Citizens Address Vidalia City Council About Zoning
Two citizens addressed the Vidalia City Council about a rezoning issue during the public participation portion of the Council’s regular monthly meeting on Monday, February 13.
According to Lee and Jana O’Connor, the couple purchased property located at 301-307 Green Street between the years of 2016 and 2020 with intentions of constructing storage units there. Currently, this property is zoned for office and residential use; however, the couple requested to rezone this area to a commercial zoning for the storage units. “We only asked for these areas to be rezoned as a courtesy to nearby residents,” Jana O’Connor explained, as the couple owns more land in that area. “Everything was a go from 2016 until October 2022, when we went to get a building permit and found out we had been met with opposition.”
She explained that she and her husband had already purchased building supplies and hired additional help to complete the project, as there was no indication that there may be issue with the build.
Lee O’Connor also commented on the issue. “I realize decisions have to be made on different levels. A lot of it I was unaware of until when the time came and we got down to the issue of ‘spot zoning’ with the zoning committee, which didn’t go well. My wife and I did the same sort of presentation that we’re doing here, and to be honest, I’ve never been treated more rudely than I was that night by a majority of the people on the panel.”
O’Connor said that he and his wife felt that they had been “tag teamed upon” throughout the meeting with the zoning committee. “We don’t really know what the big deal was,” he emphasized. “I understand that there are people who live nearby who don’t want them (storage units) for whatever reason. At first, I thought it was because of the metal and aesthetics of the building, but it’s not that. It’s just frustrating because I was told that I could get a building permit by the city official for five years. I didn’t ask for this assurance on paper, I took [former Code Enforcement Officer Shaun Oliver] at his word and took the city at their word. But when I got ready to receive it, I was told I couldn’t get a permit. I don’t think it’s fair, and I don’t think it’s what the City of Vidalia should stand for.”
O’Connor said he has not been able to meet with City Manager Nick Overstreet. When asked if Overstreet had sent the O’Connors a letter of denial, Overstreet stated that he had only sent a letter after one meeting of the Planning & Zoning Board, in which a decision was never made, but not the most recent meeting of the Board, in which the couple’s request was officially denied on a 6-0-1 vote ( Jackie Moses abstained due to possible conflict of interest). He explained the O’Connors had not requested a letter regarding this meeting.
“We don’t really understand why we were denied that night; we just know that we were denied,” Jana O’Connor remarked. “Our understanding after talking to the Chairman is that one of the reasons we were denied is because it was a ‘spot zoning’ request.”
She added that the couple has researched the definition of “spot zoning,” which refers to a situation in which something is arbitrarily rezoned in an area composed of predominantly one type of zoning. “Our area is office/residential. Our understanding is that is the transition between residential and commercial. If you look at the area directly in front of us, it is not arbitrarily being asked to be rezoned, it is C-2 directly in front of our property, and commercial from the Sandwiche Shoppe until Highway 280,” she told Council. “The area directly behind is us also already zoned commercial. So, it’s not like we have arbitrarily asked for this. We only asked for the zoning change to comply with what we were told we needed to move forward with this process.”
According to Jana, the couple feels that they have been treated unfairly, as another property owner has been allowed to build storage units in an area zoned for office and residential use. “I believe the issue has become opposition to the storage units rather than the actual zoning change,” she emphasized.
“Currently, with the zoning we have, there is not a whole lot we can do with our property,” she said. “It’s not going to be cost effective to build a new home there, because as you travel further down the street, you realize most of the homes nearby are already rented out as low-income rentals. We do have homes that serve as low-income rentals, and have experienced many issues collecting the rent on those.”
The couple sold previous storage units they had built to purchase the land and supplies to build new units, as they saw a need from the lack of storage units nearby for those in low-income rentals, the mobile home park, and apartment rentals. According to Jana, only one other storage unit business, which is built in a office/residential zone, is in that area. “We are trying to meet the needs for the growth of the city and we also tried to follow the rules of the land use map that was shared with us, which showed that area was eligible to be zoned commercial” she explained.
Lee O’Connor questioned Overstreet on the couple’s copy of the future zoning map, which dated back to 2016, asking him if it complied with the latest guidelines. Overstreet told O’Connor he could not accurately determine the relevance of the map to the current date without seeing a larger copy of it, but that a new map in 2019 denoted the area to be used in the future as office/residential zoning. He said that all department heads were made aware and asked to participate in the conference that planned this map, but “to what degree they participated was of their own choosing.”
The couple explained that there has been much confusion because of the two maps, which they feel also led to the conflict regarding zoning. Lee O’Connor shared that the map which he and his wife based their project on was the map which was sitting on former Code Enforcement Officer Shaun Oliver’s desk, and questioned Oliver’s involvement on the new map in 2019. Overstreet told the couple that Oliver was aware of the new map and participated in the creation of this map.
Ultimately, the couple asked the City to not only consider the case, but to also reflect on the issue, and to provide better guidance in these sorts of issues in the future.
Later in the meeting, the City Council unanimously approved the denial of the zoning change.
Behavorial Healh Specialist Vidalia Police Chief James Jermon introduced the police department’s new Behavioral Health Specialist Jada Williams to the Council and the public, and shared a testimony of the kind of help she brings to the area.
“We have a deep problem with mental health within our city and our county. But, do these individuals always need to be incarcerated? No, unless they commit a crime,” the Chief emphasized. “That is why we have Mrs. Williams. For instance, if myself, one of our officers, or even one of our deputies run into a disturbed person who is in crisis and we know they need help, but we don’t want to incarcerate them or for them to be a nuisance amongst business owners and residents, that’s when we call Mrs. Williams. She is the go-between.”
Chief Jermon explained that recently an individual, who had been a resident of Forge Recovery Center, had gone into crisis and those interacting with him feared he would commit suicide. “I got four different phone calls saying that callers felt like he would commit suicide. For police officers, we focus on the how – is it going to be pills? Is it going to be a gun? Is he going to step in front of a car? We have to know, because we’re the ones that get there first,” Jermon said.
According to Jermon, when the officer arrived at the scene, the individual continued to go into crisis, so he called Williams to intervene. “She came into town and met with him on the side of the road. He had a flat tire and wanted to get back to North Carolina, and that was weighing on him. He wanted to get out of Vidalia and back to people he knew,” the Chief recounted. “She sat down and deescalated him, because he wanted nothing to do with anyone in uniform or from Forge. To show you where her heart is, she actually went and bought this man a tire with her own money. He got to North Carolina, and the first thing he did was call our dispatch to tell them what a wonderful job she did and how he felt much better. He is still doing much better.”
Chief Jermon added, “Just that moment, a simple random act of kindness and being the professional that she (Williams) is, possibly saved a life.” Events & Road Closures
The event permit for Vidalia Porchfest, a downtown music and art festival set to occur on Saturday, March 25, was unanimously approved. On this date, 6th Street – from Church Street to Jackson Street – will be closed from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m., and Durden Street – from 3rd Street to 7th Street – will be closed from 11 a.m. until 6 p.m.
Road Closures were also approved for the Vidalia Onion Festival, from April 18-23. Those closures include: Durden Street from 5 p.m. until 10 p.m. on Tuesday, April 18, and from 1 p.m. on Wednesday, April 19, until midnight on Sunday, April 23.
Jackson and Church Streets – from 2 p.m. until 10 p.m. on Thursday, April 20, and daily from 9 a.m. until midnight on April 2123.
East Meadows Street Between Jackson and Church Streets – from 2 p.m. on Thursday, April 20, until midnight on Sunday, April 23.
East Meadows Street Between Church and Leader Streets – from 2 p.m. until midnight on Thursday, April 20, and daily from 9 a.m. until midnight on April 21-22.
Furniture, including 3 recliners and a u-shaped desk, were approved to be purchased for the Vidalia Regional Airport for $3,950.69, which will be funded through the Airport Fund, as it is an approved budget item from the 2023 budget.
Pineland will provide the airport with an improved phone system, which will work with the new system previously purchased for City Hall, for $513.98 This is another approved budget item from the Airport Fund. This purchase will also bring a recurring cost of $29.98 per month, which will replace the current rate of $39.17 per month.
A remote horn and strobe lightning detector will be installed at the Ronnie A. Dixon City Park, as Council approved the $5,350 purchase from Thor Guard to ensure safety for patrons during events. This purchase is funded through Special Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST).
A new well pump will be installed at Well #3, located at the intersection of Poe and First Street, by Mobley’s Well Drilling for $56,996, which is funded through the Water & Sewer Fund. This new pump is anticipated to last roughly 20 years.
McLendon Enterprises will continue to service road repairs for which the company was previously contracted. These services cost $17,613 to complete, an increase of $2,613 from the originally approved $15,000 budget. This increase in cost will be paid for using SPLOST.
Other Approvals Movement of Funds
The Council acknowledged and authorized Financial Director Amy Murray to move the designated $416,525 from the Department of Natural Resources funds of the Grant Fund to the Sweet Onion Golf Authority checking accounts. A total of $316,525 of this funding is set to be used for the previously approved construction project, while $100,000 will remain for other operating expenses.
McNatt Street was approved to be rezoned from C-2 to L-1 to provide for expansion of industries. This request was submitted by Michele Johnson on behalf of the Toombs County Development Authority.
Council members authorized Chief Jermon to execute a agreement with Leadsonline for access to electronic transaction data. This agreement will enable the Department to track stolen vehicles, decreasing the amount of time it takes to recover this property. The three-year contract costs $4,151 for the first year, and will not increase more than 3% for the remaining years.
ESG Engineering will now begin bidding out the upcoming Sludge Removal and Water Line Replacement projects.
All employees of the City will now receive a copy of a customer service manual, and training will be held this material to ensure employees’ understanding of these guidelines.
A taxi license was approved for a new business, Faith 07, which is owner by Sharon Smalley. A coinoperated license was also approved for Sweet Onion Social LLC.
ZONING CONFLICT Property Owner Jana O'Connor addresses the Vidalia City Coun cil alongside her husband, Lee O’Connor, about a conflict regarding the zoning of their property on Green Street.
Photo by Makaylee Randolph