REZ-2012-09 Copeland rezoning @ LCC 2012-06-12

How can a man with health care financial troubles make a living with a shop he’s had for decades when some of the neighbors complain about a rezoning that is now required? A controversial case that raised issues ranging from wetlands to public safety to Moody Air Force Base jets flying out of Valdosta Airport made its way through two appointed boards to a Solomonic rezoning decision by the elected Lowndes County Commission. Nobody wanted to deny a man a living, but many people wanted to limit potential commercial uses of the subject property. The Commissioners attempted to take all that into account, yet failed to incorporate two major considerations raised by neighbors, mentioning one of them only to disparage it. Even that isn’t the end of it, since it may head back to the Zoning Board of Appeals for a buffer variance. Here are videos of REZ-2012-09 Copeland at the Lowndes County Commission.

It had been to the Planning Commission for a recommendation on rezoning, it had been to the Zoning Board of Appeals for a buffer variance, Monday morning it had been to the County Commission Work Session at which we learned a bit more, and Tuesday evening it went to the Lowndes County Commission Regular Session for a vote on rezoning.

Monday 11 June 2012 Work Session

At the 8:30 AM Monday Work Session, County Planner Jason Davenport had several updates since Commissioners had received their packets the previous week.

  • An email from a Mr. Bradford in opposition.
  • Some open records requests to be filled after the work session.
  • Some opponents of the rezoning had hired a lawyer. (Those of you who watched Bill Nijem at the Zoning Board of Appeals meeting already would have guessed that. Nijem also spoke the next day at the Regular Session.)
  • Davenport had met with the applicant, Mr. Copeland, who had provided more materials because he believed there were some accusations about lack of continuous operations in the building.

Davenport summarized that he thought there were three camps:

  1. Those not supporting the case.
  2. Those supporting the case,
  3. Those supporting the case with conditions,

He said one possibility would be for he and the county attorney to meet with the opposition attorney to try to work out some conditions.

Tuesday 12 June 2012 Regular Session

The agenda item was

6. Public Hearings – REZ-2012-09 Copeland, 3258 & 3264 Loch Laurel Rd, R-A & R-1 to C-C, well & septic, ~5 acres

Here’s a list of every citizen speaking for, at any of GLPC, ZBOA, or County Commission: John A. Copeland (the applicant), Kevin Copeland (applicant’s son), Nancy Hobby, Charles Miles, Fuller Sorrell, Alan Davis, Robert Roffe, and Norman Bush, plus a petition for.

Here’s a list of every citizen speaking against, at any of GLPC, ZBOA, or County Commission: Bill Nijem (attorney for several neighbors), Jimmy Hiers, Gail Hiers, Greta Vargas, and Patty Haynes.

For the rezoning

  • Kevin Copeland of 3206 Loch Laurel Road, said he lived a few doors down from the applicant, who was his father, and they had operated a business at the subject address for about 35 years, working on truck, trailers, trash dumpsters, and the like, and their intentions were to carry on that same type of work. It was not currently a family-owned business, but he hoped to resume that in the next couple of years. He said his father was disabled, and had had some other setbacks. Their intention was to get the rezoning to carry on as they always had. He wondered why some of the neighbors were objecting, since they weren’t trying to start a church or anything different than they had always done. He observed that people had moved in while they were already working.
    We just haven’t had a problem up until now…. We’re not looking to do anything different; we’re just trying to maintain like we’ve been doing, like we’ve always done.
    A church had been brought up as an example use that Crossroads Commercial would permit that staff didn’t want, by County Planner Jason Davenport at the GLPC meeting (he also gave a truck detail shop as a use staff didn’t want to see). County Zoning Coordinator Carmella Braswell had also mentioned churches at the ZBOA meeting.
  • The applicant, John Copeland of 3264 Loch Laurel Road, said he had worked all his life to try to build something for his family to have. Things had gone wrong; he’d had to sell the company; it didn’t bring enough to pay off the debts; so he owes on the house, the land, and the shop. He’s had several companies in there, such as Lowndes Land Clearing (2006-2009), and then Robinson Fabrication. He said neighbor Robert had already moved in and had no complaint then. He said Interstate Diesel Service came by and wanted a place to move in to do the
    same type work we’ve always done. the only difference is I was hoping the business would grow bigger.
    But it was smaller than what he had before.
    I’ve got to have some income to hang on until the economy gets better. My son wants to get in the same business we was always in.
  • Nancy Hobby of 707 Smithbriar Drive, who had recused herself as a member of the Zoning Board of Appeals when the related buffer variance case VAR-2012-07 came before them a week before, spoke for the proposed rezoning REZ-2012-09. She said:
    We have land in either direction within three miles of Mr. Copeland…. My family and I have known and dealt with John for over 35 years. John’s building and business has been in its current location long before zoning pertained.
    She noted the people most affected were the neighbors of the property, only one of those had a problem, and she wondered why. That is the neighbor to the north, and when he bought the property about three years ago, he made no complaint, so why now?
    …a few people want to close him down from making money that he needs. This is not an investment where you’re making some extra money. This is for your basic needs. Had it not been for John losing his legs several years ago, and numerous health problems and surgeries, he would still be running his business outright under the grandfather provision. We probably wouldn’t even be standing here today. Dire financial needs forced John to try to sell his land and buildings several years ago. This was land his grandfather had owned, and John had bought it when he was in his twenties. The recession, a failed sales contract: he did have a sales contract, and it did not go through. And just a desperate need for some sort of income forced him to have to lease this building.
    She said the neighbors knew any use of the building would involve large trucks. Also the “quote country” had diverse uses, including within three miles, a daycare center, a barbershop, a locksmith business, a billboard sign business, a car repair business, and a restaurant, none of them in commercial zones.
    I realize that we have to have rules and protections for landowners. And we need these rules: I want ’em, for my land, too. But when we have a system that ties a man’s hands, where he’s barely getting buy on a government check, and can’t get income from a piece of property that he owns free and clear, can’t sell it, can’t lease it, can’t afford to tear his building down, but is expected to pay taxes every year, and he does, our zoning guidelines and rules may need some serious changes.
    She asked the Commission to hear all the facts,
    and allow Mr. Copeland a way to provide for himself.
    I’d think a health care system that causes this kind of hardship for a hardworking man may need some serious changes.
  • Charles Miles of 3274 Loch Laurel Road said he could look from his living room and see the subject repair shop. Plus the helicopters and airplanes from the airport are more of a distraction. Previously at the Planning Commission meeting Charles Miles suggested limiting the activity on the site to the present activity. At the ZBOA meeting he had said he didn’t want a privacy fence next to his property.
  • Fuller Sorrell of 3405 Touchton Road said
    My house is the closest building to John’s shop. We have no complaint whatsoever with the way he operates. John’s a good man; he’ll do anything for you; bend over backwards to help the neighbors or anyone else who is in need.
    According to the tax assessors’ database, his house is about 300 feet from the repair shop.

Other neighbors previously spoke for at the Planning Commission meeting: Alan Davis of 3284 Loch Laurel Road, Robert Roffe of 3270 Loch Laurel Road, and Norman Bush of 3140 Loch Laurel Road. Davis mentioned airplanes flying overhead (like Charles Miles at the County Commission), especially jets. At the ZBOA variance hearing, Davis amplified that Valdosta Airport is a training location for Moody Air Force Base. Bush also spoke at ZBOA, saying he didn’t see why anyone would complain about diesels, since there were many around.

Against the rezoning

  • Bill Nijem of 1007 North Patterson Stret said he represented Robert and Joyce Copeland, as well as William Vargas and Greta Vargas, Mr. Copeland’s son-in-law and daughter. He asked for the “host of other neighbors who are here as well” to raise their hand. Quite a few people did (briefly so it was hard to count). Nijem listed many reasons against the rezoning:
    • Applicant’s property is not at any crossroad or intersection; instead surrounded by residential property.
    • Would be spot zoning.
    • The business back in 1967 was an excavation business in which the applicant would come and go during the day, but most of the work was done elsewhere.
    • In 1996 this Commission recognized that use.
    • In 2003 tax records indicate the applicant sold the property, ending that use.
    • Applicant leased the property to numerous businesses after that. I don’t follow: how could he lease it after he sold it? Also, we just heard the applicant say the sale fell through and didn’t happen. Perhaps Mr. Nijem’s presentation was prepared before the applicant spoke and didn’t take what he said into account.
    • The most recent use was a diesel repair business, which the county noted was a violation of the zoning code, and issued a cease-and-desist order, “and here we are”.
    • No longer owner-occupied, no longer a minimal effect on the neighbors.
    • Isn’t consistent with existing use pattern.
    • Creates a possible island or isolated district.
    • He would argue that changed conditions make it unreasonable as the uses could become more intense with the commercial zoning.
    • Nijem said the current use was more intense, with people there all day day in and day out tinkering with diesel engines idling.
    • Noise, debris, waste runoff would all adversely affect neighboring property values.
    • Potential environmental effects: the property is surrounded by wetlands, ponds, and shallow streams.
    • Possible effects on the public: we’ll have to post signs for trucks coming and going, and for no jake brakes. How will we enforce this?
    • Out of scale of the neighborhood of Lowndes County.
    • Grants a special privilege.
    • Not consistent with the comprehensive plan.
    Nijem summarized:
    My clients’ opposition is not directed preventing the applicant from making a living…. Rather it’s directed at asking our county commissioners to honor the ordinances which they have passed and were elected to enforce. With that said we respectfully request that you deny this rezoning.
    Previously at the ZBOA meeting, Nijem also mentioned horses.
  • Jimmy Hiers of 3456 Brown Road said he owns family property that comes within about 40 feet of the applicant’s northwest corner. He noted 292 pages of the ULDC that would prevent almost any commercial property around there except maybe next to I-75. For example on page 11, Purpose and Intent, “to promote desirable living conditions and sustainable development”. Putting a commercial property right in the middle would result in other commercial rezonings up and down Loch Laurel, he predicted.
    I’m for John and Kevin to be able to run a home-based business within the guidelines of residential agriculture…. But I’m not for anything that will cause that property to be rezoned commercial.
    He noted the Planning Commission had their meeting two days before it was posted. Then last week there was a variance meeting about the buffer before the County Commission had this rezoning meeting.
    I don’t understand how the process worked. Just looking at it on the surface, it looked to me like the decision was already made before the whole process began.
    It sounds like he’s saying lack of transparency produces perception issues. See also Lack of agendas makes it hard for citizens to speak @ LCC 2012-06-12.
  • Gail Hiers of 3480 Brown Road said:
    On your map you have over your shoulders, if you see the hatch marks; those hatch marks: wetland areas…. They do allow you to you can farm, you can pasture your livestock, you can have forestry. What you absolutely cannot have is a receiving area for toxic or hazardous waste and other contaminants, which we all know goes with semis and all of the trucks.
    She said she was not against home businesses, but that was many years ago.
    And we do recognize our conservation now.
    She said we all make bad decisions and sometimes they take their toll. I wonder if he chose to lose his legs? Sounds more to me like a bad health care system. Anyway, she said the neighbors, many of whom we could see in the room, have been good, and:
    They’ve all raised their children, educated them, and a lot of those children have come back and built their homes right there. Also food for thought, the wildlife has two endangered threatened species that live right there that have nests right there and I see them because I live right there.
    Previously at the ZBOA meeting, she also mentioned among other things that semi lights are higher than the barrier ZBOA was considering, and asked if ZBOA granted a variance, for it to include the maximum possible barrier.
  • Greta Vargas of 4416 Stonehaven Drive said her parents helped her and her husband buy the property just to the north of the subject property and her biggest concern was safety with the semi trucks coming off of the Interstate.
    The beauty of the neighborhood is where I was raised right across the street is that my parents knew everyone who came in and out of this neighborhood.
    She’s concerned about her numerous relatives with children playing and horses perhaps being in danger from the people coming in and out of the area.

At the Planning Commission meeting, the only person speaking against the rezoning was neighbor Patty Haynes of 3243 Loch Laurel Road, who wondered:

What happens when John is out of the equation and it goes to someone else?

At ZBOA, only Bill Nijem and Gail Hiers spoke against.

Commission Discussion, Motion, and Vote

  • The Commissioners had no questions or comments in discussions. So Commissioner Crawford Powell made a motion.
    Well I guess this falls to me since this is right smack in the middle of my world. And this is one of the proverbial Solomon-cutting-the-baby-in-half sort of scenarios. While we understand the neighborhood concerns, we also understand Mr. Copeland’s concerns, John Copeland…. So we’re going to make adjustments from either side.
    The lengthy conditions in his motion for rezoning were:
    • The use of the property shall be limited to trades and repair services such as electrical, heating and air conditioning, mechanical, painting, glass, plumbing, etc., automotive, truck, and other vehicle repair.
    • The use of the property for these purposes shall be limited to the hours of 8AM to 9PM Monday through Friday, and 8AM to noon on Saturday.
    • No new buildings or additions will be allowed.
    • All outdoor storage, vehicles, equipment, trucks, dumpsters shall be set back a minimum of 50 feet from any property lines.
    • There shall be no more than 15 motor vehicles located on the property at any time for any purpose or reason.
    • Loch Laurel Road shall be posted as a Jacob Brake-free zone.
    • CC zoning will be limited to the duration of Mr. John A. Copeland’s ownership of the property, after which the property shall revert back to R-A zoning.
    Commissioner Richard Raines, seconding the motion, said this was the most difficult case he had seen, it was lose-lose, and this was the best compromise they could come up with. He noted that not rezoning would in his opinion be tantamount to taking away a man’s livelihood. He added:
    I would encourage you, Mr. John Copeland, to abide by the ULDC in terms of the buffering. With that, I’d like you go the extra mile to buffer that so that your neighbors are the least affected by noise.
    Never one to stop when enough has been said, Raines further added:
    I grew up around tractrs and tractor trailers and they don’t make near the noise or the environmental damage that people think they do.
    Many of the crowd exclaimed at that. The deputy who normally stands silent in the back of each Commission session said loudly:
    Let’s have order!
    The crowd settled down and the Chairman asked Raines to proceed, but Raines said he was finished. Commissioner Joyce Evans, as usual, said nothing. The Commissioners voted unanimously in favor of the motion.

Raines’ comments bring up one of two neighborhood concerns that were not addressed in the conditions:

  • Environmental damage, especially to surrounding wetlands, as raised by both attorney Nijem and Gail Hiers. The 50 foot buffer is for sights and sounds; it won’t prevent runoff.
  • Public safety, as raised by Greta Vargas.

These are two topics we very rarely if ever see the Commission address, even when citizens raise them.

Here’s a video playlist:

REZ-2012-09 Copeland rezoning
Regular Session, Lowndes County Commission (LCC),
Valdosta, Lowndes County, Georgia, 12 June 2012.
Video by Gretchen Quarterman for Lowndes Area Knowledge Exchange (LAKE).