Port Wentworth plan to add warehouses caught in legal limbo

Published: Mar. 10, 2022 at 3:36 PM EST
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PORT WENTWORT, Ga. (WTOC) - A controversial plan to add a warehouse park in Port Wentworth is in legal limbo and affects the city’s standing with the state of Georgia.

WTOC Investigates uncovered the discrepancy after a months-long investigation into a controversial zoning decision to allow a proposed eight million square foot industrial park off Highway 21 near the Effingham County line.

The city’s new 2021 comprehensive plan approved by the City Council last summer is not recognized by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, according to Adrion Bell, director of marking and communications for DCA.

A final step apparently missed in the city process is why the plan is not recognized.

“The new plan is not yet on our website, because we haven’t yet received their final plan and adoption resolution,” Bell said, in an emailed statement to WTOC.

Port Wentworth Interim City Manager Steve Davis, who has been on the job two weeks, learned about the plan status after WTOC Investigates made him aware of it.

“That is news to me, and obviously I’ve just gotten here so I don’t know why it wasn’t sent or if it was sent if it was lost, Davis said, in an interview Tuesday. “Honestly, I don’t know how to answer that because I just don’t know.”

The group hired by Port Wentworth to finalize the 2021 plan is the Coastal Regional Commission.

In an email, the commission said quote “after numerous solicitations to city staff/ officials” for months last year it was not able to get the signed resolution adopted by the council to then send to the state.

“That is a very, very key document, so I will look at that,” Davis said. He added that it’s a top priority for the city to correct the situation because the city’s compliance with the state affects its ability to receive state and federal grant funding.

At a minimum, the state requires cities to update their comprehensive plans at least once every five years and provide a finalized copy and adopted resolution to DCA.

In a follow-up interview today, Davis said the City Council will have to vote again on the adopted resolution for the plan. The vote will happen at the March 24th meeting.

It’s also unclear how the plan’s status could affect a number of zoning decisions the City Council already has made based on the new plan. One of those zoning decisions already faced controversy back then and now legal action by one family who says they don’t want to live next to an industrial warehouse park.

For years, communities near the Port of Savannah have faced strong pressure to develop warehouse space.

The warehouses are needed to store shipping containers as they move between the docks and their final destinations.

Earlier this year, the city of Bloomingdale put a temporary stop to warehouse applications. In Port Wentworth, the applications are still moving.

Evidence of the intense pressure is just across the Effingham County line off Highway 21 - where another warehouse park expansion is underway for the Georgia International Trade Center project. Construction crews are clear cutting and pouring concrete for the next phase. A thin tree line and retention pond are what separate the massive industrial development from the Rice Creek residential subdivision.

Until last summer, Port Wentworth held a firm stance that its future growth next to neighborhoods in the northern part of the city would be for residential and suburban development.

But that changed in July of last year when the City Council approved a new set of future land use maps. The maps are part of the 2021 Comprehensive Plan and call for a large industrial park in the northern part of the city along Highway 21. Future land use maps are what guide all development decisions in a city.

One month after it approved the new maps, the City Council approved a zoning change to allow a proposed eight million square foot warehouse park on about 800 acres of land between the Effingham County line, Highway 21 and Highway 30. The decision wasn’t without controversy. The Planning Commission already had recommended the council deny the zoning change and neighbors off Saussy Road also spoke against it.

LaRay Benton’s family has since filed a zoning appeal in the Chatham County Superior Court.

“You’re going to build up everything around us with all that concrete, all the warehousing, when it rains, it’s not soaking on their property,” said LaRay Benton, who grew up on Saussy Road and filed the legal action on behalf of his family. “So all of the water sitting on their property now it’s got to come somewhere.”

During an interview last month, former Port Wentworth City Manager Ed Booth said the 2021 comprehensive plan changes were done legally and reflect how Port Wentworth is growing.

“It seems to be a good fit up there,” he said. “They want to put in 8 million square feet. There is a concern of the traffic on Highway 21. But even if we deny it, they’ll still go in Effingham County and we’ll still get the traffic, so we might as well get the advantage.”

He pointed out the nearest residential house is more than 1,500 feet away from the proposed industrial warehouse park, as required by law.

Also, the city has established impact fees for the proposed industrial park, which he said will help the city add more quality of life amenities, such as a sports complex and sidewalks.

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