Planning Commission to PTC Council: ‘Say no to water park’

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UPDATED for print, Feb. 11, 2014 — Crowd insists Great Wolf tourist attraction bad fit for Dolce property; commissioners vote 5-0 against city planner’s recommendation

Just about everybody liked the company’s water parks, but nearly all of the standing-room-only crowd didn’t want a Great Wolf Lodge in the heart of Peachtree City.

The Peachtree City Planning Commission Monday night agreed with the majority filling the City Hall meeting room, unanimously voting against the water park company’s proposal to take over the Dolce conference center on Aberdeen Parkway and convert it into a tourist resort.

Next stop for the company: a public hearing Feb. 19 before the final decider, the City Council, and preliminary indications are the water park idea might be sinking.

Four of the five council members attended the Monday night hearing. Two of those four indicated afterwards the park was not a good fit for the leafy campus formerly known as Aberdeen Woods.

In the audience were Mayor Vanessa Fleisch and council members Kim Learnard, Mike King and Terry Ernst, who must hear from Great Wolf and the public next week.

“I don’t think it will fit,” King said in response to a question about his position.

“The people have spoken,” Ernst said.

Right, above, listening to the speakers Feb. 9 are (L-R) Mayor Vanessa Fleisch, Fayette County Commissioner David Barlow, Councilwoman Kim Learnard and Councilman Terry Ernst. Councilman Mike King is off-camera to the right, rear. Photo/John Thompson.

Residents from all five of the city’s villages had their say and got their way. The advisory commission on Feb. 9 sided with a large number of residents from the Preston Chase and The Coventry subdivisions as well as many residents from the other four villages in the city. The volunteer panel voted 5-0 to recommend denial of the rezoning request and variances that would establish a Great Wolf Lodge Family Resort on the property of the Dolce Atlanta-Peachtree Hotel and Resort on Aberdeen Parkway.

Most of the nearly 188 attending the Feb. 9 standing-room-only meeting were opposed to the rezoning request and the nearly 30 who spoke against the request overshadowed the three who spoke in support of the resort hotel and indoor water park. The city’s fire marshal did a head count of the crowd in case the occupancy limit of 198 was reached.

At the conclusion of the meeting that lasted nearly four hours, the vote by the commission was unanimous to recommend that the City Council deny the rezoning request that would have the 38.4-acre property rezoned from GC (general commercial) to LUC (limited use commercial).

City Planner David Rast recommended approval on the Great Wolf rezoning and requested variances.

At left, City Planning Director David Rast at Monday meeting. Photo/John Thompson.

The rezoning request is scheduled be heard by the City Council at a public hearing on Feb. 19.

Opponents cited increased but unstudied stormwater runoff from increased impervious parking areas, unprecedented building heights, unverified estimates of tax proceeds to local governments, noncompliance with the zoning requested, unfounded requests for variances, and a traffic study that seemed to ignore likely increased traffic for the proposed 14 retail venues, up from the current one, a restaurant.

Offering their perspective on the request, planning commissioners just prior to the vote cited concerns over the proximity of neighboring residences, setback requests that encroach into the buffer areas, the need for additional parking, stormwater issues and questions about the traffic study and estimated tax revenues as reasons to vote unanimously to recommend that the rezoning request be denied.

The proposal asked for three variances to be included with the rezoning that included reducing the stream buffer, reducing the 75-foot setback and buffer on the north side of the property to 40 feet for the water park building and related use and 20 feet for a proposed access drive and waiving requirements for additional stormwater management facilities for the existing impervious areas. The buffer reduction request has been modified somewhat, though an encroachment into the buffer is far from acceptable to residents.

It was the variance requests, along with other issues such as stormwater runoff, increased traffic, noise pollution, light pollution, decreased property values and not having Peachtree City become a tourist destination, that drew substantial comments from residents opposing the rezoning.

One of those speaking during public comments was Harvey George, president of The Coventry homeowners’ association (HOA), who asked that commissioners recommend disapproval of the rezoning application and the associated variances.

“The Peachtree City concept does not embrace the development of activities that primarily draw their patronage from outside the immediate area. For example, there are no car dealerships in the city,” George said. ”Great Wolf is not intended to serve Peachtree City and the immediate area. Its primary market is the Atlanta metro area. The business model could not be sustained if the market was just Peachtree City and the surrounding area. This project would be detrimental to the character of the site and the surrounding neighborhood.”

It is of note that a survey conducted by The Citizen in 2011 on the topic of who shops at The Avenue and adjacent commercial venues revealed that 54 percent of the shoppers resided in 21 other Georgia counties, including Gwinnett, Cobb and DeKalb.

Preston Chase subdivision has no HOA, though resident John Dufresne in his comments said he took the lead on the issue after some of the area’s residents gave him the go-ahead.

Dufresne questioned the legality of issues pertaining to encroachment into the setback. That encroachment is the reason for some of the variance requests that would lead to a service driveway behind two of the buildings and the extension of a portion of the water slide tubes extending from the proposed 54,000 sq. ft. indoor water park building.

“The Planning Commission should disapprove the variance requests based on the applicant’s not complying with our ordinances,” Dufresne said. “The applicant submitted three variance requests, but did not provide the required supporting documentation, specifically the detailed report justifying the variance as it pertains to the review criteria. Neither the city nor the public can assess the applicant’s reasons for the variances as they pertain to the review criteria.”

Below, Great Wolf rendition of proposed water slide structure.

Speaking on the issue in response to Dufresne’s comments, city attorney Ted Meeker said he and Senior Planner David Rast would “double-check” the ordinance to verify the language.

Dufresne said he did not see how the water slide tubes and support columns outside the building could be included as a permitted or a conditional use under LUC zoning.

Citing the parking required for guests, employees and the general public using the open amenities, Dufresne said he believed the facility would need more than 1,700 parking spaces.

By way of comparison, initial concept plans for The Avenue showed 757 parking spaces, according to city records.

In terms of suitability, Dufresne’s comment that “this project doesn’t fit the site,” was reflected in the comments of many of the speakers that followed.

Whether comments by George, Dufresne or the remainder of the 29 who spoke in opposition, and nearly all of whom received cheers and applause from the audience, it was the comment of resident Andy Yurchenko [corrected] that drew as much of a roar from the crowd as any when he said, “We don’t want to be the Six Flags of south Atlanta.”

Also at the meeting, Great Wolf representatives Alex Lombardi and Rodney Jones were joined by Brian Rochester, of Rochester and Associates, in answering a number of questions posed by residents.

Asked why Great Wolf chose the Peachtree City location so far off the expressway, Lombardi said the company considered a number of factors such as the overall demographics of the area in a 180-mile radius, the site and accompanying acreage and the proximity to market areas. Lombardi said some Great Wolf locations are not along expressways, adding that some are located in urban areas while others are more remote.

At left, Great Wolf representatives at the meeting. Photo/John Thompson.

Responding to a question about problems with teenagers on the property and out of the reach of parents who might go to bed early, Lombardi said the only teenagers are with their mom and dad and younger siblings since Great Wolf caters to children ages 2-12.

Asked about noise coming from the facility infrastructure, Jones explained the water park facility set-up is contained inside a three-floor “bunker building” constructed of concrete. He said noise has not been a factor with any of the company’s other facilities, including those in Boston and Grapevine, Texas, which are situated near residential areas.

Rochester offered a take on the 38-acre property currently occupied by Dolce, one he said seemed to be glossed-over by many.

“The property is zoned GC and is for sale. This is the part that is key,” Rochester said, adding his belief that the contentious part of the Great Wolf proposal for neighbors is the water park feature.

In terms of potential projects for the site if the City Council fails to approve the rezoning, the GC-zoned property is already zoned for nearly 75 different uses under the zoning designation. A sampling of those permitted uses that could not be turned down by the council include amusement centers, bars, restaurants, donation centers, automotive maintenance businesses, car washes, convenience stores and a large variety of other retail and office uses. Properties to the west and south are currently zoned commercial while properties to the north and east are zoned residential.

Rast in his report provided a detailed review of the history of the 38-acre site that included the original rezoning to GC in 1981 to permit the development of the property as the location of a Pitney Bowes training facility.

Regulations relating to the 75-foot transition yard buffer that is a sticking point for Preston Chase residents of the north side of the property, and a source of the a variance request, were adopted in 2009.

Regulations relating to the stream buffer ordinance were adopted in 2009, Rast said.

The proposal by Great Wolf Lodge of Georgia LLC requests the rezoning of the 38.4-acre property from GC (general commercial) to LUC (limited use commercial) to redevelop the property. In addition to the indoor water park and hotel, the application states that the property will include specialty restaurants, arcades, spas, fitness rooms and children’s activity areas.

Great Wolf Lodge currently operates 13 family-oriented, all-suites water park resorts. The only facility in the Southeast is located in Charlotte, N.C.

Great Wolf is proposing to operate a family-oriented destination resort operating from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m. each day which would include 398 guest rooms and a total of 173,615 sq. ft. of entertainment, retail, restaurant, meeting and support space.

Beyond the existing hotel and conference center buildings spread throughout the 38-acre property, Great Wolf is proposing to add a 54,800 sq. ft. indoor water park connected to the current conference center, a three-story hotel on the north side of the site, increased parking, two additional stormwater ponds and a possible patio off one of the existing restaurants.

In terms of the economic benefit to the city and county, Great Wolf said property taxes are estimated to total $108,000 while hotel/motel taxes are expected to generate $1.5 million. County property taxes are expected to total $433,000 while county and state sales taxes are estimated at $1.7 million.

Elements open to the public at the Peachtree City site would include the Bear Essential retail store, Buckhorn Exchange retail store, Northern Lights Arcade, Howlywood XD Theatre, Bear Paw Cafe, Hungry as a Wolf Pizza, MagiQuest live-action virtual gaming, Howl at the Moon mini-golf, Ten Paw Alley bowling, Loose Moose buffet restaurant, Wood Fire Lodge Grill, Dunkin Donuts, Scoops Children’s Spa, a ropes course and meeting rooms.

The resort is projected to employ up to 500 people during peak operating times. Dolce today employs 99 full-time equivalents.

The Great Wolf narrative stated that user demographics typically project five persons traveling from a distance of 200 miles by automobile and staying an average of 2-3 days.

As for the Dolce, there has been a recent change.

Wyndham Hotel Group, a subsidiary of Wyndham Worldwide, announced Feb. 2 it had acquired Dolce Hotels and Resorts, a leading provider and manager of group accommodations with a portfolio of 24 properties and over 5,500 guest rooms across seven countries in Europe and North America, for $57 million in cash, according to a company press release.

Dolce Atlanta-Peachtree currently operates the facility that includes 236 rooms and 65 meeting rooms in 178,593 sq. ft. of convention center space along with swimming pools, restaurants and tennis courts.

Contacted last week, Wyndham Worldwide Vice President for Marketing and Communications Michael Valentino said there are no current plans for any changes in the operation of the two Peachtree City hotels.

“This acquisition (of Dolce properties by the Wyndham Hotel Group) will have no immediate impact to any existing hotel in either the Dolce or Wyndham portfolios. The Peachtree hotels are independently owned franchised properties, and we look forward to growing the Dolce brand in the U.S. and around the world,” Valentino said.

The property on which Dolce is located is owned by Chicago-based Leeward Strategic Properties, Inc. Constructed in 1984, the current fair market value of the property and buildings is $8.155 million, according to the Fayette County Tax Assessor, down from the $30 million sale price in 2007. — Additional reporting by Cal Beverly.

Below, Peachtree City Planning Commission members (L-R) Lynda Wojcik, Phil Prebor, Frank Destadio, Aaron Daily and David Connor. At their rear is a drawing of part of the proposed Great Wolf resort. Photo/John Thompson.

[CORRECTION noted above changed the name of one of the speakers opposing the rezoning.]