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.

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