City protests emptying pond

LAWRENCEVILLE - Dacula's mayor is protesting a developer's request to drain a man-made pond on property designated for a town center project in the city.

In a Feb. 12 letter, Mayor Jimmy Wilbanks and City Administrator Jim Osborn told the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers the city is opposed to a request to remove part of the wetlands at Dacula and Fence roads.

The request, filed in September, asks to put 1,375 feet of pipe in a stream, remove .61 acres of wetlands and drain a 2.53-acre pond on 30 acres of land where the second phase of the Dacula Town Center project would be built.

"Wetlands, intermittent and perennial streams and established lakes provide many natural and ecological benefits to the City at little or no cost," the letter said. "The City of Dacula recognizes that these unique and vital resources provide ecological habitat for birds and wildlife, help control flood waters ... and improve water quality ..."

Connolly Realty President J.R. Connolly said it is too early to tell what will go on that land, which was sold to him and the Morsberger Group by Hebron Baptist Church. An application to the Army Corps of Engineers calls for a 79,000-square-foot building that might house a Kroger and seven additional buildings.

At this time, city planner Joey Murphy said, no development has been applied for on the property.

"It's only rumor and concept plans," Murphy said of the project. "It has generated a buzz."

More than 130 responses to a question about the proposed Town Center project have been posted on a Dacula forum hosted from the city's Web site. Many of the posts questioned why the pond needed to be removed.

Terry Sosebee, a Dacula resident who has lived in the city for nearly 30 years, said he's concerned that developers would consider filling a lake during a time of drought. He questioned whether changing the property's zoning to a mixed-use project, with residences, would give the developer more incentive to preserve the water features.

Gary Craig, a senior project manager with the Army Corps of Engineers, said he has no time frame for making a decision about the request. The developer is looking into what mitigation options he has, Craig said, and whether there are any archaeological features on the property.

Craig said requests of this nature are not uncommon.

"I've seen quite a few as North Georgia goes from farmland with little ponds dotting the landscape to urbanization," he said. "There go the ponds and little streams."

But Craig said before Connolly or any developer can obtain the corps' permission, he had to present a plan to improve other wetlands or otherwise compensate for the altered waterways.

Chuck Warbington, a Gwinnett County planning commissioner who represents the Dacula area, said he thinks the project is a good one. Eventually, Old Peachtree Road will be extended to connect to Fence Road as part of the construction of the second phase. That project would be paid for by the developer, Gwinnett Transportation Director Brian Allen said. The county is working on a project to upgrade the current intersection.

The first phase of the development project includes 10 out parcels on 15 acres. Two of them have been leased, to McDonald's and Walgreens.

Connolly said the first phase of the project is due to open this fall. Other nearby development includes the construction of a Brand Bank on land formerly occupied by the Blessings Cottage.

The Town Center project was so-named because the property is in the center of Dacula, and Connolly's company has built other shopping centers with Town Center names, he said previously. There are no plans to put government offices or other typical Town Center-facilities in the project, but Connolly said in the past he would consider greenspace and water features that are popular in other cities' downtowns as plans progressed for the project's second phase.

Patrick Flynt, who lives in the city, said he has been bothered by the lack of communication with residents regarding the developer's plans for the property. Flynt said he wants whatever development does take place on the land to retain Dacula's old town feel.

"When you invoke town center, the first thing that comes to mind is activities, events that bring the town together," he said. "When I think town center, I'm thinking something different than retail shops."