ALBANY — The Albany Dougherty Planning Commission paved the way for New Communities Inc. to turn 41 acres of property at the former southwest Dougherty County Cypress Pond Plantation into an indoor/outdoor special events center during the commission’s December meeting Thursday afternoon.
Shirley Sherrod, speaking as applicant at a rezoning request hearing before the commission, said the subject property — which includes the former plantation’s 12,700-square-foot main house — could spark economic development in the county.
“This property is becoming a major attraction already as more and more people hear about it,” Sherrod said. “It’s significant to our region’s history because this was a former plantation that was worked by slaves. We have an ad from a Macon newspaper that advertised the sale of slaves from the plantation on the courthouse steps.
“And while this property is significant to African-American history, I want to make it clear that this is not going to become a place for only black people. Actually, there is racial healing going on here.”
The Planning Commission heard a staff report that recommended approval of the rezoning request. The 41 acres are carved from the 1,638 acres of plantation land purchased recently by New Communities. The board approved the request to amend the zoning from AG (agriculture district) to C-8 (commercial recreation district), which allows for indoor/outdoor event centers. The remainder of the land on the former plantation will continue to be used for agricultural purposes.
Sherrod said weddings are among the primary events that will be held at the site.
“This will become an economic engine for the county,” she said. “It will be something everyone can use and appreciate. And I want to make it clear that, no, the Sherrods don’t own a plantation. We don’t have that kind of money. We’re part of (New Communities Inc.), and we want to be part of making this county better.”
The Planning Commission voted 9-0 to approve the rezoning, then quickly followed with a 9-0 vote on a special approval request to use the property as an event center.
The Dougherty County Commission is expected to take up the issue at its work session Monday and could give final approval at its Dec. 16 business meeting.
Former city of Albany Community and Economic Development Director Latoya Cutts, who now works for New Communities, said the proposed master plan for the property could “drive true economic development to our area.”
Also at the meeting, the Planning Commission voted 9-0 to allow variances for construction of a columbarium on the interior face of a wall on property owned by St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. The variances will allow a 3-foot, 2-inch setback as opposed to the 30-foot setback required by city code and construction of a fence 96 inches high rather than the maximum 40 inches allowed by code.
St. Paul’s officials requested the variances when they learned construction of the columbarium and wall, which is roughly 85 percent complete, conflicted with code requirements.
“No one was more chagrined than we were to discover we were not doing things the right way,” St. Paul’s Priest Father Lee Lowery told the commission.
Board member Stephen Kaplan chided Planning staff for allowing another project to move forward, this one almost to completion, without proper procedure being followed.
“I can’t imagine anyone would have had an issue with this request if they’d come to us before they started, but my question is can we find a way to double check these matters before we get another situation where the cart is placed before the horse?” Kaplan said. “This is not a criticism, it’s designed to improve the process.”
Planning Director Paul Forgey said permission was granted for construction due to an “oversight,” but he said he is working to make sure Planning staff and other city departments involved in the process are aware of proper procedures for approval of such projects.