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Proposed village spurs larger questions about county growth
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Fox Creek Properties has applied to rezone 518 acres for a mixed-use village along Dawson County’s bustling Ga. 400 corridor.

By the end of Fox Creek Properties’ April 12 meeting, most of the residents there still opposed the firm’s plans for a mixed-use village at the intersection of Ga. 400 and Lumpkin Campground Road in Dawson County. 

This meeting comes just before an April 19 Planning Commission meeting, the agenda for which includes the request for the land to be rezoned as a mixed-use village. 

A separate story will report the results of that later meeting. 

Before the community session’s end, Ken Wood, the project spokesperson and president of Planners and Engineers Collaborative, said he would send out projected impact fees after multiple attendees asked about those numbers. 

Fox Creek has been unsuccessful in getting previous iterations of the development both recommended for approval by the Planning Commission and affirmed by the

Board of Commissioners. 

The upper or front part of the 500-plus-acres tract is currently zoned for a college with 1800 residences. Much of that land hosted a now-closed Catholic college, Wood said. 

The back part, meanwhile, has more agricultural-related zoning. He explained that the new development would actually be downzoning the number of units, with 986 residential units in total being proposed, and spreading them across the tract. 

The Township at Etowah Bluffs is slated to hold shops, a public green space and event area, multifamily housing, offices and a warehouse space. 

The apartments would be built by PENLER, the same firm that constructed what’s now known as Advenir at Dawson Hills.

“There’s been a lot of questions about ‘Is this going to be subsidized?’,” Wood added. “The answer is ‘no.’ It’s all first-class, market-rate, high rents.” 

The Preserve at Etowah Bluffs will contain a range of one and two-story single-family housing intended for young families all the way up to seniors. 


Transportation

Questions about neighborhood access points and traffic congestion dominated discussions. A traffic engineer on behalf of Fox Creek, Abdul K. Amer of A&R Engineering, attended the meeting to help address those concerns. 

Wood explained that the village’s main entrance would be off of Lumpkin Campground Road with a deceleration lane approaching it and a divided boulevard upon driving through it. 

The plans also call for a “fast entrance” and decel lane off of Lumpkin Campground that would “create a loop” for trucks to travel to the office and industrial spaces and back onto Ga. 400 without having to go through the township, Wood said. 

Part of that loop, Amer added, is a right-in and right-out driveway on Ga. 400 and a deceleration lane approaching it. He and Fox Creek are recommending that an additional turn lane be added for people turning from Ga. 400 South onto Lumpkin Campground Road at that intersection.

This additional lane would mean widening Lumpkin Campground Road to accept the two lanes and then carrying them “some distance” before merging them back into a single lane past Fox Creek’s project. 

Another lane would also be added going back toward Ga. 400 to allow a more dedicated lane for people turning right onto the state highway. 

The traffic engineer elaborated that left-turn signal phases and signal timing will have to be updated at the intersection, which crosses at an acute angle. 

People living along Brights Way in the Savannah Trace subdivision off of Ga. 53 also asked again about a secondary or remote access road for emergency vehicles. While it remained unclear about whether the road was public or private, Wood did say that not just anyone would be able to access the gated back entrance. 

First responders would have a special switch or mechanism that would allow them to enter. The pictured gate also had a pedestrian access part next to it, so Wood also clarified that Savannah Trace residents wanting to go to and from the village’s commercial sector would have a special key code. 

Citizens were still concerned about traffic along proximate roads and intersections in addition to the one at Lumpkin Campground and Ga. 400. Amer said that his counts do account for traffic from other developers or what’s known as background growth. 

Multiple residents from the Savannah Trace subdivision mentioned the already-heavy traffic going west on Ga. 53 toward the local schools. 

Amer did not anticipate that most traffic exiting the village would go onto Ga. 53 towards town and characterized the amount of vehicles as more of a delay than dangerous. 

“You just have to wait a little longer to find a gap,” Amer said. “If you can’t see either way, that’s dangerous…as traffic grows along the main road, you’ll have to wait longer to find that same gap. There’s going to be more waiting as traffic grows.” 

“If I’m waiting a half hour for a gap that’s due to increased traffic, that’s incomparable,” said citizen Dustin Lloyd.

Talks about potential road fixes brought to the surface more deep-rooted unease about growth in the county. 

Lloyd said the suggested fixes were “like throwing a rock into a lake” given the ripple effect the development would have on traffic.

Amer acknowledged the issue of continuous growth from multiple projects but said his focus remains on the most-impacted areas closest to the project.

Wood added that the Georgia Department of Transportation is only going to let Fox Creek analyze one section. Amer went on to say that broader fixes at regional intersections are 

“system improvements that the county and state take care of.”

Following the meeting, Development Authority of Dawson County member Tony Passarello said the concerns people have about traffic will still be relevant whether or not the development happens. 

He discussed the need for a long-term plan at nearby intersections including Lumpkin Campground Road and Ga. 53. In part, the transportation special-purpose local-option sales tax, or TSPLOST, that local voters rejected in 2020 would have helped raise more local funds and coordinate matching state and federal awards. 

With Fox Creek starting to address the Lumpkin-Ga. 400 intersection now, Passarello explained that traffic in the surrounding area “would be in a much better place” by the time this and other developments would be completed. 


Finances

Given the context of The Great Recession and various economic strains since 2020, it wasn’t surprising that meeting attendees wanted to know who’s bankrolling the Fox Creek Properties project. American investor and that company’s founder, Bill Evans, will finance the proposed development. 

Evans also attended the April 12 meeting. Wood mentioned that things with this project won’t be like how other developers operated in the 2000s, and he reiterated the previously-presented two-phase buildout plan. 

Structures like the main boulevard, divided median, green space, parking lot and surrounding roads would be installed during the first phase. The idea is to place that infrastructure and have events at the park or host food trucks to get people accustomed to coming to the location. 

That, in turn, will build momentum for shops and restaurants to occupy forthcoming business spaces in the township. 

Meanwhile, a portion of the multifamily, for sale and industrial options would begin to become available. 

Wood added that the county would also collect erosion bonds as a means of assurance, even though he and his other clients don’t expect another economic downturn. 

Essentially, a section or POD would not be opened up unless they were ready to do so, so that they don’t overbuild. The different work would culminate in the second phase of fully-established buildout toward the end of the 10-12 years predicted to accomplish the village’s full construction. 

“That’s how we make sure that it's not set up to fail and that it’s set up to be successful,” Wood said of the phases, “but we’re also putting in the billions of dollars of infrastructure to get it where it needs to be on day one.”

He also added that the different zoning stipulations are more cohesive and defined in Fox Creek’s application materials. 

As an example, he detailed that if a stipulation was included on rental caps or another matter, those primary stipulations would be stronger than anything of the residential sections’ HOAs would be able to do. In other words, a rental cap couldn’t be raised after the fact and any such proposed changes at a later time would have to go back before the BOC. 

“This [booklet] has more teeth so you guys know this is what we’re proposing and this is what we’re building,” Wood said of Fox Creek. “They don’t want to go through the process multiple times, which is why it’s taken so long to get to where they are today.”

Bill Evans also shared that he’s making it a point to not have debt on the 500-plus acre property. 

“It’s hard to go broke when you don’t have any debt,” he said. “Only 10 developers that do what I do survived the last economic downturn…I can’t say that I won’t go broke, but I can tell you I haven't yet.”


Public opposition 

Residents still wanted to know how the project would benefit them. Attendee G.D. Ray bemoaned the years of construction equipment traveling along the Lumpkin Campground-Ga. 400 corridors for the project and associated intersection improvements. 

He described the Lumpkin-Ga. 400 proposed fixes as a “solution to yesterday’s problem” and cautioned against something like the flyover area at Browns Bridge Road and Ga. 400, which isn’t kind to people’s cars. 

“This development is the pretty girl at the bar, and you’re the nice guy buying us a drink,” Ray said to the developer. 

Wood responded, calling developments like the village “insanely popular” and said this one would not be as dense as the oft-mentioned Avalon.

“The point of the development is that on a Saturday, instead of driving toward the mall, we want you to drive here, come hang out at the park and go to a brewery or restaurant that’s local,” he said.  

He acknowledged that it’s hard not to gravitate towards car-centric entertainment options nowadays but that going to a downtown or neighborhood center like this would be worth it. 

Tony Passarello said it’s all “big pluses” for the mixed-use village to bring jobs, deliver on the county’s long-range land-use plan for Ga. 400 and give the county more leverage than it’d usually have with incoming development.

Wood estimated that if the village is approved, it would still hypothetically take months to figure out the water-and-sewer situation before they could then prepare for the project’s first phase. 

If Fox Creek submitted more detailed plans, say, right before Christmas, the first phase of construction would still take about 12 months. He said that’d make it about spring 2024 “and there still isn’t a vertical house,” he said. 

Given this sort of timeline, it’d likely be summer 2024 before food trucks or similar attractions could even be brought to the event area and green space, he added. 

Georgia State House District 9 candidate Tyler Tolin mentioned talks at the April 11 local GOP meeting that characterized the mixed-use village as inevitable. 

“If people say they don't want it and the BOC tries to shut it down, you will then turn around and sue us, the county, fight us in court and you’ll win and you’ll build it anyways?” , he said. “If that is true, I would like to ask you why, if the people of Dawson [County] and everybody in the majority say they don’t want it, why would you come back and sue us and put it up anyways?”

Wood replied that that was “definitely not how we roll.” 

“If we can't get it going and can’t do it, we’re going to go away,” Bill Evans said. “This is not a foregone conclusion, and that’s not the way we work.” 

BOC District 3 candidate Deanna Dickinson posed the option of Fox Creek waiting, say, five years, long enough for the county to get more ambulances and for the state to step in and help with road fixes. 

“Usually, it takes projects like this for an increase in those services,” Wood said.

“If we wait five years and the tax revenue doesn’t come in, then that’s not as much money…it pays for itself as you go,” Evans said.

As a person who helped bring in the former Catholic college to the tract in the first place, Evans sympathized with people wanting the county to stay as it is but said there’s “no way” that will happen. 

He did reiterate that the project will support its own growth but said it can’t come to fruition without the BOC’s ultimate approval and installation of utilities. 

Citizen Kirk Lakeman characterized a lot of Dawson County’s growth in recent years as “bad growth” with the types of businesses going in along Ga. 400 and said a development like Fox Creek’s is needed for future generations. 

He also pointed out that concern over this project which hasn’t broken ground yet seems to be trumping any worries about other forthcoming projects on Lumpkin Campground Road. 

“At least this is well thought out, in multiple phases…it’s going to have a lot of green space,” he said, referring to the project’s one-acre plus park, courtyards and preserved forest space. 

“I think we just have to be realistic about the future of this county,” he added, “and whether we like it or not, we’re in competition with our surrounding counties and cities.”

“The issues you guys are talking about…they matter to Bill as much as they do to you,” said Wood, “because the success of the project is tied to that. It’s hard because you live here and will have to deal with it, so that puts the emphasis back on him to make sure it’s successful.”

Evans commented that there was “more planning in this development” than in any others he had ever seen.

“We tried to listen,” he said. “I’m not going to tell you it’s perfect, but I'm going to tell you we tried.”