Part of strawberry farm could become strip mall or trailer park

LAWRENCEVILLE - Land that a popular pick-your-own strawberry farmer leases to grow his fruit may be ripe for commercial development.

Nearly 10 acres where Washington Farms grows its berries will be considered for a strip shopping center in front of planning commissioners Tuesday.

In 2005, another proposal that would have put a gas station and neighborhood services like a nail salon, sandwich shop or dry cleaner on the land was withdrawn by the developer after residents fought to keep the project away.

Diane Bates, who lives less than a mile away from the property at Loganville Highway, Willowwind Drive and Bay Creek Road, said she hopes for the same result again.

"We're very passionate about this," Bates said. "We know and love our area and we want it to be built in a smart way."

The land that Washington Farms owner John Washington currently leases from owner Harvie Ewing - Washington owns more property on the other side of Willowwind Drive - is zoned for a mobile home park. Doug Stacks, a planning consultant representing Crown Point Properties, said the man who has the land under contract, Todd Hogan, would be interested in the property regardless of whether the zoning goes through.

Hogan owns seven mobile home parks in the state, Stacks said, and would have no problem putting 59 trailers on the land.

"We're looking at it both ways," Stacks said.

Bates said she understands that the strawberry fields won't be able to stay forever, but hopes that development will wait until Ga. Highway 20 has been widened and area infrastructure can handle new businesses.

Many of her neighbors, Bates said, moved to the area from more built-up parts of Gwinnett because they wanted to live in rural areas. If part of the farm becomes developed, it will be a blow to the area.

"We're trying to keep it as uncongested as we can for as long as we can," she said. "It will be sad for Gwinnett County. We're just growing so fast. It's part of our culture, part of our history. If we lose that, it's part of growth, but it's not something that we love."

Stacks said the developer would be willing to pay for a traffic light at Willowwind Drive to help with congestion and hopes he can reach a compromise with neighbors about the project, which he said would increase the county's tax base.

County planners have recommended that the property be developed for neighborhood commercial and office uses. Planning commissioners will hear the case at 7 p.m. Tuesday and the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center.

Washington said he has no comment on the real estate issues, but vowed there would still be strawberries to pick in the spring.

"The strawberry farm will be there," he said. "We'll still be in business."