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County will again hear bid for private campground on the river

Bryan Rhoden at his riverfront property off Steel Bridge Rd.Families camping out together on the St. Mary’s River, with mom and dad lounging on lawn chairs in front of the tent keeping an eye on steaks cooking on the grill while their children play along the sandy shore. That’s the wholesome image.

Rowdy drunks dancing beside a campfire late at night with loud music blaring from speakers near a cooler filled with ice and beer. That’s the troublesome scenario.

The two pictures will be brought to mind on October 15 when the Baker County Commission meets to consider a request to rezone nearly seven acres of private property for recreational use, including overnight camping, along the river adjacent to the county boat ramp off Steel Bridge Road.

The last time county commissioners voted on the same issue five years ago for the property, which lies just west of the St. Mary’s Cove subdivision, the proposal was shot down after numerous objections were raised by nearby homeowners who said they didn’t want their peace and quiet disturbed.

“In 2007 it filled the commission meeting,” Planning and Zoning Director Ed Preston said.

 

He expects another jam-packed meeting this time, following a recommendation from the county’s Land Planning Agency after a public hearing on September 27 to approve Bryan Rhoden’s request to rezone two parcels totaling 6.85 acres and change the land use on his property from residential to Recreation Resource.

The public hearing before the county commission will begin at 6 pm.

The LPA board almost didn’t recommend any course of action. One vote to approve the rezoning, advanced by member Glen Patten, died for lack of a second, followed immediately by a motion offered by member Duncan Walters to deny the request, which also died for lack of a second.

Then, Chairman Philip Zamarron asked someone to second “either of the motions” so that the advisory board could send a recommendation to the county commission. Joseph DeFee seconded the motion to approve the measure, which was affirmed 3-1, with only Mr. Walters voting against it.

The county’s Development Review Committee reviewed the application on August 30 and unanimously recommended approval. The Baker County Planning and Zoning Department also recommended approval before the LPA last week and Mr. Preston told the board that there was really no reason to deny the request “other than the neighborhood conflict.“

Two nearby homeowners said they had nothing personal against the applicant and didn’t want to deny his private property rights, but that they did not want camping along the riverfront because of the potential for noise and people drinking alcohol at all hours of the day and night.

“I live up river (from Mr. Rhoden’s property) and I’ve been there 55 years,” said Wendell Wilkerson. “I stay there for my peace.”

David Eisenhower, a retired state police officer whose home is on Steel Bridge Road not far from the proposed recreational site, said the neighborhood “used to have nothing but trouble all night down there” with speeding motorists and people drinking in the area. He said the rowdiness finally ceased after the sheriff’s office posted “No Camping” signs.

Currently, according to a staff report presented by Mr. Preston, the land is “used for day camping as a (natural) resource-based recreation area” and is equipped with a well and septic tank. There’s also a mobile home on the property and a portable shed used to dispense snacks and sodas.

If approved, Mr. Preston said, the property would be restricted to no more than 10 overnight camping spaces “for tents and or camper trailers.”

Also, approval of the rezoning would end a lawsuit filed by the county seeking a court order, essentially an injunction, prohibiting recreational camping on the property. The lawsuit stemmed from a code enforcement case in which county officials claimed camping was being permitted on the residential property in violation of the zoning code.

Mr. Rhoden, who has owned the property since 1987, contends he has never allowed camping there. When Mr. Preston mentioned the lawsuit in connection with alleged camping activities on the property, Mr. Rhoden said: “Do you have any proof?”

Nonetheless, Mr. Rhoden said he is seeking the “highest and best use” of his land, which he said should be recreation as “a decent place for families to camp and go swimming.”

Noting that the entire area is in a 100-year flood plain, which produced the worst flooding in recorded history this summer and destroyed numerous homes, Mr. Rhoden said if his property is rezoned it would “bring in some money from out of the county and when it floods they (campers) will pack up and get out of here.”

Whatever ultimately is decided, Mr. Zamarron said the proposal needs to move forward.

“I think everybody is ready to act in a constructive way, cooperatively, if it’s approved,” he said.

In other business, the LPA board:

• Granted a variance to St. Peter’s in the Glen Anglican Church waiving a requirement for a paved parking lot on a 2.07 acre site on the west side of County Road 125 just south of Interstate 10.

Church leaders said plans are well under way to have a 3,600 square foot modular building placed on the site to serve as the group’s new house of worship. The entranceway would be a gravel road leading to two paved handicapped parking spaces, but the rest of the parking area likely would remain unpaved for quite some time.

Eventually, as the church grows and needs additional space for its congregants, officials said paved parking spaces would be required. The zoning code requires one parking space for every three seats in the church, which church leaders said presently numbers about 20 members.

Dan Milner, the church’s senior warden, said requiring a paved parking lot would impose a financial hardship on the small congregation.

“It took us five years to scrape enough money together to buy the building,” Mr. Milner said. “It would take more time to raise money for paving.”

Debra Milner, church treasurer, said that, hopefully, services will begin in the new sanctuary by Thanksgiving, or before Christmas at the latest.

• Scheduled a hearing for the next LPA meeting on October 25 to consider an appeal of a determination by the planning director that a 30.4-acre parcel off John Williams Road is not eligible for expansion or improvement because of “violation of subdivision regulation and for lack of direct access to a road that meets minimum requirements.”

The property lies at the end of a private drive named Wilburn’s Way south of John Williams Road. There currently are two residences on the property and a third residence is proposed.

Mr. Preston recommended the LPA hear the appeal because the subject property is “more than large enough to accommodate the zoning density requirements” and because the subdivision regulations were not violated by the present owner.

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