Sunday, September 21, 2008

Greene County Site Picked for Oconee County Mitigation

Oconee Options Exist

The developer planning to build the $76 million shopping center on Epps Bridge Parkway expects to mitigate the damage to wetlands and streams on that site by restoring streams and wetlands in Greene County, but at least two options now exist for mitigation here in Oconee County.

The developer, The Bishop Company, has received approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to use the Greene County site to compensate for the damage in Oconee County, according to the Oconee County Planning Department Staff Report.

Frank Bishop, representing the company, told the Oconee County Planning Commission at its Aug. 18 meeting that his company had searched for mitigation sites in Clarke County without success and could not find "affordable" land in Oconee County for this purpose.

Planning Commission member Bruce MacPherson questioned Bishop about that decision, noting that the Northeast Georgia Regional Development Center (NEGRDC) criticized the project because it did not mitigate damages in the local geographic area impacted by the development.

NEGRDC concluded that the shopping mall project was "not in the best interest of the region and therefore the state" and that "the negative impacts of the project outweighed the positive economic impacts and job creation."

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners postponed a public hearing on the proposal and its required zoning change at its Sept. 2 meeting and has rescheduled that hearing for 7 p.m. on Oct. 7.

During the time the proposed Epps Bridge Centre shopping mall project has been under review, two new mitigation opportunities in Oconee County have become available.

Corps of Engineers regulations were changed in early March of this year, and the Georgia Environmental Policy Institute in Athens has been authorized to calculate a fee to be paid to compensate for the damage to "jurisdictional wetlands" on development sites. The Center then could use those monies to purchase and preserve sensitive land in Oconee County.

Atkel Development Company of Watkinsville, in collaboration with by Sligh Environmental Consultants of Savannah, has developed a mitigation site on Rose Creek in southern Oconee County that has credits available for purchase to mitigate stream and wetland damage.

The Bishop Company and land owner Oconee 316 Associates propose to fill, pave over or otherwise modify 2,421 linear feet of stream and a little more than an acre of wetlands on the 68-acre site that will become the Epps Bridge Centre. The site is located on Epps Bridge Parkway between the Lowe’s and SR Loop 10.

Streams and their associated wetlands are under the jurisdiction of the federal government, though their protection also is the responsibility of state and local authorities. The federal Clean Water Act stipulates that damage to streams and wetlands is to be avoided and minimized to the extent possible.

The law requires that anyone who wants to place fill materials in, ditch, drain or dam, or pave over streams and wetlands must get a permit from the Corps of Engineers.

When the Corps concludes that destruction of the streams and wetlands is unavoidable, it can issue a permit and require compensatory mitigation.

In March of this year, the Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a new rule "to clarify how to provide compensatory mitigation for unavoidable impacts to the nation’s wetlands and streams."

The rule created a hierarchy that requires those seeking compensation to turn first to an approved mitigation bank, then to an in-lieu fee program and next to other alternatives, including mitigation by the permittee. Mitigation banks are usually commercially operated and sell credits for both stream and wetland compensation.

Bishop told the NEGRDC that he planned to restore 981 linear feet of stream and two acres of wetlands along an unnamed tributary of Town Creek in Green County to generate 17,412 stream credits and 7.2 wetland credits.

In an email message to Brad Callender of the Oconee County Planning department of Sept. 17, 2008, responding to the NEGRDC criticism, Bishop said he has searched all the existing mitigation banks in the area and determined that there were insufficient credits available for purchase. I found a copy of the email when I reviewed the Planning Department files on Sept. 19.

As a result of the lack of available banks, Bishop wrote in his email, he decided "to establish our own mitigation bank" and "searched for available sites" within the affected Upper Oconee River watershed. That is when he found and purchased the property in Greene County, he wrote.

I searched the Greene County government tax site and located two properties located between SR 15 and Boswell Road in Green County owned by Bishop Farms LLC.

Bishop Farms LLC, Oconee 316 Associates, The Bishop Company and a fourth company, Greensboro MB LLC all list their principal office address as 6425 Powers Ferry Road in the Georgia Secretary of State databank.

Bob Lord, who handles wetlands review permits for the federal Environmental Protection Agency out of his office in Atlanta, informed me via email on Sept. 15 that Greensboro Mitigation Bank is one of six approved banks in the Upper Oconee River watershed. Two others are in Jackson County, one is in Barrow County, and another is Hall County. The final is the Rose Creek Mitigation Bank in Oconee County.

The Rose Creek MB consists of 60 acres from a total of 160 acres owned by Atkel Development Company. The property formerly was sold to Atkel by Carl Lavender in 2003, according to Oconee County tax records, and is on the west side of SR15 just north of the Green County line.

Mike Kelly, who with Wayne Atkinson, owns the bank, told me in a telephone conversation on Sept. 19 that the bank has been approved by the Corps of Engineers but he has not yet taken the final step in setting it up–recording the restrictive deed that would keep it from ever being farmed or developed once the stream and wetlands on the site are restored.

Kelly also told me he was interested in selling all 160 acres.

Lord from EPA told me that at least four other mitigation banks have been proposed in the Upper Oconee watershed, and one of those is in Oconee County, called Goat Farm MB.

Lord confirmed that Clarke County has no mitigation bank. The Georgia Land Trust Service Center in Athens, a program of the Georgia Environmental Policy Institute, however, provides an in-lieu fee option.

Hans Neuhauser, director of the Georgia Land Trust Service Center, said his organization has not been approached by Oconee 316 Associates or The Frank Bishop Company. I talked with Neuhauser by telephone on Sept. 8.

Neuhauser told me that his organization would be interested in working with groups in Oconee County to identify and preserve streams and wetlands, including sections of Rose Creek around Elder Bridge. This land remains in private hands and is under development pressure.

The NEGRDC also criticized the Epps Bridge Centre project for the amount of impervious surface in the project and its potential effects on stormwater runoff and for the reduction in tree canopy and vegetation due to land clearing for the project.

Bishop, in his response in his email message to Callender at the Oconee planning department, said the development will meet or "exceed the stormwater best management practices" prescribed for Georgia and that the site, at tree maturity, "will exceed the canopy of the existing trees and will have enhanced vegetation."

I have not yet been able to review the materials Bishop and Oconee 316 Associates filed in support of the application for the Corps of Engineers permit to disturb the wetlands. I have submitted an open records request under the federal Freedom of Information Act to see those records.

The federal government allows itself 20 business days to respond to FOIA requests, and the deadline for a response is Oct. 9.

I have asked for an expeditious response because of the Oct. 7 meeting of the Board of Commissioners, but I’ve been told it is up to the office that handles the permit to make a decision on the amount of time needed.

I also was informed I will not be told which office is handling the permit until that office provides me the files.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Oconee Candidate Forum Set for Oct. 13

Breedlove & Clark (Listed Alphabetically) Agree to Meet

Oconee County Board of Education candidates Tom Breedlove and Rich Clark have agreed to take part in a Candidate Forum from 7 to 9 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 13, at the auditorium in the Oconee County Library in Watkinsville.

The Forum is being organized by the same consortium of Oconee citizen groups that organized the successful candidate forums in early June for the local primaries. More than 100 people turned out for the first of those Forums, on June 2, for the Board of Commissioner and Coroner candidates.

A slightly smaller audience turned out on June 4 for Board of Education candidates.

Both Breedlove and Clark participated in the June 4 Forum, when Breedlove was competing with Kyle Martin in the July 15 primary election to secure the Republican nomination for the Post 5 slot on the BOE and Clark was running unopposed as a Democrat for Post 5.

Both also participated in a Candidate Forum put together by the Oconee County Chamber of Commerce on June 16.

The Oct. 13 Candidate Forum is being organized by members of five citizen organizations: Citizens for Oconee’s Future, Citizens for South Oconee County, Friends of Barber Creek, Friends of the Apalachee, and Oconee Citizens for Responsible Growth. I’m the president of Friends of Barber Creek.

Citizens will be able to ask questions directly of Breedlove and Clark at the Oct. 13 Forum.

None of the other four successful candidates for BOE in the Republican primary on July 15 has opposition in the November election. David Weeks will become BOE Chairman, which also is Post 1. Mack Guest will assume the Post 2 position. Kim Argo will become Post 3 board member, and Michael Hunter will move into the Post 4 position.

Breedlove received 3,037 votes against 2,270 for Martin in the primary, while Clark received only 529 votes against no opposition in the Democratic primary.

Georgia has open primaries, meaning that anyone can vote for either party. Given that all of the locally contested races were in the Republican primary, it isn’t surprising that only a small number of local voters participated in the Democratic primary. The largest number of votes–614–was cast in the primary race for someone to run against incumbent Saxby Chambliss for the U.S. Senate.

In the February presidential primary, however, a third of the votes were cast on a Democratic ballot.

Both Republicans and Democrats will be fielding candidates in November for the presidential race, for the U.S. Senate race (Chamblis vs. Jim Martin), for the U.S. 10th Congressional seat (Incumbent Republican Paul Brown vs. Democrat Bobby Saxon), for the State Senator from the 46th District (Incumbent Republican Bill Cowsert vs. Democrat Sherry Jackson), and for District 4 Public Service Commissioner (Democrat Jim Powell vs. Republican Lauren McDonald).

I have sent email messages to both Cowsert and Jackson asking them to appear at the October 13 Candidate Forum and have spoken with Jackson, but neither has committed so far to appear.

Libertarian candidates will appear on the ballot for President (Bob Barr), U.S. Senator (Allen Buckley), District 1 Public Service Commissioner (John Monds), and District 4 Public Service Commissioner (Branden Givens).

None of the Oconee County elections other than the BOE Post 5 slot is being contested on the ballot, though Tom Leach is running a write-in campaign for Chairman of the Board of Commissioners. Incumbent Melvin Davis is the Republican candidate.

Bob Smith is unopposed in his bid to be reelected to represent the 113th District in the General Assembly.

Breedlove, 38, is a partner in the firm Williams & Associates Land Planners one of the two most prominent such firms representating developers in Oconee County.

Clark, 43, is director of polling at the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government.

Breedlove lives at 1130 Creek Farm Run off Malcolm Bridge Road near Eastville, and Clark lives at 1230 Castle Drive off Simonton Road east of Watkinsville.

Either Breedlove or Clark will be joining a relatively inexperienced Board of Education. Chairman Weeks has been on the Board of Education for four years, and Post 2 member Guest has been on the Board for about a year. Argo and Hunter are newcomers.

While most of the media attention in Oconee County generally is on the activities of the Board of Commissioners, most of our property tax revenue goes to the Board of Education.

For every $1 we pay in property taxes, just under 71 cents is for the BOE. The Board of Commissioners control how 28 cents are spent, and the state takes a penny.

Of the 7 cents for each dollar we spend in sales taxes, the state takes 4 cents, the Board of Commissioners 2 cents, and the BOE 1 cent.

Obviously, the BOE deserves more attention that it has received from me and from others concerned about Oconee County.

All of the winners in the BOE races on July 15 were listed first on the ballot. My analysis of the race suggests ballot order was not the only explanation for the candidate success.

The Candidate Forum on Oct. 13 should give those who attend more to go on than name in making a choice on Nov. 4.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Oconee County Water Rate Increase Examined

Conservation vs. Just Pricing

Oconee County put into place a water rate increase on April 1 with little fanfare and no public scrutiny.

The increase, which for those using more than 12,000 gallons per month was 30 percent or more, was presented to the public as an attempt to discourage water use.

The chairman of the citizen group that reviewed the rate increase and recommended it to the Board of Commissioners acknowledged, however, that there is no way to know if the increase will lower water use.

The rate increase was initiated by Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis, an examination of the available records shows, and the rate structure was proposed by the Utility Department, not the citizen group.

Moody’s Investors Service noted the rate increase favorably when it reviewed the county’s sale of $20 million in revenue bonds to finance Oconee County’s portion of construction costs of the initial phase of the Hard Labor Creek reservoir project. Moody’s said the increase was put in place to "fund the additional debt service expenditures" associated with Hard Labor Creek.

The rate increase applies only to residential customers. The county left the rate for commercial and industrial customers unchanged.

The county announced the rate change in the Spring 2008 edition of The Reservoir, the newsletter of the Utility Department.

"As recommended by a citizen advisory committee, effective April 1, the Utility Department will implement a revised residential conservation rate plan that will further promote conservation," the newsletter said. "The purpose of conservation pricing is to reward low users with lower pricing and charge more to those using excess amounts of water, primarily for outdoor watering."

Prior to the rate increase, the county had a four-tier structure for water rates for residential users but only a two-tier structure for commercial users.

After the increase, the county had a six-tier structure for residential users, with the higher rate changed from $4.80 per 1,000 gallons of water used to $6.72 per 1,000 gallons of water used. That is an increase of 40 percent. The commercial rate structure remained unchanged.

The Board of Commissioners approved the residential rate increase at its regular meeting on March 4, 2008, with almost no discussion.

Jim Kundell, chairman of the county Drought Contingency Committee, presented the recommendation of the rate increase to the Board. Commissioner Margaret Hale made a motion to approve the increase, and Commissioner Chuck Horton seconded it. The motion passed unanimously.

I filed an open records request with the county on May 13, 2008, asking for details of the work of the Drought Contingency Committee.

Specifically, I asked for documents relating to the appointment of the members of the committee, the charge given the committee, minutes of meetings, public notices "informing citizens in advance of the meetings of the Drought Contingency Committee," all reports and documents used by the Committee during its deliberations, and all reports and recommendations produced by the committee.

The county gave me a packet of documents for review and copying. The county did not provide any evidence that any meeting of the Committee had been announced to the public, any minutes of meetings held, or any documents produced by the Committee.

According to the documents I was given, BOC Chairman Melvin Davis sent an email message to County Administrative Officer Alan Theriault at 3:53 p.m. on Dec. 31, 2007, asking Theriault to convene the Drought Contingency Committee after the first of the year. "It may be appropriate to revise our rate structure to reward conservation of water," Davis wrote.

The Drought Contingency Committee had met during the fall to produce a revised Outdoor Water Use Ordinance for the county.

Theriault wrote back to Davis five minutes after receiving his Dec. 31 email indicating that "Discussions with the Committee indicated they wanted to review pricing." Theriault said he would call the Committee together after the middle of January.

On Feb. 5, 2008, Jane Greathouse, the deputy clerk for the county, sent an email message to the 10 members of the Drought Contingency Committee asking if they would be able to meet on Feb. 19 in the Grand Jury Room at the courthouse.

The members of the Committee were: Sonia Adsit, Mildred Bell, Gary Dodd, John Glisson, Mack Guest, Henry Hibbs, Chris McClintock, Charles Osborn, Bill Ross and Kundell.

On Feb. 5 Theriault also sent an email message to John Hatcher, then the head of the Utility Department, telling him of the Feb. 19 meeting. Theriault said he knew that Hatcher "had worked on some conservation pricing a few weeks ago" and asked Hatcher to send those suggestions to him as well as "any other ideas that you think are worth floating out to the committee."

That meeting took place on Feb. 19, according to the notes I was given, and early on the morning of Feb. 20 Theriault sent Kundell a brief summary of the meeting via email. Kundell replied later in the day suggesting a change in the wording of the note regarding the decision not to increase the rate for commercial users.

The original note contained as a bullet item: "Not adjust rates for commercial/retail customers (already paying the highest rates/recession/etc)."

Kundell suggested this be changed to: "Maintain rates for commercial users..."

The email did not indicate who attended the meeting, but a set of notes provided to me in response to my open records request contained the hand-written list of Adsit, Bell, Dodd, Glisson, Ross and Kundell.

I visited with Kundell in his office at the Carl Vinson Institute at the University of Georgia on Aug. 21, 2008, to discuss the work of the Drought Contingency Committee, and he indicated that not all the members attended the Feb. 19 meeting and he thought the list I was given was of those who did attend.

Kundell, who is retired but maintains his office at UGA, said the Drought Contingency Committee had met several times during the fall to discuss water regulations and "for whatever reason, they called us back together to look at and make recommendations."

Kundell said the Utility department presented rate increase options to the Committee, and the Committee accepted the rates provided.

"It is hard to anticipate how effective it is going to be," he said. "You have to put it in place and see how it works. It is an adaptive management approach."

Kundell said he didn’t remember much of the discussion about commercial rates. "We focused primarily on residential," he said. "The logic is that businesses already have an incentive to conserve."

"It might be the county isn’t interesting in putting it too high," he said. "It might discourage business."

Kundell said that all meetings of committees such as the Draft Contingency Committee are open to the public, but he does not know what–if anything–the county did to publicize the Feb. 19 meeting.

Prior to the March 4 vote of the BOC, the county had a four-tier structure for water rates for residential users but only a two-tier structure for commercial users.

After the vote, the county had a six-tier structure for residential users, with the highest rate changed from $4.80 per 1,000 gallons of water used to $6.72 per 1,000 gallons of water used. That is an increase of 40 percent, and, according to the notes provided by the county, was the higher of two rate increases considered.

The least amount a user of water in the county can pay each month is $14.04, and that figure was not changed with the new rate structure. That rate covers up to 2,000 gallons of water use per month. Someone who uses 5,000 gallons of water per month pays $14.08 per month for the first 2,000 gallons and then $11.40 more for the extra 3,000. That figure also was left unchanged when the rates were increased.

After 5,000 gallons of use, however, the rate increase kicked in. A residential customer who used 12,000 gallons of water before the rate increase would have paid $54.63. After the increase, that customer would have paid $60.70, or an increase of 11.1 percent.

A customer who used 15,000 gallons of water per month with the old rates paid $69.03. With the new rates, a customer using this amount of water pays $79.42, or 15.1 percent more.

Commercial customers pay the same base rate of $14.04 per month as residential customers. For that amount, the commercial customer can use 2,000 gallons of water per month. After that, commercial customers pay $4.80 per 1,000 gallons of water used, regardless of how many gallons they use.

This means that a commercial user of 15,000 gallons per month now pays $76.44, or $2.98 less than a residential user of 15,000. Prior to the rate increase, the commercial user of 15,000 paid $7.41 more than the residential user of the same amount.

Commercial users vary in size and water demand. A small retail shop might well use 2,000 gallons per month or less and pay the base fee of $14.04.

The new hotel under construction at 3500 Daniells Bridge Road, however, was promised water availability of 19,500 per day in a letter from the Utility Department to the developer on Jan. 9, 2007. For a 30-day month, that amounts to 585,000 gallons.

With the current commercial rate, the hotel, if it uses that amount of water in a month, will pay $2,812.44. If the hotel were a residence and paid at the new residential rate, it would pay $3,907.42, or 38.9 percent more.

A smaller hotel under construction on Virgil Langford Road was promised 12,700 gallons per day of water in a letter from the Utility Department of Sept. 10, 2007. That amounts to 381,000 gallons per month. Its owner will save–at maximum use–$703.30 because the residential rates were not applied to it.

All of these calculations are shown on my web site, with the other documents from this story.

Chris Thomas, currently the head of the Utility Department, appeared before the Board of Commissioners on June 24 to announce the county was lifting its ban on total outdoor watering. Citizens currently are allowed to water one day per week. In late August, the Utility Department began putting up signs around the county informing people that they were allowed to water.

What impact the "conservation" pricing will have on people’s decision to water remains unclear.

If residential customers use more than 5,000 gallons of water per month, they are going to pay more than they would have paid before the rate increase.

And the county Utility Department will have more revenue than it would have had withour the April Fool’s Day "conservation" rate increase.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Oconee BOC Delays Hearing on Epps Bridge Centre

Come Again?

In a surprise move, the developer of the proposed Epps Bridge Centre asked the Oconee County Board of Commissioners tonight to postpone action on its rezone request until Oct. 7 so he can "work out some design details with the planning staff."

The Board voted unanimously to cancel the scheduled public hearing and table action on the rezone for the $76 million strip mall proposed for vacant land between Lowe’s and Loop 10 on Epps Bridge Parkway, behind the current McDonald’s and Starbucks.

The rezone request had been approved by the Planning Commission on Aug. 18, and the public hearing scheduled for tonight had been advertised. In fact, the BOC had officially put the item on tonight’s agenda at its agenda setting meeting of Aug. 26.

Developer Frank Bishop appeared before the Board tonight to confirm his interest in delaying discussion of the project.

The half dozen or so persons who planned to ask questions during the public hearing were not given advance notice of the requested postponement. Commission Chuck Horton informed me via email earlier today he had been told the developer had planned to ask for the delay in action.

B.R. White, Oconee County Planning director, told Charles Baugh from Citizens for Oconee's Future near the end of the BOC meeting that the developer wanted to know in advance "what will be expected" when he submits his detailed plans.

White said it will be necessary now to readvertise for the Oct. 7 public hearing so citizens have another chance to comment on the large commercial project.

Epps Bridge Centre as proposed includes a 16-screen movie theater, space for anchor stores, small retail shops and seven restaurants.

At build-out in 2013, the project is expected to produce just less than $752,000 annually in property taxes for the county, according to the estimates provided to the Northeast Georgia Regional Development Center by the developer, which officially is Oconee 316 Associates of Atlanta.

Oconee 316 Associates estimated that the annual sales tax revenue is expected to be $11 million and that it will cost only $55,500 annually to provide community services for the project.

Oconee County would receive three-sevenths of the sales tax revenue, or $4.7 million.

How these estimates of tax revenues and costs were arrived was not explained at the Planning Commission meeting. I had hoped to raise that question at the meeting tonight.

The Northeast Georgia Regional Development Center reviewed the project and concluded that "the development is not in the best interest of the Region and therefore the State."

Among the many problems cited by the NEGRD is the increased traffic on Epps Bridge Parkway.

The developer proposed to have an entrance and exit to Epps Bridge Centre across from the existing entrance to Kroger and the Waffle House near the exit ramp from SR Loop 10 on Epps Bridge Parkway.

According to the plans submitted to the NEGRD, that entrance and exit would allow traffic to turn in both directions from the mall onto Epps Bridge Parkway at this already congested section of roadway.