Monday, October 23, 2017

Owners Of Reception Hall In South Of Oconee County Initiate Application For Business License After OCAF Event Moved

***Alcohol Permit Lacking***

The owners of The Farm at High Shoals, the horse barn turned reception hall between Bishop and North High Shoals, filed an application for a business license last week, according to B.R. White, director of Oconee County Planning and Code Enforcement Department.

That was more than a month after the Oconee County Board of Commissioners approved a rezone for just less than 5 acres, including the horse barn, to allow the owners of the 306-acre horse farm to continue to operate the reception hall business.

The submittal of the application followed by a few days the Oct. 15 Stem & Stein fundraising event held by the Oconee Cultural Arts Foundation in the parking lot in front of the OCAF building and at the Oconee County School System offices in downtown Watkinsville.

That event, formerly known as the OCAF Wine Festival, had been planned for The Farm but was moved after the county determined that its alcohol ordinance does not allow for temporary permits.

Rice Trust

The Laurie H. Rice Trust applied for the rezone to convert the 5 acres surrounding the horse barn from its agricultural classification to business on July 5.

Stein & Stem Moved Here

“In the past, the stables have been used for weddings, receptions, and other gatherings, and this type of use is increasing in demand,” the rezone narrative said. “This rezone request is necessary in order to formalize the adaptive re-use of the stables into a reception hall, and bring the use into compliance with the current Oconee County Zoning Ordinance.”

At the Oconee County Planning Commission meeting on Aug. 21, representatives of the Rice Trust said the owners had been using the barn as a reception hall for about two years.

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners approved the rezone at its meeting on September 5.

Safety Standards

Planning Commission member Maria Caudill asked about fire and safety standards for the barn when that group reviewed the rezone request at its Aug. 21 meeting.

“You have to remember that the building was first built as a stable,” Planning and Code Enforcement Director White said in reply. “Therefore, my guess is that it hasn’t been retrofitted to meet current fire and safety life saving codes.”

As part of the business license application review, the facility also will have to be reviewed by the Oconee County Environmental Health Department.

The structure was permitted as a stable with an apartment and completed in 2001.

The Farm is located at 5414 High Shoals Road.

Alcohol Request

Neither the lack of a business license–technically an Occupational Tax Certificate–nor code standards were the reason OCAF moved the event from The Farm to its own parking lot.

It was alcohol.

Alex Perschka, Oconee County Tourism director, sent County Clerk Kathy Hayes an email on Sept. 21 asking for Hayes’ help. Hayes administers the county’s alcohol ordinance.

“Cindy Farley, the Executive Director at OCAF, reached out to me this morning needed a letter from the county,” Perschka wrote to Hayes.

“Since tickets are sold and this event involves wine and beer tastings, OCAF is required to apply for a non-profit one time beer and wine permit from the State of GA Dept. of Revenue,” the email continued. “Their request must be accompanied by a letter from local government. When the event was held in Watkinsville the Mayor use do provide this letter.”

Background And Decision

Hayes told me in an email message on Tuesday that she informed Farley via telephone that the county’s Alcohol Ordinance “does not allow for temporary permits.”

I had filed an open records request for correspondence on OCAF’s request.

Once OCAF made the decision to return to within the city limits, it contacted Watkinsville City Clerk Julie Sanders for the letter for the Georgia Department of Revenue.

Watkinsville Mayor Connie Massey sent Farley a letter on Sept. 22.

The letter followed a template that Farley had given to Perschka and that was, Perschka said, based on OCAF’s experience with is annual Wine Tasting, held for the past 17 years on the grounds of Ashford Manor in Watkinsville.

Ashford Manor has decided to no longer host this type of event.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Oconee County Outperforming Clarke County In Early Voting For Nov. 7 Special House District Elections

***Forum Monday Night***

Houston Gaines, running to replace Republican Regina Quick, who stepped down in August as representative from Georgia House District 117, had a warning for the Oconee County Republicans who attended the party’s meeting in late September.

“We’ve got to work hard to keep this seat,” Gaines said of the 117th, which is dominated by Clarke County but includes parts of Oconee, Barrow and Jackson counties as well.

Ed Perkins, vice chair of the Oconee County GOP, underscored the importance to Oconee County Republicans of what Gaines had said.

“We all realize this is a special election, which means that it’s really all about voter turnout,” Perkins said.

“And with the T-SPLOST on the ballot in Clarke County, it is very likely that they will have a strong voter turnout. And that means it is just more and more important that here in Oconee County we get our folks out to vote.”

In the first week of early voting, turnout in both counties has been very low, but Oconee County is outperforming Clarke County in turnout both in the 117th and in the 119th, which is split equally between the two counties and has its own election on the ballot on Nov. 7.

Oconee County’s advantage over Clarke County in the 117th is extremely slight, and an analysis of voting in Oconee County last year shows that one of the three precincts that falls into the 117th had lower turnout rates than the county as a whole and is likely to hold down turnout on Nov. 7

The Athens-Clarke County Federation of Neighborhoods is hosting a forum for all six candidates in the two races from 6 to 8 p.m. tomorrow (Monday) in the auditorium of the Athens-Clarke County Library, 2025 Baxter Street, Athens. The two candidates for the 117th will go first in the program.

Turnout Light

Only 618 Clarke County voters cast a ballot by 4:30 p.m. on Friday, the final day of the first week of early voting, according to Charlotte Sosebee, director of elections and voter registration for the county.

Early Voting
Opposite Courthouse In Watkinsville

According to the Georgia Secretary of State records, the county had 72,833 registered voters on Oct. 1.

Final registration for the Nov. 7 special election closed on Oct. 10.

Based on the Oct. 1 figures, the 618 voters represent just less than 0.9 percent of those who can cast a ballot either in the final two weeks of early voting or on Nov. 7.

Early voting also will be possible from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Oct. 28.

Of Oconee County’s 27,428 eligible voters as of Oct. 1, 409, or 1.5 percent, went to the polls last week, according to Fran Davis, technical assistant in the Oconee County Board of Elections and Registration.

Turnout By House District

Clarke County makes up 56.4 percent of the 117th House District, based on the Oct. 1 registration files from the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office. The database includes both active and inactive voters, or voters subject to purge because of inactivity in recent elections.

Oconee County contributes 23.1 percent of the voters.

Based on the data for the first week of early voting, 271 of Clarke County voters were from the 117th, making up 1.3 percent of the 21,475 eligible voters.

For Oconee County, 119 of the early voters were in the 117th, making up 1.4 percent of the 8,803 eligible voters.

In the 119th, Clarke County had 173 of the 18,813 eligible voters turn out in the first week of early voting, or 0.9 percent.

Oconee County had 290 voters cast a ballot last week, or 1.6 percent of the 18,625 eligible.

Effect Of T-Splost

As Perkins told the Oconee County Republicans at the Sept. 28 meeting, Clarke County has an advantage over Oconee County in terms of reasons for voting.

Voters in Clarke County also are being asked to decide on a Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, and Winterville has contested city elections.

In Oconee, the 117th and 119th races are the only ones on the ballot except in Watkinsville, where a single council seat is being contested.

Yet turnout so far is just slightly higher in Oconee County.

In the 118th House District, which falls entirely in Clarke County and which does not have a special election on the ballot on Nov. 7, only 174 of the 32,545 eligible voters cast an early ballot, or 0.5 percent.

That 0.5 percent compares with the 1.3 percent turnout in early voting in Clarke County in the 117th and 0.9 percent in Clarke County in the 119th.

Holding A Seat

“This election is critical,” Gaines told the Oconee County Republicans in September, “because if we lose this seat, then, this is our strong foot in northeast Georgia. And they’re going to come after every single seat in the midterms next year.”

Gaines finds himself in a race with Deborah Gonzalez, a Democrat, who is attempting to reestablish that party’s claim to the 117th.

The district was reconfigured by the Republican controlled General Assembly in 2011 to make the district more Republican.

Doug McKillip had been elected as a Democrat in what had been a traditionally Democratic district, but McKillip changed parties after being elected.

During redistricting, three precincts in Oconee County–Athens Academy, Malcom Bridge and Bogart--were added to the district, along with parts of Barrow and Jackson counties.

Quick defeated McKillip in the 2012 Republican primary, and the district has not had a Democratic challenger since.

Lines A Blur

Prior to the 2011 redistricting, all of Oconee County had been in a single House District, and the precinct divisions are pretty meaningless to most voters.

Signs At Hog Mountain Road And Daniells Bridge Road

In fact, campaign signs for the current campaign seem to ignore them.

Three Republicans, all from Oconee County, are running against each other and against a lone Democrat in the special election for the 119th. Republican Chuck Williams stepped down from the seat after being named at the end of the summer as director of the state Forestry Commission.

On my way down U.S. 441 from Hog Mountain Road to the Clarke County border last week, I observed signs for Tom Lord and Marcus Wiedower as well as for Gaines.

The area is solidly in Gaines’ district, though it is a high traffic area for much of the county.

At the northwestern corner of Hog Mountain Road and Daniells Bridge Road, another high traffic area, Gaines and Wiedower have signs, though that property is in the 119th, which Wiedower, but not Gaines, is contesting.

The third Republican is Steven Strickland, and the Democrat, also from Oconee County, is Jonathan Wallace.

Demographic Differences

Democrat Wallace most likely will need a strong showing in Clarke County to make it to an almost certain runoff in the 119th.

If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two voter getters will meet again in December.

The analysis I did of the demographic differences between the counties that make up the 119th as well as the 117th shows that, consistent with its history, Clarke County is likely to be more favorable to the Democratic candidates on Nov. 7.

Barrow County contributes 9.1 percent of the registered voters to the 117th, and Jackson County contributes 11.3 percent.

Parts of Statham fall into the 117th, and the city has a contested election on the ballot on Nov. 7. Barrow County also has a renewal of its Special Purpose Local Option Sales tax on the Nov. 7 ballot.

Jackson County voters have no reason other than to vote in the 117th to bring them to the polls on Nov. 7.

That is what Oconee County is so important to Gaines in terms of turnout.

Williams never had Democratic opposition in the 119th, which also became much more dependent on Clarke County voters in redistricting than its predecessor district was.

Clarke had 50.3 percent of the registered voters on Oct. 1, with the remaining 49.7 percent in Oconee.

2016 Election As Indicator

Russell Edwards, an Athens attorney who is past chair of the Athens-Clarke County Democratic Committee, has emphasized the possibility of Democratic success in both the 117th and 119th in public comments he has made, referencing the 2016 Presidential election vote.

Gaines And Gonzalez At Candidate Forum 10/9/2017

I asked Edwards for the source of his data, and he directed me to a publicly available, national data file on vote by legislative districts that is on the web site of Daily Kos, which labels itself as a liberal medium.

No similar data file is publicly available on the Secretary of State web site, but I was able to compare the Daily Kos figures with those for Oconee County. The match was perfect.

The data show that President Donald Trump got 49.4 percent of the vote in 2016 in the 117th, compared to 46.1 percent for Hillary Clinton.

The Trump percentages for the parts of the district from the four counties were: Barrow, 69.6 percent; Clarke, 33.8 percent; Jackson, 73.4 percent; and Oconee, 64.8 percent.

In the 119th, Trump got 51.1 percent of the vote, compared with 43.9 percent for Clinton, but the percentage for Trump in Clarke County was 30.8, and in Oconee County it was 68.5.

In the 118th House District, Trump got only 23.9 percent of the vote, compared with 72.3 percent for Clinton.

The data confirm that redistricting made the 117th more Republican, but the advantage for Republicans is slight, making turnout so very crucial on Nov. 7.

That was the message Gaines and Perkins gave the Oconee County Republicans on Sept. 28.

Who Votes?

Back in January, I purchased the publicly available registered voter file for Oconee County from the Secretary of State Office so I could examine who are those most likely to turn out in elections.

In my analysis, I eliminated those who had not registered by the beginning of the March Presidential Primary. I also eliminated those who have been labeled as inactive because they have not voted recently.

I then created a score for each of the four elections held during the year: the Presidential Primary in March, the primary elections in May, the general election in November, and the runoff in December.

Each vote was scored as 1, so each voter could have a score of from 0 to 4 for the year, depending on the number of elections in which she or he voted.

I only got around to doing the analyses of the data last week, and they show that the overall score on the voting total for the county was 1.84. In percentages, this means that only 10.4 percent of the county’s voters last year voted in all four elections.

Differences Of Note

Young voters had a lower voting score than older voters. Those born 1997 and 1998 had a score of 1.29. Those born 1946 or earlier had a score of 2.32.

Female and male voters didn’t differ in terms of their vote score.

White voters had a much higher score than all of the other racial and ethnic groups. The score for White voters was 1.83, compared with 1.14 for Asian and Pacific Islanders, 1.3 for Black Non-Hispanic voters, and 1.3 for Hispanic voters.

Precinct also made a difference.

Overall, as noted, the score on the voting measure was 1.84, but it was 1.73 in Bogart, one of the three precincts in Oconee County that falls in the 117th.

It was 1.88 in Malcom Bridge, or just a bit above the average, and 1.92 in Athens Academy, or considerably above the average.

Gerrymandering

At the candidate forum on Oct. 9, one of the citizens asked Gaines and Gonzalez about gerrymandering, or the creation of districts for the gain of the politicians.

“Our district looks sort of like Pac Man,” Gaines said. “ I think you can say this district is gerrymandered.”

Gaines said the General Assembly should address the problem.

Gonzalez said the state needs an independent redistricting commission, since both parties have been guilty of redistricting.

“We cannot have representatives who are selecting their voters,” Gonzalez said. “That’s not the way our system was supposed to be set up. Our system was set up so that voters choose their representatives.”

The 2011 gerrymandering of the 117th and the 119th is front and center in the Nov. 7 special elections, as Gaines and Perkins told Oconee County Republicans in late September, though neither used the word.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Oconee County Exploring Collaboration With Athens-Clarke County As One Option For Sewer Capacity Expansion, Citizens Told

***Town Hall Meeting***

Oconee County is exploring collaboration with Athens-Clarke County for future wastewater treatment, Oconee County Commission Chair John Daniell told a small group of citizens this week at a Town Hall meeting in Oconee Veterans Park.

“We’ve had different conversations since I’ve been in office,” Daniell said in response to a question asking if the commissioners had “met with Clarke County to discuss wastewater?”

Wastewater treatment was the most prominent topic at the meeting with citizens, which followed a public hearing on the environmental impact of the expansion of the Calls Creek wastewater plant from its currently allowed 1 million gallons per day of discharge to 1.5 million gallons per day.

As the Town Hall meeting progressed on Wednesday evening and Daniells and his fellow commissioners responded to questions, Daniells said the county has set as a long-term goal the building a Rails-To-Trails pathway from Watkinsville to Madison along an unused rail line that parallels U.S. 441.

Daniell said he expects to start work on the Rails-To-Trails project in January.

Variety Of Questions

Only about a dozen citizens attended the meeting in Veterans Park, and the session became more of a round table discussion than a question-and-answer session.

Seven different citizens posed something in the neighborhood of 22 different questions during the 70-minute session.

It is hard to count the exact number of questions because of the back-and-forth nature of the exchange.

Questions were posed about the need for a full-time Commission Chair, about the value of the Industrial Development Authority, and about Mars Hill Road, Simonton Bridge Road and the Connector and SR 316 interchange.

The citizens also asked about the possibility of Costco coming to the county and about county staffing and departmental structure.

Wastewater Treatment

Tony Greco, one of the organizers of Friends of Calls Creek, asked the first question about the wastewater plant just a little more than 10 minutes into the meeting.

John Daniell At Town Hall Meeting 10/18/2017

Greco wanted to know the county’s plans for the Calls Creek plant beyond the expansion to 1.5 million gallons per day, which is underway.

Daniell said the county is working on a master plan at present, but he also said the county isn’t committed to expanding capacity in the future beyond the 1.5 million gallons per day.

“If we built a 10 million (gallon) plant we could fill it up,” Daniell said. “Just because there is demand for wastewater doesn’t mean it is going to be there for people when they need it,” he said.

“The extra 500 (gallons per day at Calls Creek) gives us some additional time to figure out what the next step is,” Daniell said in response to a subsequent question from Greco. “The question out there, too, is what’s the max number of sewer we want to treat?”

The county had proposed building a pipeline down Calls Creek to the Middle Oconee River to discharge treated sewage beyond the 1.5 million gallons per day limit set by the state.

Residents of the neighborhoods along the creek have been outspoken in opposition to that plan.

Partnerships

Pam Hendrix asked if the county has “truly explored working with Clarke County” on sewer capacity.

Athens-Clarke County has a sewer plant on the Middle Oconee River just across from Oconee County.

“We are always looking for opportunities to work together with interregional,” Daniell said. “There are lots of factors that go into that. Have we looked at it? Yes. Will we keep pursuing it? Every step, every chance we get, we’re going to keep trying.”

Greco then asked if “you have met with Clarke County to discussion wastewater?”

Stand On Own If Necessary

Daniell would not elaborate beyond confirming that he has had “different conversations since I’ve been in office.”

“If we can work it out, we’ll do it. If we can’t, we’re going to stand on our own two feet,” Daniell said.

“There’s all kinds of schools of thought on what to do there,” Daniell said. “But we’ll keep exploring any opportunities we’ve got to work with out neighbors, whether its Clarke or Oglethorpe or whoever it is.

“But we’re going to keep working toward being self-sufficient as well until that solution comes up,” he said.

Other Answers

Daniell told Hendrix that “right now” the county needs a full-time Chair as well as a county administrator, but he is willing to revisit the question in the future.

Commissioners Chuck Horton, Mark Thomas and Mark Saxon agreed. Commissioner William “Bubber” Wilkes did not attend the session.

Daniell said the county is not considering reducing the number of county employees.

He also said the county does not rely simply on fiscal calculations in making decisions about what is right for the county.

Daniell defended the record of the Industrial Development Authority.

Mars Hill Road

Daniell also defended the decision to rely on the state for the widening of Mars Hill Road, even though that meant following state and federal regulations for the roadway.

“That’s a project this government could never have funded on its own,” he said.

Daniell said “Mars Hill Road has been a thoroughfare since my granddaddy drove his one-mule wagon down it” and that he had relied on the road to get to Athens when he was a child growing up in the county.

No plans are active for an upgrade to Simonton Bridge Road or to the intersection of that road and Main Street in Watkinsville, Daniell said.

Engineering work for a multi-grade intersection of the Oconee Connector and SR 316 should start in 2019, he said.

Rails-To-Trails And Costco

Hendrix said she wants to see the county develop a bike trail on the rail line running through the center of the county.

James Kizer at Public Hearing On Calls Creek Expansion

“That’s on our long-term goals,” Daniell said. “We’re with you on that.”

“The first thing we are going to pursue is to get the Rails-To-Trails on the existing line,” he said. “That’s a long-term project, though.”

“Costco will come when Costco is ready,” Daniell told Dave Jackson, who asked for a status report on rumors the membership-only warehouse club is coming to Epps Bridge Centre.

Daniell said other sites in the county also are being considered by the retailer.

Public Hearing

The public hearing on the Calls Creek expansion started at 5 p.m. in the same meeting room at the Community Center in Oconee Veterans Park as the Town Hall meeting, which started at 6 p.m.

Fifteen people showed up to a technical presentation by James Kizer Jr., president of Constantine Engineering of North Charleston, S.C., of an Environmental Information Document his firm produced for the Oconee County Utility Department in support of its expansion of the Calls Creek plant.

The session was a public hearing on the document as required by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division.

Kizer said that although the state was increasing the amount of water it will allow the county to release into Calls Creek, the standards for the discharge actually are more stringent than those in place at present.

Commissioners Daniell, Horton, and Saxon attended the meeting.

Video

I attended the Public Hearing on the report by Constantine Engineering, and it is below.

OCO: Utility Department Meeting 10 18 17 from Lee Becker on Vimeo.

Sarah Bell recorded the video of the Town Hall Meeting.

The question about the need for a full-time Commission Chair and a county administrator is at 1:25 in the video below.

The questions about wastewater treatment begin at 11:25 in the video and continue through 38:20.

The question about Mars Hill Road, which then digressed into a discussion of Rails-To-Trails, begins at 41:20.

The question about Costco is at 53:56.

Discussion of Simonton Bridge Road begins at 56:30.

The discussion of the Industrial Development Authority begins at 1:05:56.

OCO: BOC Town Hall Meeting 10 18 17 from Lee Becker on Vimeo.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Questions On Trump Again Prominent In Oconee County Candidate Forum For Two Open Georgia House Seats

***Created Spark In 117th Race***

Donald Trump played a role in the candidate forum for the Nov. 7 special elections for House Districts 117 and 119 held tonight (Tuesday) at the Oconee County campus of the University of North Georgia, as he did in a forum last week.

In response to a question about Trump’s behavior as President, the three Republican candidates in the race for House District 119 strongly endorsed Trump, though Steven Strickland did say he had problems with 5 percent of what Trump does.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Clarke County Dominates Both House Districts 117 And 119 And Brings Different Demographics From Those Of Oconee County

***Registration Analysis Confirms***

Clarke County voters are dominant in Georgia House District 117 and make up a very slight majority of voters in the 119th Georgia House District, an analysis of voter registration data as of Oct. 1 shows.

Clarke County voters also differ demographically from those in Barrow, Jackson and Oconee counties, who share the 117th, and from voters in Oconee County, who share the 119th, the analysis of the registration data confirms.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Speakers Tell Oconee County Board Of Education They Oppose Reassignment From Malcom Bridge Elementary School

***Is Move Necessary?***

Eleven people spoke at the Oconee County Board of Education Listening Session on elementary school redistricting last week, and none of them was in favor of the plan put forward by Oconee County Schools.

The proposal calls for creation of a new elementary school district north and west of U.S. 78 to accommodate the new Dove Creek Elementary School under construction on Hog Mountain Road near the Barrow County line.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Georgia House Candidates Address Wide Range Of Issues In Forum At Oconee County's Veterans Park

***Both Parties Represented***

The candidates on Monday night fielded questions on campus carry, healthcare, religious freedom, President Donald Trump and a variety of other matters.

The three candidates running as Republicans in Georgia House District 119 agreed in their responses to most of the questions, while the lone Democrat in the Nov. 7 special election politely differentiated his views from those expressed by the others.