McDuff Parkway, all the way to Wilkes Grove Church Road just beyond the intersection of Senoia Road and Ga. Highway 74.

Much of the land in question is already owned by Wieland or Pathway Communities, the original developers of Peachtree City, and is adjacent to his successful Centennial project.

It would include an extension of McDuff Parkway all the way to Hwy. 74 near the location of the present Comcast Cable offices, a key component of the project and the main reason why he’s willing to risk his political career to make it happen, Brown said.

That would require a $2.4 million “grade-level” crossing of the CSX railroad tracks at that point, with Wieland footing the bill.

Other parts of the ambitious proposal include a commercial “village” near the McDuff Parkway-Hwy. 74 intersection described like the historic squares in Savannah; a new northside seniors center to relieve the crowded Gathering Place; a new soccer complex with four regulation fields, enough for the city to host state and national tournaments; space reserved for churches or a private school; and a private baseball “country club” being considered by a league of semi-pro baseball teams.

The prospect of locating a baseball operation, as well as the tournament-ready soccer fields, would call for at least one hotel site along Hwy. 74 as well, Brown suggested.

But he acknowledged there are many hurdles to cross before any of it comes close to fruition.

Last week, Wieland submitted a site proposal to county planners that would site about 250 houses on the estimated 500 acres of suitable land for homes. It would be served by septic, even though much of the property is a downhill grade toward Line Creek, a concern to Brown.

Of greater fear to Brown, under that scenario the property would remain within unincorporated Fayette reached by the dead-in of McDuff Parkway, accessible only by Hwy. 54.

How emergency medical and fire units from the county would respond to homes completely cut off by the city proper was among the main concerns last year when a judge ruled against Pathway in a lawsuit seeking to put higher density housing on the land. Pathway has since dropped those plans.

Brown insists the same density concerns don’t exist this time around, especially when compared to the designs of a 2000 project that initially lit his political flame.

In announcing his race for mayor in March 2001, Brown suggested that the city’s charter should be changed so that annexations could only be approved through popular vote. At the time, then-mayor Bob Lenox was proposing that much of the same undeveloped section of land be brought into the city proper as a “fifth” town village.

Brown was highly critical of the density of the effort, which eventually failed.

The site drawings from Lenox’s plan were spread across conference tables last week in a private, invitation-only meeting Brown hosted for local development experts and key city residents at the New Hope Baptist Church South at Starr’s Mill, just outside the city limits.

Peachtree City’s ordinance against annexations strictly forbids city staff from considering or discussing the possibilities of incorporating more of the county into the city proper, but it does not forbid the mayor from conducting such discussions independently, Brown said.

In Brown’s view, the Wieland proposal — which would only an undetermined number of homes, and then about half of those exclusively for senior citizens — is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the city to take charge of the future of the area.

An extension of McDuff to Hwy. 74 will provide immediate relief to the Hwy. 74-54 intersection, Brown said. Even with widening projects for both highways on the boards, improvements to turn the intersection into a “flyover” so through traffic won’t have to stop isn’t scheduled until 2021.

“By then, Peachtree City is going to be choked to death,” he said.

School crowding isn’t an issue because half the houses proposed by Weiland will draw retirees. Besides, the Fayette County Board of Education is likely to include the new Centennial Elementary to serve the area in a proposed November bond referendum.

Wieland would also fully fund a new senior center and the soccer complex, gifts to the city that it would otherwise go without forever, Brown suggested.

“We can’t not do this,” he said. “The McDuff project is the main concern, but the other is icing on the cake.”

If they weren’t convinced when they arrived, most of the attendees at Brown’s meeting were willing to consider the future use of the property by the time it concluded.

Among those in attendance were former mayor Chuck Conner, John Leonard of the state tollway authority, Dennis Chase of the Line Creek Conservancy and represntatives of the Wynnmeade and Planterra Ridge homeowners groups and the city’s soccer association and Peachtree Pioneers senior citizens club.

John Dilahunt of the Wynnmeade Homeowner’s Association said he was completely against annexation and higher density, but that much of what Weiland and Brown are proposing is worth talking about.

Still, questions remain. At his suggestion, group members were to compile a series of concerns and issues they wanted addressed by Brown. A future meeting is scheduled.

The next step, for Wieland anyway, is to convince the City Council that the project is so valuable, it should be studied by city planners and the consequences weighed.

That still wouldn’t clear the moratorium, which would require further action by the countil, Brown said.

There is no timeframe for the project to get under way.

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