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Macon Telegraph: Oaky Woods development plan halted (temporarily)

This article originally appeared in Macon Telegraph, Friday December 4, 2009

By Jennifer Burk

The owners of Oaky Woods, a popular hunting and wildlife area, recently withdrew their request for a zoning variance that would allow for construction of a wastewater treatment plant on 18 acres of the property.

The group also withdrew its Developments of Regional Impact application for the project, known as Winding River Development. A Developments of Regional Impact review is required before Houston County may consider the variance request.

Scott Free, one of the property’s four owners, asked to withdraw the applications for the review and variance in nearly identical letters Oct. 16 and Nov. 25, respectively. The letters cited “conditions which ... we have not been able to resolve in the recent past” as the reason for the withdrawal.

“However, we have reason to believe that the problems of the past can be resolved in the near future,” Free wrote. “At which time we will re-submit our proposal.”

Free and other owners did not return phone calls for comment. They purchased the property in 2004 and in the past have said they plan to build up to 30,000 homes in Oaky Woods over a 30-year period. The about 20,000-acre tract near Kathleen currently is leased to the state as a wildlife management area.

Houston Commission Chairman Ned Sanders said a change in the rules regarding Developments of Regional Impact reviews prompted the owners to withdraw their applications.

The project already received several extensions, and with the change another was not possible, Sanders said. Because some questions in the application still were unresolved, Sanders said the Middle Georgia Regional Commission, which conducts the review, informed him it would have to give a recommendation against the project.

“The applicants decided it would be prudent to just withdraw it and submit it at a later date,” Sanders said. “It’s still a project they’re interested in. It will probably come back alive sometime in the future.”

In addition, the current economy is not prime for development, he said.

Bob Rychel, manager of planning programs at the Middle Georgia Regional Commission, said one of the review’s rules states a negative finding must be issued if there are any unresolved inter-jurisdictional conflicts.

The city of Warner Robins had some issues with the service delivery plan for the development, he said.

In 2008, Sanders said Warner Robins, under former Mayor Donald Walker, objected to the owners’ variance request for a wastewater treatment plant because the development would be in the city’s service delivery area, and the city could provide the service.

Mayor John Havrilla said this week he has not specifically discussed the property with anybody.

Oaky Woods is home to black bears, old hardwood trees, unique plant communities and the only population of Russian boar known to exist in Georgia. The woods’ geology includes a limestone ridge that dates back 65 million years.

For these reasons, many people are interested in conserving the woods.

John Trussell, founder of Save Oaky Woods, said the best use for the property is a wildlife management area. The withdrawal of the two applications is good news, at least in the short term, he said.

“Probably construction of a massive subdivision is not imminent at the present time,” he said. “It does not mean it cannot happen in the future.”

His organization recently received nonprofit status, which will make it easier to solicit funds and apply for grants to study the area, he said.

Trussell recently gave a tour of the property to Pierre Howard, president of the Georgia Conservancy. As a result, the group renewed its call for preservation.

“We feel (Oaky Woods) is a state treasure because of the location, because of the multiple uses it can be put to by the people who live in that area and people all over the state. It’s a primary place for sportsmen,” Howard said. In addition, “the natural value of the property is rare.”

Howard, a former lieutenant governor who was named to the group’s top post earlier this year, said the Georgia Conservancy plans to lobby legislators when the General Assembly convenes early next year.

“Some of those things like Oaky Woods, you can lose the opportunity to preserve them,” he said. “I think this will be Gov. (Sonny) Perdue’s last chance to save that property for future generations of Georgians.”

In 2004, Perdue, who owns land adjacent to the area, declined an offer from the Nature Conservancy to help the state buy the land.

The state has been in talks with owners about buying the land periodically ever since but has been unable to agree on a price. Negotiations continue, said state Sen. Ross Tolleson, R-Perry.

Tolleson, who chairs the Natural Resources and the Environment Committee, said it would be premature to say whether the state is any closer to a purchase.

“I wouldn’t want to say at this time whether we are or we aren’t,” he said.

Information from The Telegraph’s archives was used in this report.

To contact writer Jennifer Burk, call 256-9705.

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