Neighbors debate merits of ATV park
A flood of concerns from nearby residents and their attorney’s argument have led to a decision to table the Special Land Use Approval for Iron Mountain Park. The vote at the May 7 Lumpkin County Board of Commissioners’ Public Hearing was unanimous.
“I think it’s premature to make a decision tonight,” said BOC Chairman Chris Dockery, who made the motion to table. “We need to make sure we’re doing the right thing.”
It’s been just over a year since Craig Stansberry and his son Hunter appeared before the BOC and 30 or so concerned neighbors to give a heads up on his plans for the 4,300-acre site. At that time the concept included rental cabins, a campground, a retail area, a micro-brewery; an equestrian center; ATV and bike trails; small motocross area; zip lines; a music venue that would hold 50,000 to 400,000 visitors; and a hotel/convention center.
Stansberry was granted a land disturbance permit in December 2018 and work began.
In February 2019 he submitted a notice of intent to Georgia Environmental Protection Division (GEPD) to construct a road across the property with an entrance on Highway 52 West. That was approved and the road, Stansberry said, is about half roughed in. In March a concept plan and application for a business license was given to the county planning department and a temporary license issued.
With license in hand, Stansberry announced plans for a two-day ATV race and Sunday concert on May 4 and 5.
With activities already in the works, Planning Director Bruce Georgia presented the board with the question of whether an SLUA was needed on two aspects of the concept plan—ATV/motocross activities and the concert venue.
Commissioners were convinced and called for a public hearing, the first step in approval of an endeavor requiring an SLUA.
According to the Land Use Code, “certain land uses, either because of unique characteristics or the potential for adverse impact, require a special land use approval.” The impacts to residents of noise, traffic, dust and hours of operation are the stated reasons for the SLUA.
STANDING ROOM AND STANSBERRY
On Monday, people lined the walls and spilled out into the hall to take part in the hearing. Both sides got the opportunity to voice their opinions.
Stansberry and those in favor of the development went first. He presented a power point overview of the planned development. A representative from Yamaha, several people who work at Iron Mountain Park and a handful of local residents in favor of approval followed.
Yamaha’s Joe Dagley said there are “hundreds of thousands of families that use our products [off road vehicles] …. That’s the reason we partnered with Iron Mountain Park, so people can come and enjoy their passion and nature at the same time.”
William Stevens said he grew up in Lumpkin County and now works at Iron Mountain Park.
“That property has always served as a place for ATVs and bikes. It’s just more of the same, only organized and safer.”
Stansberry said he is “respecting all the required buffers and will install special berms and vegetation to control noise. We’re building bridges across all water ways, and we’ve posted buffer signs. We require safety gear, and don’t allow any loud mufflers.”
He also said there are plans for youth programs for the Boy Scouts, 4-H and high school in the works.
Others pointed out Stansberry had cleaned up the entire acreage, which had been a site for the dumping of old furniture, appliances, tires and trash for years when the property belonged to the timber company; that there are plans for fire hydrants that will bring down the cost of homeowners insurance and provide better fire protection to neighbors; that local vendors are being used for construction when possible; and the positive economic impact the development will bring, as well as jobs.
“This will bring in $100 million annually when fully developed, and generate 1,000 jobs—plus three times that many in construction,” said Cathy Anderson, a local now working at the park.
Neighbor Donna Blanton supported the plan as well.
“My property adjoins theirs. At first, like many, I didn’t like the change. But before, there were people out there drinking and noise and Jeeps until one or two in the morning. Now I’m happy they’re here,” she said. “I think it will actually cut down on the noise. When they had the ATVs and concert, I didn’t hear anything. I’d much rather have an outdoor space for families than what was going on before.”
Jeff Aldridge, Jimmy Chester and Nick Gardner pointed out the economic advantage to the county.
“There’s so much potential here,” Gardner, who worked in the hospitality industry, said. “A project of this nature can only improve conditions—it can draw people here, bring in tax dollars, bring jobs. We need regulations, sure, but I don’t see how you can say no to this.”
“If it’s a choice between this and a subdivision, I’ll take this,” said Zachery White.
Many more were opposed to the project, however.
One group of neighbors, headed by Robin Koffman, hired attorney Kasey Sturm to represent their position to the board.
Sturm specializes in land use, zoning and environmental issues with the firm of Weissman out of Atlanta. She pointed out several issues neighbors are concerned about. These included protected waters and springs, including trout streams; two watershed lakes downstream of the project “that are not designed to handle more than they are already handling,”; flooding; that the site sits within the territory of the endangered Etowah Darter; and that it could potentially cause the destruction of water rights that come with increased use of water.
Dockery interrupted Kottman to say, “only three things are being considered in this SLUA—the ATV, motocross and concert venue. The other pieces will have to go through the development process on their own merits.”
“You can’t look at this size and scale of a development piecemeal,” she said. “Your decision should be based on a proposed master plan. The application is deficient. All that’s been provided is a concept plan, and it too is deficient. It’s supposed to include all the adjacent uses … and there are no specific details.”
She told commissioners the lack of specificity in the concept plan “calls into question whether it fits with the regulations for an agriculturally designated zone. It seems more in tune to a [character] map amendment request.”
The park is located in the Agricultural Preservation Character Area, intended for “uses such as conservation, farming, commercial agricultural uses and very low-density large lot residential development,” according to the Land Use Code.
Agricultural uses include crop cultivation, dairies and livestock, conservation and residences and accessory buildings of the owner on such properties.
“As presented, the proposed project proposes multiple uses which are inconsistent with and not authorized uses under the Agricultural Preservation Character Area,” states a letter from Sturm setting out the neighbors’ objections.
Even if commissioners deemed that not to be the case, she said, the application for a SLUA was deficient. It has no traffic or hydrology study, both of which are required if it is likely the development will significantly impact traffic or hydrology.
“Based on an open records request for information regarding the proposed project and SLUA application, it does not appear that the proper application requirements have been met,” Sturm’s letter states.
One last issue Sturm presented to the board is that large scale development does not have a Development of Regional Impact (DRI) from the Georgia Mountains Regional Development Commission (GMRDC).
“Given the size, scale and territory of the proposed project, it is believed to meet and/or exceed the threshold to constitute a development of regional impact,” Sturm’s letter states.
“The GMRDC needs to review this first before you can, as a matter of law, make any decision,” she told the board. “There are a lot of anticipated impacts, and you will hear a lot from the people here tonight. Any decision tonight would be arbitrary and capricious, and would likely be overturned.”
Sturm was right about that. Over 30 people voiced their concerns to the board in a marathon meeting that went on until shortly after 9 p.m.
Traffic, noise and light pollution, water issues, drop in land values, danger to wildlife and lack of adequate law enforcement were all issues people brought out.
The road Stansberry is building across his property from Highway 52 West should take care of the traffic problems on Mill Creek, Little Mountain and Sheep Wallow roads. There will only be one way in and out, he said.
However, the traffic coming and going on Highway 52 could pose a problem.
Bart Wrisley compared the development to Disney World.
“If you’ve ever been to Disney think about how you felt trying to get back out on the highway after it closed. We need to consider what kind of lifestyle we want to have driving through Lumpkin County,” he said.
Many people complained about the noise generated by the ATVs and concert. David Bagley, who lives on Little Mountain Road, said, “the [ATV] noise was outrageous Saturday.”
“I could hear the ATVs about a mile away, and the bass of the concert,” said Thomas Davidson.
Matt Hodge said he lives 800 feet “from ground zero.”
And he shares similar concerns.
“Saturday the noise wasn’t bad, and the music, that was OK,” he said. “But right now the leaves are on the trees, and the rain probably held it down. But in the fall and winter ….”
Lamar Bates’ main concern is water.
“Their development is in my front yard, and my water comes from a well. They’re saying they are going to put in 1,000 rental cabins. Are they going to have wells for 1,000 septic tanks? They say the amphitheater will hold 10,000 people, to start. That’s a big septic tank. They’re going to be taking water from me and the 377 other houses already here. I’d hate to turn on my faucet one day and dust come out,” he said. “I don’t want all this change. We’ve got a good thing up here and I want to keep it that way. Lumpkin County doesn’t have the resources to solve the problems this development creates. The answer to this is no.”
That seemed to be the feeling of most of those who spoke—the overall issue of the loss of a way of life that that includes peace and quiet, deer in the back yard and being able to see the stars at night.
It is something the BOC will have to consider over the next weeks.
“We’ve been given a lot of information and perspectives tonight. It behooves this board to gather more information and the staff to do more research and get more specificity before we make a decision,” said Bobby Mayfield, commissioner from the district where the park is located.
As for Stansberry, he said he does not think Sturm is correct in her assertions.
“Our job now is to prove ourselves,” he said.