Three subdivision plats that raised the ire of some St. Simons Island residents have been resubmitted since passage of a new county ordinance in June put preliminary plats entirely in the realm of county staff.
The Park at Village Creek, Fifty Oaks and another subdivision proposed for a north-island property called the Sinclair Tract have been filed with community development again under the new rules. Some people like those new rules and processes, some don’t.
Stefanie Leif, Glynn County planning manager, said the primary process is largely unchanged. Community Development Department staff follow the same regulations and checklists, but deadlines are more flexible now that they don’t have to prepare applications for presentation to the Mainland or Islands planning commissions.
“Our review of it (preliminary plats) is very, very similar, the only difference is we don’t have a deadline we’re scheduling for commission meetings,” Leif said. “We send it through our development review team, different agencies in the county that review it, and implement the decision at the staff level.”
Without having to go through the planning commissions, applications could be approved within three weeks after they’re submitted, if no revisions to the application are required. A perfect application is exceedingly rare, Leif said.
“We have that couple-week turnaround. If that project meets everything we’re looking for, that project could be approved in a few weeks. Most applications do require revisions,” Leif said.
Leif said the county’s planners, engineers and inspectors are still settling into the new process, but some trends have arisen.
“It’s still new for us. Currently, the projects that we have in the pipeline, the majority are re-submittals for projects we have had in the past,” Leif said.
Peter Murphy, the commissioner for St. Simons, Jekyll and Sea Islands, said he didn’t think the process was perfect but needed more time to see how it works.
“We really haven’t had any experience with the new methodology,” Murphy said.
Murphy was more concerned with making sure nearby homeowners are given adequate notice of proposed developments.
“I believe in private property rights too, but I believe that private property rights go both ways. Those whose property might be impacted should at least have a chance to express their concerns to planning staff,” Murphy said. “I think that would be fairer to the neighbors, I really do.”
The county’s planning and zoning division should post signs at properties someone wants to build on, as with site plans, or notify neighbors through the mail, which the county does for rezonings, he said.
“Not that they will necessarily change the ultimate outcome, but at least staff should have to talk to residents in those neighborhoods about traffic, drainage, things that need to be addressed in the preliminary plat stage,” Murphy said.
He added that St. Simons Island’s new tree ordinance goes a long way to protecting against clear-cutting trees, something about which many residents and Islands Planning Commission members are concerned.
A response from David O’Quinn, commission At-large Post 1 Republic candidate, echoed Murphy.
“Since this is a change, we will watch how the community development staff handles the preliminary plat reviews. I am confident in their ability to process them properly,” O’Quinn said in an email on Friday. “Because this is a change, I want to see how they are processed before I make any suggestions or recommend any changes. This is the process that the county commission has put in place, and it will need time to be evaluated.”
Some members of the public have raised concerns with the new process from the day it was proposed, such as the Democratic candidate for the Glynn County Commission’s At-large Post 1 seat, Julian Smith.
“I think, basically, it’s going to result in little change or little trouble in most cases, but there are going to be cases where it’s going to be a major problem,” Smith said.
He’s regularly spoken against preliminary plats and site plans during public hearings, often citing what he sees as code violations overlooked or ignored by county staff.
“My experience in the last three years, where I’ve been going to every IPC and mainland meeting, I’ve had to not only object to what’s being proposed, but the incomplete, misleading or illogical staff comments. To give the staff, the so-called community development staff, the complete authority to approve preliminary plats is a bad idea,” Smith said.
Where Murphy and Smith’s opinions diverge is current At-large Post 1 commissioner Mark Stambaugh’s alternative proposal. Stambaugh proposed preliminary plat applicants could appeal denials to the county commission, the same as they can with site plan applications.
“Allowing the applicant to appeal to the county commission would be better than giving the final decision to the planning commission,” Smith said.
Murphy voted against the proposal at a county commission meeting in June, later saying even the alternative took too much authority from the planning commissions.
“It’s really going to open the door to more interest in incorporation of the island and more separation from the mainland in terms of governance,” Smith said.
County commissioner Bob Coleman, challenged by Smith in 2016, said he felt much the same.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate,” Coleman said. “It took the voices of people out of the process, and I don’t think it was the right thing to do.”
Commission Chairman Bill Brunson supported the new process. Most counties relegate the plat approval process to staff, he said. He also noted how early in the process preliminary plats are judged.
“This needs to be emphasized, this is preliminary,” Brunson said.
Commissioners Mike Browning and Richard Strickland couldn’t be reached for comment by press time, but they voted in favor of the new rules and supported them in comments prior to and after the vote.
Strickland has previously said most other counties in the state delegate preliminary plats to staff, so Glynn County would simply be falling in line with many other communities.
Keeping the planning commissions out of the process would keep the county out of costly court fights, Browning has said at previous meetings. Four developers have taken the county to court over subdivision plat and site plan denials in the last three years.
County citizens can — and Leif encouraged them to — send questions, comments and input on any pending applications or the review process to email@example.com.
Some information on subdivision plats and site plans under review can be found on Glynn County’s website, in the design review section of the Community Development Department tab.
“The code currently doesn’t require any notification to neighbors, but on the county’s website we do have an open projects list,” Leif said. “We’ll continue to talk about ways to better communicate to the public what’s in our office.”
Otherwise, citizens can also get information through an open records request, which can be submitted at www.glynncounty.org/1804/Open-Records-Requests.