Judy Gordon hopes Burks Mountain never changes.
The retired Augusta State University biology professor says she's concerned about a county proposal to pave Burks Mountain Road, which runs along the southern edge of the unique rock outcropping in northeastern Columbia County near Pollards Corner.
The professor said she is afraid a portion of the paving could damage the mountain and the rare rocks and plant life found on it and that, once paved, a door could open for new residential or commercial construction.
"My biggest concern is, once it's paved, it's open to development," Gordon said.
Burks Mountain has been the subject of research by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, The Nature Conservancy, universities and even the federal government for many years, said Jon Ambrose, of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
On Burks Mountain, "you have significant vegetation that is (geographically) out of place," Ambrose said. "Plants typically found on the coastal plain are found on Burks Mountain."
On Feb. 17, Gordon persuaded the Columbia County Planning Commission to table the county's plan until it is determined what impact the project would have on the site and to gauge how receptive property owners would be to placing their land into a conservation easement.
Currently, the $1 million paving project, which is one of 46 dirt roads the county would like to have paved, is divided into two phases, said county preconstruction engineer Ronnie Hutto.
The first phase would pave the road from Washington Road to Rosemont Road, and a second phase is to pave Burks Mountain Road beyond Rosemont Road to its end, Hutto said.
Gordon said it's the second phase, which curls along the mountain and might require straightening of the road, that concerns her.
"Part of that straightening (might) involve going through an old quarry ... and that might be of historic interest," Gordon said.
In addition to healthy longleaf pine forests, the Burks Mountain area is the only place in the Georgia Piedmont that is home to two state-protected plants: Georgia plume and pineland Barbara buttons, Ambrose said. The Burks Mountain area also is the only known home to the "Dixie Mountain breadroot," a plant that is new to science, Ambrose said.
That unique biology is a direct result of the mountain's unique geology, said Criss Capps, an associate professor of geology at Augusta State.
The area has minerals containing magnesium, which were mined from the mountain in the 1940s, and samples have indicated there is some nickel and chromium but not in economically valuable concentrations, Capps said.
"These metals prevent or retard the growth of most plants and so produce the serpentine barren community at Burks Mountain," Capps said.
"Studies by geologists ... show that the original rock types at Burks Mountain are similar to rocks occurring at great depths within Earth's mantle or lower oceanic crust," Capps said.
How Burks Mountain and similar rocks formed is poorly understood, Capps said.
An investigation into any potential impact of the area is in its initial stages, Hutto said, and his department would be willing to work with Gordon to determine what harm paving might cause.
But even with careful planning, change could still come to Burks Mountain, Gordon said.
"If they pave it and people who own this land decide to sell for development, that's going to impact the mountain," Gordon said.
Robert Pollard Jr., an owner of much of the land around Burks Mountain, said Friday that he was unaware of the paving project and had no plans to sell or develop his land. Development might arise in the future, and he decided against placing his parcels into a conservation easement, he said.
Currently, the property around Burks Mountain is zoned general industrial and residential agricultural, with a segment zoned special, which permits churches and schools.
At the Feb. 17 planning commission meeting, planning director Jeff Browning said his department had not received any applications to rezone property along Burks Mountain Road.
He added that any rezoning request should conform to the Growth Management Plan and would therefore be low-density.
The Burks Mountain Road issue is scheduled to go before county planning commissioners next at their 6:30 p.m. Thursday meeting at the Evans Government Complex.
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