Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Written 10/17/2007

Rare Chance to See Elder Mill, Other Sites

Oconee County residents will get a rare chance on Saturday to tour a part of southern Oconee County that, to date, has been spared from development and that contains a number of important historical sites.

Unfortunately, the area is threatened, and the Board of Commissioners has yet to take any action to protect it.

The Elder family will be directing people to family sites in the County, such as the Elder Mill Covered Bridge on Rose Creek, Elder Mill, and two family cemeteries. Maps for the sites will be available Saturday at the Elder shop, between the courthouse and the Haygood House on Main Street in Watkinsville.

Watkinsville is the site of the Saturday’s Oconee Fall Festival, and the Elder family will hold a reunion at the Watkinsville shop. The public is invited.

Cokey Elder, a senior member of the family, said the mill, located on Rose Creek near the covered bridge, will be open for viewing as part of the tour.

Only the bridge, which carries limited traffic across Rose Creek on Elder Bridge Road just south of SR15, is owned by the County. The surrounding land and the mill are in private hands.

The BOC discussed creating a park that would include the bridge and at least some surrounding property in a closed-door session on September 4. No details of the discussion or of the proposed park have been released to the public.

After returning to regular session from the closed-door discussions on September 4, the BOC voted to continue to pursue a grant from the Georgia Land Conservation Program to help create the park, but the BOC refused to allocate any funds to support the application.

Following that closed-door session, according to the minutes, "On motion by Commissioner (Chuck) Horton and second by Commissioner (Jim) Luke, the Board voted unanimously to continue with the GLCP grant request for the proposed Elder Mill Park as originally submitted, providing no monetary funding obligation from the County, only in-kind funding."

According to the historical marker at the Elder Bridge, it was built in 1897 and carried the Watkinsville-Athens road across Calls Creek, which flows from Watkinsville to the Middle Oconee River north of Watkinsville.

The 99-foot-long bridge was moved to its present location in 1924. The bridge is made entirely of wood, and its planks are held together with wooden pegs.

The grist mill, just downstream from the bridge, was built about 1900 and stopped operating in 1941, according to the marker at the bridge. It contains many of the original inner workings of the mill.

Rose Creek between the bridge and mill flows over large rocks, creating a shoal, and is surrounded by large hardwoods.

Some of the key tracts of land surrounding the bridge and mill are designated by the County as protected in the proposed new land use map. The County largely ignores its current land use map, and it could ignore the new one should it be adopted.

Any development along Elder Bridge Road or Saxon Road would be a threat to the bridge, as it can handle very limited traffic.

Some of the property is certainly attractive for development. A subdivision already has been laid out on SR 15 between Watkinsville and the site.

According to Georgia open meeting laws, the BOC was allowed to go into a secret session if it was "discussing the future acquisition of real estate."

The BOC is still required to prepare "minutes of such a meeting; provided, however, the disclosure of such portions of the minutes as would identify real estate to be acquired may be delayed until such time as the acquisition of the real estate has been completed, terminated, or abandoned or court proceedings with respect thereto initiated."

According to the law, the minutes of the closed session "shall reflect the names of the members present and the names of those voting for closure, and that part of the minutes shall be made available to the public as any other minutes."

If the closed meeting is devoted only in part to discussion of land acquisition, "any portion of the meeting not subject to any such exception, privilege, or confidentiality shall be open to the public, and the minutes of such portions not subject to any such exception shall be taken, recorded, and open to public inspection."

The law states that "Any person knowingly and willfully conducting or participating in a meeting in violation of this chapter shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction shall be punished by a fine not to exceed $500.00."

So far, the County has not released the minutes of the closed session, nor has it indicated who joined the BOC in the session.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Written 10/08/2007

Water on the Mind

The drought seems finally to have focused almost everyone’s attention on water, or the lack of it.

Consider the following:

*The local papers contain stories nearly every day on the possibility that Oconee and its neighboring counties will run out of water before the end of the year and on the actions local officials have taken in the hopes that the water lasts at least that long.

*Local partners of the state-wide Georgia Water Coalition will hold a meeting from 6 to 8 p.m. on Thursday (October 11) at the Foundry Park Inn Ballroom, 295 E. Dougherty St., in Athens to discuss the state’s first-ever effort to create a water plan for Georgia.

*Oconee County officials are using the drought to justify the County’s decision to join with Walton County to build the $350 million Hard Labor Creek reservoir in Walton County.

The discussion hasn’t focused much attention yet on what local officials could have done to prevent the current crisis or on whether the actions now being taken will prevent such a crisis from occurring again in the future.

An editorial in the October 7 issue of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, however, has started pointing fingers.

The villain is a mismatch between the water resources of the state and the demands being placed on those resources by development, according to the editorial.

"Georgians can no longer pretend that unchecked growth and the profligate water consumption it fosters can continue indefinitely without exacting a heavy toll," according to the editorial.

The current crisis, the editorial argues, is partly the result of the state’s "unwillingness to recognize the impact of our actions on the state’s limited water resources."

The Hard Labor Creek reservoir project is an interesting case to consider. This reservoir is not designed to address current needs, but rather to provide for future development in the County.

Hard Labor Creek was projected to cost Oconee County $45.6 million in January of 2007, $48.2 million on September 4, when the intergovernmental contract was approved by the Oconee County Board of Commissioners, and $49.8 million on October 4 when the BOC voted to approve a bond contract to cover its portion of the costs.

Only Commissioner Chuck Horton voted against the bond motion, which actually authorized up to $66 million in bond sales, in case the current estimate of $49.8 million is too low. That figure includes $2.9 million Oconee County owes Walton County for money already spent.

The County didn’t even know how much it owed Walton County for past spending when the BOC approved the intergovernmental agreement a month earlier. And the figure, the BOC was told on October 4 by County Attorney Dan Haygood, is still not based on audited expenses, so it could go higher.

Charlie Baugh, president of Citizens for Oconee’s Future and a former Internal Revenue Service auditor, estimates that at 4.4% interest, the County would actually pay $119 million over 30 years for the $66 million, should it borrow that amount.

On September 4, Commissioner Margaret Hale joined Horton in opposing the intergovernmental agreement. Board of Commission Chairman Melvin Davis had to break the tie by joining Commissioners Jim Luke and Don Norris in supporting the agreement.

Whether the final cost is $49.8 million, $66 million, or something even higher, it is supposed to be paid for by growth in the demand for water in the county resulting from future development. Specifically, the demand for water must growth at the rate of at least 8% per year to pay for the reservoir. At present, the County’s population is growing at less than 3% per year.

Most of the water the Oconee County Utility Department sells to its current customers comes from another reservoir, on Bear Creek in Jackson County. Despite the lingering drought, officials from the four counties that run the reservoir–Clarke, Barrow, Jackson and Oconee–did not take dramatic steps to save water until September 13.

On that date, the Upper Oconee Basin Water Operations Committee voted to issue a total ban on outdoor watering effective four days later.

The Committee was just a step ahead of the state. Dr. Carol A. Couch, director of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, banned outdoor residential water use on September 28 for the four counties and most of the rest of the northern part of the state.

According to former BOC Chairman Wendell Dawson, who says he obtained invoices from the Oconee County Utility Department, Oconee County even sold Walton County 11.3 million gallons of water for a 34-day billing period ending September 27, 2007. According to Dawson, Oconee County sold 87.1 million gallons of water to Walton County in the last six months, when the drought was firmly in place.

So why were Oconee and other officials so slow to take action as the drought progressed?

Selling water is how the counties get the money to build and operate reservoirs and water treatment plants.

For reasons that probably only The Oconee Enterprise editors understand, the paper has given former Oconee County Utility Department head Gary Dodd space for a column in the paper now that he is retired. In addition to using the column to attack critics of the department he headed until this summer, he also is using the column to brag about his accomplishments.

In his October 4, 2007, column, he bragged about the following: "(T)he Utility Department has operated in the black , without a price increase on consumption for the past 8 eights." Not coincidentally, Dodd was Utility Department director during those years.

It is difficult to balance the budget if people stop using water, either because of a ban on watering or because of an imposition of conservation pricing, which pushes down demand by charging a higher rate at higher levels of water consumption. Oconee County does not use conservation pricing.

The impact of the present ban on outdoor watering on water sales and on Oconee County’s ability to pay its expenses through water sales has not been a topic for open discussion just yet. Jackson County, even before the current ban, however, ran into problems making its payments on its indebtedness because of inadequate revenue, according to reporting in the Athens Banner-Herald late this summer.

Counties have few options to make up for lost sales. They can increase water rates, or they can shift the burden onto property owners through higher property taxes.

To pay off current indebtedness and then to finance construction of the Hard Labor Creek reservoir, Oconee County projects it will need for water sales to increase the 8% each year. That includes 2007. Given the current water ban, growth of any sort is unlikely in 2007.

Which helps to explain why the County was so slow in going to the total ban.

Anyone who might have doubted that the decision to move forward with the Hard Labor Creek reservoir was based on a desire to stimulate development only needed to attend the September 4 BOC Meeting.

Amrey Harden, president of Oconee State Bank, Chuck Williams, president of North Georgia Bank, and Charles Grimes, president of the Oconee County Chamber of Commerce, each took their turn to urge the Commissioners to go forward with the project to promote development.

The message likely was directed at Horton and Hale, who still voted against the project. They probably can expect some candidates who got the point to run against them in next Spring’s Republican primary.

The BOC makes lots of routine decision that also have impact on water sales. On August 7 the Board voted (with Horton and Luke in the minority) to approve a rezone request for a development including 196 houses on Old Barnett Shoals road in the far eastern part of the County.

Included was the agreement to extend a water line across the Oconee River to the development. The availability of water will open this area up for additional rezone requests.

The BOC, the current water ban shows, was offering to sell water it doesn’t always have.

The same can be said for efforts of Oconee and Clarke counties to lure a big manufacturer to the Orkin Tract on U.S. 78 and S.R. 316. Included in offers have been the agreement to provide both water and sewage services.

The Georgia legislature mandated the creation of a statewide Water Management Plan back in 2004.

The Georgia Water Coalition, an alliance of over 110 organizations committed to ensuring that water is managed fairly for all Georgians and protected for future generations, has been in existence since 2002.

The Coalition has asked the state to set safe levels of withdrawal from the state’s streams to guarantee their biological, chemical, and physical integrity. The goal is to leave the streams with the water necessary to keep the ecosystems functioning properly. The Coalition wants to require local governments to evaluate and implement conservation measures before increased water withdrawals are allowed.

In sum, the Coalition wants to focus on conservation and maintenance of stream flow, rather than simply allowing the government that gets the water into a reservoir first to have what it wants.

Friends of Barber Creek is part of the Georgia Water Coalition.

The meeting on Thursday, October 11, will give citizens a chance to learn about the state’s Water Management Plan and Coalition efforts to make sure that water conservation, rather than simply water consumption, are taken into consideration.

Governments that promote and finance their development through the sale of water aren’t very likely to make conservation a top priority, as the current response to the drought illustrates.