Monday, September 04, 2006

Written 8/30/06

Records Request Reveals Stormwater Negotiations

An open records request I filed earlier this month produced some interesting insights into the behind-the-scenes negotiations regarding the stormwater ordinance Oconee County passed on August 1.

The documents show that the state Environmental Protection Division scolded Oconee County for wanting to weaken its stormwater ordinance to satisfy developers. The County ignored that advice, however, and weakened the ordinance anyway. The EPD used the same arguments we used against the weakened ordinance. Luckily, our pressure resulted in a much stronger ordinance in the end.

Amy Morrison, stormwater/environmental coordinator for the county, indicated in a letter she wrote to the Land Use and Transportation Committee members on April 7, 2006, that she revised the ordinance originally presented to the public in September of 2005, at "the request of the BOC." BOC stands for Board of Commissioners.

The stormwater ordinance presented in 2005 applied state standards for stormwater management to the whole county; the revisions Ms. Morrison made in early 2006 greatly weakened the ordinance and restricted those standards to the already built out part of the county, labeled as "urbanized" by the EPD.

In a telephone conversation I had with Ms. Morrison on July 10, she said that she had been instructed to weaken the ordinance by her boss, Mike Leonas, the public works director. She said she was told by Mr. Leonas that the change was at the request of Melvin Davis, chairman of the BOC.

At the public hearing in October of 2005, no one asked that the stormwater ordinance be weakened. Ms. Morrison said in our telephone conversation, however, that the development community did not want the original stormwater ordinance because it would force builders to spend more money.

Shortly after I spoke with Ms. Morrison on July 10, I telephoned Mr. Leonas, and he confirmed that he had asked Ms. Morrison to make the changes in the original ordinance. He said Mr. Davis told him in a conversation some time after the public hearing on October 24, 2005, to change the ordinance. Mr. Leonas said he remembered that there had been an email message following the verbal request from Mr. Davis.

The open records request shows that Alan Theriault, administrative officer of the county, who, like Ms. Morrison and Mr. Leonas, works for Mr. Davis, sent an email message to Ms. Morrison on November 15, 2005, instructing her to make the changes in the ordinance. It was copied to Mr. Davis and Mr. Leonas.

In that message, Mr. Theriault said: "(Y)ou will begin the process of combining the 3 separate ordinance into a single document that pertains to the urbanized areas of the County only (italics in original)." Ms. Morrison also was told to proceed with a change in the original Notice of Intent that the county had filed with the EPD regarding the stormwater ordinance.

Lisa Perrett, environmental specialist at EPD, wrote to Mr. Davis on November 28, 2005, stating her displeasure with the change requested by Ms. Morrison. "EPD is greatly concerned with the proposed approach," she wrote.

Ms. Perrett said Oconee County, if it did not apply the state standards countywide, "may be allowing potentially inferior stormwater control measures to be utilized." She pointed out that the definition of the urbanized area of the county was based on the 2000 Census and that "the County has recently been experiencing a tremendous amount of growth." She continued: "(T)he majority of the currently defined urban area is already developed."

In sum, Ms. Perrett made all the same arguments with Mr. Davis that citizens did. Unfortunately, we didn’t know the letter existed until now.

The Perrett letter, in its entirety, is in the "library" on the web site of Friends of Barber Creek,


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