PTC's Southside Church asks to build in tree save area

A review of expansion plans for a Peachtree City church got bogged down at the city’s planning commission meeting Tuesday night because part of the expansion would encroach into an area listed on the initial final site plan as a “tree save” area along Robinson Road.

The expansion proposed by Southside Church would not result in the taking of any trees, as there are no trees in the particular area where the expansion would be built. But according to former mayor Bob Lenox, that’s because during construction of the church in the early 90s, when it was built by Braelinn Baptist, construction crews cut down trees they weren’t supposed to.

The expansion would add 502 seats to the sanctuary, bringing the seating capacity to 1,102. Church architect Bill Foley noted that the church is dealing with growth in its membership and hosts three separate worship services each Sunday to meet demand.

If the new plan is approved, allowing construction in the tree save area as outlined on the final site plan, the other result is that the building will be closer to the road, potentially giving it a higher profile view.

Lenox, who lives in the adjacent Bradford Estates subdivision, said that when Braelinn Baptist was before the planning commission back in 1992, the city compromised on the initial requirement for a 100-foot buffer around the perimeter of the property.

The compromise kept the 100-foot buffer along the portions of the road where the buildings were, but shrunk the buffer along the parking lot in large part because the parking lots could be screened by berms.

The city was “adamant” about keeping the 100-foot buffer along the buildings because they can’t be screened by a berm, Lenox explained.

“In Peachtree City, when we say it’s a tree save area, there’s a legal impact, a moral impact and an ethical impact,” Lenox said.

Lenox also suggested that the church has plenty of land to expand toward the interior of its campus instead.

Foley said that would be a more costly move for the church, with a tab at around $4 million. The church’s proposed expansion plan would instead cost $1.4 million and could be done with cash the church has on hand, avoiding the need for financing, Foley added.

Foley noted that the building addition not only wouldn’t impact any existing trees or their root structure.

Following a lengthy debate, the commission directed staff to look into whether or not the 100-foot tree save applies instead of the typical 40-foot setback required for churches that are on property zoned estate residential.

Staff was also asked to find out how many tree save areas in the city were allowed to be encroached upon over the years. No vote was taken.

The commission also asked the church to stake off the area where the addition will be built, and also to work with neighbors to try and come up with concessions on the matter.

Planning Commissioner Patrick Staples, who attends Southside Church and announced it at the onset of the meeting, noted that he didn’t think the proposal “had much of an impact” and he suggested the possibility of the church working with concerned neighbors to reach a solution.

Planning Commissioner David Conner, who also announced at the beginning of the meeting that he attends Southside Church, said it seemed “silly to talk about saving trees that are not there” also because no one has complained about the lack of trees.

Conner suggested the church could conduct a tree survey using a licensed arborist so the existing trees could be documented, and that a “huge fee” could be assessed for any tree that’s not there a year after construction.

“At the end of the day if the trees stay, I think we’re all happy,” Conner said.

Commissioner Lynda Wojcik took the opposing viewpoint, urging the commission deny any intrusion into a tree save area.

“You’re going to take a building that’s two stories and move it 40 feet closer to the street,” she said. “Even though there are some trees shielding it, because it will be closer to those trees ... it is going to be more apparent.”

Planning Commissioner Joe Frazar also reminded Foley that neighbors of the church don’t want the expansion to occur as proposed.

Wojcik also argued that Southside Church should be required to replace the trees in the tree save area that Braelinn Baptist failed to plant many years ago.

She noted that this is one occasion in which the commission has the capability of taking action to protect trees, unlike so many times such as the recent approval of the Walgreen’s site plan in which they were handcuffed because the development met city ordinances.

“Here we have a choice to keep what was hard-fought for,” Wojcik said.

Resident John Mrosek, who lives immediately adjacent to the church, noted that he was skeptical of the expansion because Southside should have to follow the rules laid out in the original site plan approved for Braelinn Baptist.

Mrosek noted that Braelinn Baptist never fully complied with the landscape plan for the property, and it also paved over a portion of wetlands on the site as well.

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