Thursday, February 15, 2007

Written 2/15/2007

Most Important Decision Since 2002

No other decision the Oconee County Board of Commissioners has made since it decided to begin offering residential sewage service in late 2002 is likely to be as important as the decision the Board will be considering on Tuesday, February 20.

At that meeting, the Board, it now appears, will be asked to join Walton County in a reservoir project on Hard Labor Creek that will cost more than $100 million in 2007 dollars.

The 2002 decision on sewers has led to the hyperdevelopment now taking place in the County, with the 900-home Parkside master plan development project now coming online a prime example. Parkside, which lies between Mars Hill and Hog Mountain roads, will funnel even more traffic onto those already stressed thoroughfares and send more students to overcrowded schools.

A decision to spend more than $100 million on a reservoir will spur more development, probably along U.S. 441, since the corridor between Hog Mountain Road and SR 316 now is nearly built out. This new development, in turn, will further stress County resources, such as the schools, the sheriff’s office and the volunteer fire service.

Huge infrastructure projects such as the planned sewage plant on Rocky Branch Road and the reservoir are billed as a response to development, but they are actually the cause of it. In order to pay for the sewers, the County passed a master plan development ordinance to encourage high-density development.

I remember a conversation I had with Wayne Provost, then head of planning in the County and now director of strategic and long-range planning, when the MPD was being discussed. "Not everyone wants a house with a three-quarter acre lot," he said. The County needed to allow higher density projects in order to continue to develop, the argument went.

The sewers were to spur development, not respond to it.

In order to pay for the water reservoir to be discussed on Tuesday night, the County will have to run water to parts of the County not presently served, such as to the south along U.S. 441. The water lines will be to encourage future development, since only with such development will the County be able to pay for the reservoir.

County officials don’t like to talk about infrastructure development in this way. They always say development is inevitable and they must respond to it. My guess is they know most people are not in favor of the break-neck pace of development they have brought to the County.

Elected officials also know that few voters like tax increases, which infrastructure projects usually require.

At the January 17 meeting held to discuss water options, no one could–or would--answer questions about how the projects would be financed. In an article in the February 15 edition of The Oconee Leader, Board Chairman Melvin Davis offered only options, including the spending of special interest tax revenues, rather than a specific plan.

A glance around the County gives a sense of how quickly tax revenues are being spent. We have a new jail under construction. A new recreational facility is in the works. If the County gets its permit to begin dumping treated sewage water into Barber Creek, it will begin construction of a new sewage plant.

The February 15 issue of the Athens Banner-Herald indicates that the County may be asking for tax increases in the future to spend on much needed road improvements.

To lessen the burden on those of us already living here, County officials will encourage construction of even more residential units, even though residential development does not produce tax revenue sufficient to offset its demand for services.

The cycle will then continue. The increase in water coming into the County will bring about the need for larger sewage plants and more roads and more schools and more jails and a larger courthouse and bigger roads. And more sewage water being dumped into such streams as Barber Creek.

The irony is that most of us moved to Oconee County in the hopes that some of the rural character and quality of life that brought us here would be retained.

Melvin Davis, who is both the chief County executive and chairman of the legislative body, the Board of Commissioners, is the one pushing for a decision now on the reservoir project. In fact, he has been the chief advocate for most of the development projects in the County. The article in The Leader makes it clear he wants the Board of Commissioners to join the Hard Labor Creek reservoir project in Walton County.

Wouldn’t it be nice if the four members of the Commission told him it was time to slow down, consider all the options, examine some of the smaller reservoir projects on the table, and give some serious thought to water conservation?

I urge you to write to the Commissioners immediately and encourage them to show some independence. One option would be for them to appoint a citizen group to review the different reservoir plans. The County at present is relying on the advice of consultants who stand to gain most from big projects.

Here is the contact information for the Commissioners:

Jim Luke,
Don Norris,
Margaret Hale,
Chuck Horton,

If at all possible, attend the meeting on the 20th and tell the Commissioners how you feel about the pace of development in the County and the need for a go-slow approach to such a mammoth project. Bring a neighbor or two if you can. The meeting starts at 7 p.m.

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