Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Post 5 Oconee BOE Candidates React to Superintendent Dismissal

The Signs of the Campaign

The two candidates running for the Post 5 seat on the Oconee County Board of Education said they learned similar lessons from the recent revelation that the outgoing Board asked former Superintendent Tom Dohrmann to retire, contrary to the earlier announcement that Dohrmann initiated the resignation.

"I’ve learned that the public’s perception of an occurrence such as this can play a large part in the trust given to and confidence placed in an elected body," Tom Breedlove said.

"The revelation of new information about the termination of the contract with the last superintendent reinforces in my mind the fragile nature of public trust," said Rich Clark. "Once public trust (has) been violated, it is difficult to regain."

Breedlove, 39, the Republican candidate, and Clark, 43, the Democratic candidate, give these responses to two written questions I posed to them via email on Oct. 19 regarding the story that broke in the Athens Banner-Herald on Oct. 15 and was followed with a second story in the paper four days later.

Both candidates had appeared at a Candidate Forum organized by Citizens for Oconee’s Future, Citizens for South Oconee County, Friends of Barber Creek, Friends of the Apalachee and Oconee Citizens for Responsible Growth on Oct. 13. A video of that forum is now available, but, no questions about the termination of the former superintendent were raised at that session.

"I promise never to misrepresent the facts of any Board decision to the public or press," Clark said in response to a question I posted about future Board activity.

"I can only say that as one of the Board members I would be as open as possible about the matter," Breedlove said.

The two candidates have children in the Oconee school system. Breedlove’s three children are currently enrolled, as are both of Clark’s children.

Clark would bring to the Board his experience as a political scientist responsible for survey research and program evaluation in the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia.

Breedlove would bring his experiences as a partner and director of Landscape Architecture at Williams & Associates, a local land planning and development consulting firm.

Breedlove has raised $1,500 in contributions for his campaign, the largest amount, $1,000, coming from JMW Ventures, LLC, according to his campaign contribution disclosure reports of June and September. JMW Ventures LLC is headquarted at 2470 Daniells Bridge Road in Oconee County. Jon Williams is listed in the Georgia Secretary of State database as the registered agent. Jon Williams is president of Williams & Associates, headquartered at 2470 Daniells Bridge Road.

The Athens Area Home Builders contributed $150 to Breedlove’s campaign, with the remainder in contributions all individually under $100, for which disclosure of the identity of the donor is not required by law.

Clark has raised $1,612 in contributions, with the largest contributions of $200 each coming from the Oconee County Democrats and Heather Kleiner of 1061 Greystone Lane in Watkinsville, listed as retired. Clark reported that he raised the remainder of his money in contributions of under $100.

Breedlove had to win the Republican endorsement and spent before the June reporting period more than a third of the $1,436 he has spent in the campaign. He defeated Kyle Martin in the July 15 primary.

Clark had no opposition in the primary and has spent most of the $720 he has spent after the June and before the September filing period.

Campaign signs were a big item for both candidates.

I’ve filed the questions I posed to the two candidates are their full answers are on my web site.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Oconee Agrees to Follow Open Meetings Law

I Don’t Have to but I Will

Without admitting any wrongdoing in the past, Oconee County has informed the state’s Attorney General that it plans to notify the public of meetings of its Drought Contingency Committee and of meetings of other advisory committees in the future in keeping with the state’s Open Meetings Law.

County Attorney Daniel Haygood informed Senior Assistant Attorney General Stefan Ritter of that decision in a letter of Sept. 18, 2008. Ritter responded to Haygood in a letter of Oct. 15 in which he said he considered the matter resolved.

Ritter sent me a copy of his letter to Haygood as well as Haygood’s letter to him of Sept. 18.

Ritter had sent a letter to Haygood on Sept. 17, 2008, asking him to explain if the Drought Contingency Committee actually had met earlier this year, "and, if so, whether it was properly agendized, noticed, and if summary minutes were prepared."

Documents provided by the county in response to an open records request I filed on May 13, 2008, showed that the Drought Contingency Committee met on Feb. 19, 2008, and approved an increase in water rates for residential users of the county. The county did not provide any evidence of advance notice of the meeting or minutes from the meeting.

At the Feb. 19 meeting, the Committee approved the rate increase, which had been initiated by Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis, according to the records released to me by the county. The actual rate increase had been proposed to the Committee by the County’s Utility Department, the documents showed.

The Utility Department did not propose an increase in commercial rates, and the Drought Contingency Committee did not propose one.

Without discussion, the rate increase was approved by the full Board of Commissioners on April 1, 2008, after a report by Drought Contingency Committee Chairman Jim Kundell.

I wrote about the water rate increase and the meeting of the Drought Contingency Committee in a blog on Sept. 8, 2008. On Sept. 9, I sent an email message to Ritter telling him I hoped he would "take the time to read" the posting.

I met Ritter at a meeting in Atlanta On March 18 to honor Heroes of Open Government. We talked briefly about a complaint I had filed with him on Jan. 17 about the county’s refusal to allow me access to a meeting of the Selection Committee the BOC had appointed to review bids for the design of the Rocky Branch sewage treatment plant.

Ritter had written me on Feb. 29, 2008, saying he did not believe citizens had a right to attend meetings of the Selection Committee. He and I also have exchanged several email messages and talked over the telephone regarding that decision.

In my email message on Sept. 9, I said that "we need your office to take an aggressive stance in dealing with citizen access to government meetings and government records."

Ritter treated my email message to him as an official complaint and forwarded it to Haygood with his letter of Sept. 17.

Haygood told Ritter in his Sept. 18 letter that the "Drought Contingency Committee is an advisory committee set up by the Oconee County Board of Commissioners in 2003."

According to Haygood, the "minutes of the Board of Commissioners reflect no specific purpose for the committee," yet "it has in fact served as a sounding board and advisory committee for issues related to the drought in the past few years."

Haygood said it is his opinion that the Drought Contingency Committee is not covered by the State’s Open Meetings Law.

"Nonetheless," Haygood wrote, "Oconee County intends to notify the public of such advisory committee meetings and to take the other steps set out in the Open Meetings Law just as if that law applied to such committee meetings, including the ‘Drought Contingency Committee.’"

Ritter took no position on whether Haygood’s interpretation of the law was correct.

"I sincerely appreciate Oconee County taking the position described in your letter," Ritter wrote to Haygood.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Oconee Preparing for March SPLOST Election

But IDDs and TADs on November Ballot

While many voters are still focused on the upcoming November election, the County is about to launch a campaign to get voters to approve a renewal of the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) of 1 cent on the dollar at a special election on March 17, 2009.

The first of two public information sessions on the proposed SPLOST renewal will be on Oct. 21 and it will be followed by a second on Nov. 3. Both meetings will begin at 7 p.m. at the Oconee County Civic Center on Hog Mountain Road.

The hearings are not designed to get public input on whether to move forward with the tax, but on what should be included in it. The SPLOST has to specify in general terms how the money will be spent.

The BOC plans to create its list of projects at its Nov. 25 meeting and then vote to put the issue on the ballot at its Dec. 2 meeting.

The county currently receives three of the seven cents in sales taxes collected in the county, with the state getting the remaining four cents. One cent of the local tax goes to the local school system. Another goes into the general fund of the county. The third is for special projects of the county.

If voters do not approve the renewal of the current SPLOST, it will expire in 2009 and the local sales tax will drop to six cents.

Local Farmland Protection advocate Russ Page is working to get farmland protection included by the BOC among the SPLOST projects. He has created a memo explaining the value of Farmland Protection, a questionnaire asking for opinions on the issue, and a petition that can be signed to support including Farmland Protection among the SPLOST projects.

The Oconee County Advisory Committee on Recreational Affairs also is taking advantage of the SPLOST meeting on Oct. 21 to schedule a discussion of greenways, rails to trails and connectivity between parks, schools and neighborhoods.

The meeting, to be held at the Civic Center and to begin at 6 p.m., will feature guest speakers Mike Wharton from Athens-Clarke Leisure Services and John Devine from the Northeast Georgia Regional Development Center.

The November ballot also contains two amendments that have stirred the interest of environmental groups.

The Georgia Water Coalition, an alliance of 150 organizations committed to ensuring that water is managed fairly for all Georgians and protected for future generations, has called for a Yes vote on Amendment 1 and a No vote on Amendment 3. Friends of Barber Creek is part of the Georgia Water Coalition.

Amendment 1 is to help preserve tracts of forest land 200 acres or greater throughout the state. Under the Act, landowners could enter a 15-year covenant to protect the tracts from development and, in return, receive a property tax reduction. Among the supporters are the Georgia Forestry Association.

Amendment 3 would permit counties to give developers the power to create special districts called infrastructure development district (IDDs) that would issue tax-free bonds to finance infrastructure for large, private residential communities. The developers would be given the power to levy taxes to pay any costs incurred in development. The counties will be required to collect the taxes for the IDDs.

Amendment 2 has attracted less attention. It would allow counties, municipalities and local boards of education to use tax funds for redevelopment. Earlier this year the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that local governments cannot use school property tax revenue to help finance redevelopment projects.

Amendment 2 would allow for the creation of tax allocation districts (TADs) to stimulate redevelopment in areas were development was otherwise unlikely. The Atlanta Journal Constitution has called for passage. In Athens, flagpole has called for its defeat.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Daniells Bridge Rezone Back to Oconee BOC

A Blind Curve Among Neighbors

Oconee County submitted a consent order on Oct. 7 to settle a suit filed against it in Oconee Superior Court by owners of land on Daniells Bridge Road who were denied a rezone request in May of 2007 for development of an office and business park on the site.

As part of the agreement, the county agreed to bring the rezone request back before the Planning Commission on Oct. 20 and before the Board of Commissioners on Nov. 4. In return, the property owners agreed to provide the county ownership of right of way for a roadway that may be built some time in the distant future.

Both the Planning Commission and the BOC have the authority to turn down the rezone, but the members of the BOC most likely decided to move forward with the consent order in one or more closed sessions with the county attorney. The BOC regularly holds secret meetings to discuss these kinds of issues, and no minutes of the sessions are available to the public.

The rezone request is being brought by Beall & Company on behalf of Dolores N. Lance and Dorothy N. Anglin. The 9-acre site is on Daniells Bridge Road just east of a blind curve as the road abuts an on ramp to SR Loop 10.

Stephen Jenkins and Edward Nichols propose to build an office business center, to be named Perimeter Center, on the now-wooded site. The development will consist of a 112,000 square foot, two-story building.

The project will have two exits onto Daniells Bridge Road. The first will be opposite Will Usher Road, just east of the blind curve. The second will be near the eastern most property line.

The project is the same as the project rejected by the BOC on May 1 of 2007 when a petition was presented to the Board by more than 400 residents of neighborhoods on Daniells Bridge Road opposed to the development. I helped organize that petition drive. (The Banner-Herald story about the meeting attributes a quote to me made by a neighbor.)

As was the case in 2007, the staff review of the proposal by the Oconee County Utility Department, revised on Oct. 10, 2008, contains a picture of a roadway that does not exist. Figure 1 in the report shows an improved Daniells Bridge Road at the eastern edge of the property that connects with a new road looping across SR Loop 10 to connect with the roadway that leads into Home Depot.

At the BOC meeting in May of 2007, Mike Leonas, then the head of the Public Works Department, said the roadway was at least 10 years in the future. That was before the current state financial crisis, which has resulted in severe curtailment of state roadway construction and planning.

The proposed roadway would connect with the Oconee Connector Extension proposed to open up land for development of the Epps Bridge Center on Epps Bridge Parkway. That road project has been delayed because of a lack of state funding.

These two proposed roads would be part of a roughly circulate road looping around Epps Bridge Parkway and SR 316, meeting at the current Oconee Connector. No plans have been presented for the remainder of Daniells Bridge Road, including the part of the roadway in front of the Lance and Anglin property up for rezone on election night.

Anglin and Lance filed suit against the county on May 24, 2007, or just a little more than three weeks after being denied their rezone request. As is usual in these cases, they claimed the county’s decision not to rezone their land was an “unconstitutional taking of property without just and adequate compensation and without due process of law.”

Michael Pruett, representing the county, filed a consent order with Judge David Sweat on Oct. 7. It states that Anglin and Lance have agreed to accept the Office Business Park rezone with eight conditions, six of which were listed by the planning staff when it recommended the rezone in 2007.

The sixth condition requires the developer to install central left turn lanes at each entrance and deceleration and acceleration lanes at each entrance.

The seventh condition from 2007, requiring the developer to participate in a development agreement for the upgrade of Daniells Bridge Road, was dropped. Other developers along Daniells Bridge already have agreed to some upgrades of the road, though not at the Anglin and Lance site.

The new seventh condition was the old eighth, in which the developer agreed to provide a construction easement for the proposed new road.

The new eighth condition is that the owner shall execute and deliver to the county a deed for just less than an acre of land for the right of way for the proposed road.

The new project will add 1,458 Average Daily Traffic units to Daniells Bridge Road. An ADT is a value representing the average annual 24 hour traffic volume. Of these, 206 will be at morning peak traffic times and the same number will be at evening traffic peak times.

The land abutting the Lance and Anglin property currently is zoned agricultural and residential, though the land on the other side of SR Loop 10 is commercial. The county has designed the Lance and Anglin property as office/professional land as part of its 2022 Future Land Use Plan.

The beer and wine ordinance passed by the BOC earlier this year included this land as open for beer and wine sales.

In May of 2007, Commissioner Don Norris recused himself from the vote for unspecified reasons of conflict of interest. Commissioners Margaret Hale, Chuck Horton and Jim Luke voted against the rezone.

Commissioners frequently go into closed session at the end of regular BOC meetings to discuss legal and personnel issues. No record of these meetings is released to the public.

I asked Commissioner Horton tonight to confirm that this matter was discussed in one such executive session.

He refused, saying “I am going to be a good guy and stay away from executive session.”

Horton said “folks can speak” at the public hearings before the Planning Commission and the BOC. “I don’t think you could say it is 100 percent” decided, he said.

If the BOC does not approve the rezone, according to the consent order, the land owners have the right to resume litigation, and a final hearing will be held with 120 days following the BOC vote.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

State Economy a Concern at Oconee Candidate Forum

Small Audience, Lots of Questions

A relatively small audience generated a lot of questions at the Candidate Forum at the Oconee County Library in Watkinsville Monday night. Concerns about the state economy and its impact on Oconee County were reflected in many of the queries.

Bill Cowsert and Sherry Jackson, candidates for the 46th Senate District, responded to questions from 7 to 7:40 p.m. and were followed by Tom Leach, write-in candidate for the chairmanship of the Oconee County Board of Commissioners.

Tom Breedlove and Rich Clark, running for Post 5 of the Oconee County Board of Education, took citizens questions during the second hour of the Candidate Forum, which was organized by Citizens for Oconee’s Future, Citizens for South Oconee County, Friends of Barber Creek, Friends of the Apalachee and Oconee Citizens for Responsible Growth.

Approximately 25 persons were in the room during the session, as some persons left and others entered.

A summary of the questions and answers of Breedlove, the Republican candidate, and Clark, the Democratic candidate, appears in today’s edition of the Athens Banner-Herald. The story also includes some of the interaction with Leach. The story did not mention that Cowsert and Jackson were at the meeting.

Cowsert, the Republican candidate, is the incumbent. Jackson is running as the Democratic candidate. Both are Athens attorneys.

Leach, a truck driver and former member of the Planning Commission, said he decided to run as a write-in candidate after Sarah Bell was defeated in the Republican primary for the BOC chair position. "I supported Sarah," he said.

Incumbent BOC Chairman Melvin Davis did not attend the Monday Candidate Forum, citing a conflict in his schedule.

Breedlove is a land planner with the firm Williams & Associates in Oconee County, and Clark is a faculty member in the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia.

The Forum was video recorded and is available at my Vimeo site (Senate and Cowsert) or Tony Glenn's Vimeo Site (Tom Leach).

Cowsert and Jackson are scheduled to appear at the Athens Press Club debate from 7-9 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 27, at the Melting Point in downtown Athens. The debate will be broadcast live on WGAU 1340 AM.

Bobby Saxon, the Democratic candidate for U.S. House from the 10th District, will appear at a Press Club from 7-9 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 20. Incumbent Republican Paul Brown has indicated he will not attend. That debate also will be broadcast on WGAU.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Oconee Traffic, Permits and Epps Bridge Centre

It's the Shopping, Really

The Oconee County Commissioners were looking at a concept plan Tuesday night showing six entrances to the proposed $76 million Epps Bridge Centre and involving the destruction of streams and wetlands requiring both state and federal permits.

Only one of those entrances to the strip mall can be built until the state completes a major highway project for which it has not yet even let the contracts.

Neither the state nor the federal permits for stream and wetland destruction have been granted.

County Attorney Daniel Haygood reminded the Commissioners that the concept plan the developer presents has to show what the developer actually intends to do before a rezone can be granted.

For some, that might have been a good reason to either postpone action on the rezone or deny it, since what the developer intends to do is not doable at present. Several of the seven persons speaking against the rezone–myself included--suggested the Board do just that.

By a vote of 3-1, with Margaret Hale dissenting, however, the Board of Commissioners approved the rezone anyway.

They did include a condition patched together on the spot to cover for the fact that the submitted concept plan is only a dream without the roadway. The Board, however, ignored the issue of the state and federal permits.

They also ignored the fact that the sole entrance to and exit from the shopping mall will allow only right turns in and right turns out and is at a very congested part of Epps Bridge Parkway.

Attorney Haygood, who said he had not recognized a problem with the condition for the rezone proposed by the planning staff back in August until he looked at it during the discussion Tuesday night, offered the replacement condition.

Those speaking against the rezone included Brenda Rashleigh, president of the Upper Oconee Watershed Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring clean water for the Upper Oconee Watershed.

"We are opposed to this rezone because of the environmental impacts on the downstream waters," she said. Rashleigh said her group is concerned about McNutt Creek, which is near the development site, and "we believe that rezoning should not take place without the proper permits and variances."

The North East Georgia Regional Development Center also criticized the project because of its negative environmental impact.

According to the Aug. 8 staff report of the Oconee County Planning Department, developer Frank Bishop "has received approval from the Army Corps of Engineers to mitigate" the destruction of the streams and wetlands on the site through a mitigation bank he established in Greene County.

When I asked to see that permit, however, B.R. White, director of the Planning Department, told me the county did not have a copy of the permit.

When I filed a federal Freedom of Information Act request for a copy of the permit, I was told that none had been issued.

The state Environmental Protection Division also told me that the state has not yet issued a variance allowing Bishop to enter the 25-foot buffer of the streams on the site. Both the variance and the Corps permit are to be in hand before Oconee County issues a permit for disturbance of the site.

After I pointed out at the Tuesday rezone hearing that neither the Corps permit nor the state variance had been issued, Bishop acknowledged that fact.

"We have worked with the Army Corps of Engineers for approximately two years addressing mitigation concerns on this site to get this property rezoned," he said. He did not say why he had been unsuccessful in obtaining the permits before the rezone hearing or why he was going forward with the rezone request without them.

"Before any work could be done on this project, we would have to satisfy all the requirements of the Army Corps of Engineers," he did say. "No work would proceed on this project until all permits are in hand, which would include all federal permits, all state permits and all county permits."

That was enough for the majority of the Board.

Here is the language County Attorney Daniel Haygood offered the Board to cover for the lack of the $26 state roadway that is supposed to be built to the Epps Bridge Centre project:

"No development permits can be issued prior to the Georgia Department of Transportation signing a contract for construction of the Oconee Connector Extension, and, until the Oconee Connector Project is completed, no more than one-third of the overall building square footage of the site shall be issued COs (Certificates of Occupancy), or should be allowed to use the Epps Bridge Parkway as long as Epps Bridge Parkway is the sole exit."

Two people other than Bishop spoke up on Tuesday night for the project. One said the county was lucky to have a developer of the caliber of Bishop doing the project.

In his allowed rebuttal of the citizen concerns, Bishop offered his view of why his mall is good for Oconee County.

"We have spent a lot of time and resources trying to bring this project to fruition in Oconee County," he said, "believing it will be a benefit to Oconee County, to the citizens of Oconee County, and will enhance their lifestyles in that it will provide additional shopping, services, that will be closer to the residents’ homes in Oconee County and thusly they will not have to travel as far. They will spend less time in automobiles. The need to consume more gasoline will be reduced."

Despite his proposed–but not yet approved–destruction of 2,421 linear feet of streams and 1.06 acres of wetlands, Bishop, it seems, is something of an environmentalist after all.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Oconee BOC To Take Up Epps Bridge Centre Again

A Variance Here and a Variance There

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday night is scheduled to make a crucial rezone decision regarding the proposed $76 million Epps Bridge Centre.

The rezone comes before the BOC with a negative finding from the North East Georgia Regional Development Center that "the development is not in the best interest of the Region and therefore the State."

Environmental and traffic concerns topped the list of problems NEGRDC has with the project.

While the Oconee County Planning Commission recommended approval at its Aug. 18 meeting, several commissioners who ultimately voted for it also raised questions about the project on these same and other grounds.

Here is a summary of those concerns as well as others that my reading of the documents suggest should be addressed on Tuesday night.

The BOC can vote to deny, but it probably is more likely to vote to approve, perhaps with added conditions.


Epps Bridge Centre is proposed to have a total of six entrances, one off Epps Bridge Parkway and five off the as yet unbuilt Oconee Connector Extension.

Because no one knows when the Oconee Connector Extension will be built, the county planning staff has recommended the following condition:

"Until the Oconee Connector Extension project is completed, no more than one-third (1/3) of the overall building square footage of the site shall be allowed to use Epps Bridge Parkway as the sole access to the development."

Here is alternative language that is clearer:

"No more than one-third of the square footage shall be certified for occupancy by Oconee County until the Oconee Connector Extension is completed."

But that does not solve a big problem with the entrance to and exit from the shopping center directly on Epps Bridge Parkway. That entrance and exit will be between the McDonalds restaurant and Loop 10, across from the entrance to Krogers.

A map submitted by Bishop indicates the entrance and exit directly on Epps Bridge Parkway will allow only right turns into the development and right turns out, but this has not been stipulated as a condition of the development. It should be.

(Click here to watch a video clip I shot from my car window to show where the entrance and exit on Epps Bridge Parkway will be located.)

Even if only right turns are allowed, many drivers will want to enter SR Loop 10 going north, at least until another entrance to SR Loop 10 is built. Given the location of the current entrance ramps, that will mean merging from the right to the left lane in a very short distance.

It would make much more sense to stipulate that Epps Bridge Centre cannot open until at least two entrances are available, including one that uses the part of the future Oconee Connector Extension that already exists just west of Lowe’s. That stretch of road allows for a left-turn into and out of Lowe’s.

Drivers from the shopping center wishing to enter SR Loop 10 north could be directed to this exit, and the exit with the right turn only onto Epps Bridge Parkway could stipulate that traffic could not enter SR Loop 10.

Although the Oconee Connector Extension will be built with both bike lanes and sidewalks, Epps Bridge Centre does not have bike lanes.

The county could require that bike lanes be included in the design and integrated with the bike lanes from the Connector.

Stream and wetland destruction

Bishop told the Planning Commission he knew the site he wants to rezone for the Epps Bridge Centre had wetlands and flowing streams before he started to develop it.

He could have decided to preserve those streams and wetlands and to incorporate them into his shopping center design. Pictures Bishop submitted to the U.S. Corps of Engineers show some of the streams are quite substantial and attractive.

Bishop chose instead to pave over and pipe almost all of the streams and wetlands, and he sought a permit from the Corps of Engineers to allow him to do that. That procedure required him to mitigate the damage to the streams and wetlands either by purchasing wetland credits from a commercial mitigation bank or by purchasing land and doing restoration himself.

Bishop told the Planning Commission he could not find a mitigation bank in Clarke County and did not want to pay the price required for Oconee County land where he could do restoration. He chose instead to purchase land in Greene County, and he now is proposing to convert that land to a commercial mitigation bank.

According to the Oconee County Planning Department staff report, Bishop has received permission from the Corps of Engineers to mitigate the damage to the Oconee site via the Greene County site. Bishop also told the county in a memo he sent on Sept. 17, 2008, that he has received permission from the Corps for the mitigation bank itself.

According to Michael Berry, an environmental specialist at the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, Bishop also has applied for two variances that would allow him to enter the 25-foot buffers on the streams on the two sites, but he does not have the required variances.

Berry told me by telephone on Oct. 3 that the variance request for the Oconee site has been "in house" since "back in January" but has not been approved. He said the request for the Greene County site was filed only in September of this year and also is still under review.

Once the EPD makes a decision for a variance, the public is invited to comment. Berry said that piping a stream is viewed as a significant course of action and that the Corps of Engineers approval is only one of the criteria used by the state in granting a variance.

Oconee County is supposed to make sure that no permits for disturbance of the site takes place without both the federal permits and the state variance allowances.

One option for the BOC would be to postpone approval on the rezone until the needed permits and variances are in hand.

Impervious surface and tree canopy

Bishop also plans to clear the site of almost all existing vegetation as part of the construction process. When the project is completed, 70 percent of the will be covered with impervious surfaces such as roofs and pavement.

The NEGRDC recommended that Bishop "preserve a greater percentage of existing tree canopy" and "reduce the amount of impervious surface."

A large part of that surface is parking. The concept plan shows 2,905 parking spaces, which is 17 percent more than the 2,483 required, according to the document.

Planning Commission member George Rodrigues said at the Aug. 18 meeting he wondered if Bishop "was invested in asphalt" and suggested that the amount of parking be cut back.
The BOC certainly could ask that parking be the minimum and that more tree cover be preserved.


Bishop has said this Epps Bridge Center will generate about $750,000 each year in property taxes for the county and $4.7 million in sales taxes. The sales tax calculations are based on projected annual sales at the mall of approximately $158 million.

Bishop has never been asked in a public meeting to explain those figures. Given the current economic crisis and its affect on all aspects of the economy, it seems reasonable to ask how realistic these figures are.

Bishop also has estimated it will cost the county only $55,498 annually to provide community services associated with the project. Given that Epps Bridge Centre is intended to be an entertainment complex with restaurants and a 16-screen theater, the county will have some security costs as well as costs associated with administration and enforcement of the beer and wine ordinance.

It would be nice to know the source of the $55,498 figure.

It also would be nice to hear Bishop’s opinion on whether he will be able to get restaurants to locate in the mall as long as the county does not allow sale of alcohol by the drink. If he is going to want that law changed, he should say so.


At the Aug. 18 Planning Commission meeting, member Travis Marshall expressed concern that the rear of the restaurants facing Loop 10 be attractive to those passing by the mall. Marshall asked if it was safe to "assume" they would be attractive, and Bishop said it was.

It would be nice if the BOC would do something other than rely on Bishop’s reassurance. The county usually buffers subdivisions and other developments with berms and vegetation.

This might be a nice way of saving some of the tree cover on the site.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Epps Bridge Centre on Agenda Again

The Road’s On Us

The scheduled hearing on Oct. 7 for the rezone request for the $76 million Epps Bridge Centre on Epps Bridge Parkway might seem almost unnecessary.

The state–at the urging of the county–already has decided to build a $26 million roadway to the project.

The county, in an effort to facilitate the project, has loaned the state $5 million for right of way purchase for the roadway.

The county also passed a beer and wine ordinance in April that any mall with seven restaurants and a 16-screen theater–which is what Epps Bridge Centre is supposed to contain–almost certainly needs to be successful.

The county planning staff–despite a negative review of the North East Georgia Regional Development Center–recommended that the Epps Bridge Centre be approved.

The county Planning Commission voted on Aug. 18 to approve the rezone request and send it to the BOC–again despite conclusion of the NEGRDC that "the development is not in the best interest of the Region and therefore the State."

The BOC was supposed to hold its public hearing on the rezone on Sept. 2, but when developer Frank Bishop asked for a delay, the BOC gladly agreed.

Bishop said he needed more time "to work out some design details with the planning staff." B.R. White, planning director, told me after the meeting Bishop wants to know what he will be expected to do when the rezone is approved.

Even the federal government has gotten into the act. When Bishop decided he wanted to pave over–rather than preserve–the 2,421 linear feet of flowing streams and 1.06 acres of wetlands on the site, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gave him a permit. It even allowed him to mitigate his destruction of the Oconee streams and wetlands by repairing streams and wetlands in neighboring Greene County.

The reason Oconee County is so enthusiastic about the project is the tax money it is supposed to generate. Bishop has estimated that it will generate about $750,000 each year in property taxes for the county and $4.7 million in sales taxes.

With the county planning to ask voters to renew its Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) in March of 2009, retail sales are crucial. The county hopes to rake in $40 million over the six-year life of the tax of a penny on each dollar of retail sales.

The SPLOST is in addition to the existing Local Option Sales Tax of one cent per dollar and the Education Local Option Sales Tax of one cent per dollar. The remaining four cents of the seven cent sales tax go to the state.

Bishop has estimated that Epps Bridge Centre will have annual sales of approximately $158 million, so total sales tax revenue would be more than $11 million a year, if he is correct, and the county would get 43 percent of that, or the $4.7 million.

Ever since the new western gateway to Athens was created with completion of SR 316 more than a decade ago, the county has eyed and promoted the development of the land along Epps Bridge Parkway for commercial use.

The goal has been to make the corridor the new western retail center for the two counties, competing with, and perhaps overtaking, West Broad Street. Epps Bridge Centre expects to have major retail anchors that will compete with similar stores at the existing Georgia Square Mall on West Broad.

To that end, the county has been promoting for a decade the proposed highway that will fly over SR Loop 10 and open up for development the land behind Lowe’s, Wal-Mart and Kohl’s.

The concept plan for the 1.7 mile long roadway, then known as the Jennings Mill Parkway Extension but now called the Oconee Connector Extension, was produced at least as early as 2004 by Moreland Altobelli Associates Inc., the huge engineering firm out of Norcross.

In August of 2005, Bishop bought the exact pieces of land the state had targeted for the extension as well as two of the other three pieces of land he needed for the development. He bought the final piece in 2007 and that same year swapped out some land with Georgia Department of Transportation to round out the boundaries on his property.

The state has delayed the letting of contracts for the Oconee Connector Extension several times, but it is expected to do so in the next few months. Without that roadway, Epps Bridge Centre is not going to happen.

Even the county agrees to that. The planning staff and the Planning Commission have recommended as a condition for the rezone that Bishop not be allowed to build more than a third of Epps Bridge Centre until the extension is completed.

Bishop proposes to complete the project in several phases, beginning with site clearing and grubbing in January of 2009, according to a document he submitted to Oconee County in May of 2008. He plans to start constructing pads for the first buildings in November of 2009. The project is not expected to be completed until 2013.

The mall will dump a lot of traffic onto Epps Bridge Parkway and SR 316 under any circumstance. According to the NEGRDC report, Epps Bridge Centre will generate 19,108 new Annual Average Daily Traffic units (AADT). In 2007, Epps Bridge Parkway near the development site had 27,170 AADT units.

The new road is simply a semicircle allowing traffic to move through the shopping center rather than continue directly along Epps Bridge Parkway and SR 316. According to the 2004 plans, traffic also will be able to enter SR Loop 10 going north and exist SR Loop 10 coming south. What will happen to the existing entrances to and exists from SR Loop10 on Epps Bridge Parkway and SR 316 isn’t clear.

The plans also call for construction of an access road that will dump traffic onto Jennings Mill Road, which borders residential neighborhoods in Clarke County before intersecting with West Broad Street in Athens across from the Logan’s Roadhouse restaurant. This already is a confusing and congested intersection near an exit ramp from SR Loop 10 onto West Broad Street.

One positive feature of the Oconee Connector extension is that it will contain sidewalks and bike lanes, according to a Narrative Bishop submitted to the Oconee Planning Department with his rezone materials on May 07, 2008. Epps Bridge Centre does not include bikeways as part of its traffic plan.

At build-out, 70 percent of the land at Epps Bridge Centre will be covered with impervious surface, including lots of parking spaces, according to the NEGRDC report. In fact, Bishop’s concept plan shows 2,905 parking spaces, which he says is 17 percent more than the 2,483 required.

That concept plan shows a long strip mall with four clusters of building and 15 self-standing buildings, including the 16-screen movie theater. The four clusters are designated for anchor stores.

How precisely Bishop has estimated the tax revenue the mall will produce for the county is hard to say. So far, he has not been asked in a public meeting to explain or justify the calculations.

According to the NEGRDC report, Bishop has estimated it will cost the county only $55,498 annually to provide community services associated with the project. Given that Epps Bridge Centre is intended to be an entertainment complex with the restaurants and theater, the county will have to assume some security costs as well as costs associated with administration and enforcement of the beer and wine ordinance.

Alan Theriault, administrative officer for the county, told me in an email message of Sept. 8 that one entry-level deputy sheriff currently gets paid a minimum of $29,956. Benefits and other personnel costs are in addition to that, raising questions about the $55,498 estimate.

A common statement among government leaders in Oconee County is that development is inevitable. All they can be asked to do is manage it.

In fact, BOC Chairman Melvin Davis claimed on the small, folded business cards he passed out during the July primary election that one of his accomplishments was that he "Effectively managed county growth."

Davis has done much more than manage this development.

Davis was the force behind the beer and wine ordinance, making sure it came to a vote and voting in favor of it to break a tie when two of the four other commissioners opposed the ordinance.

County officials reporting to Davis also have taken credit for working with State Representative Bob Smith to make sure the funding has come through for the roadway Bishop needs for his shopping mall.

When Bishop sent an email message to Brad Callender in the Oconee County Planning Department on Sept. 17, following the BOC meeting on Sept. 2, he copied it to Davis, thereby making sure Davis was in the loop. The email offered Bishop’s defense of the criticism the project had received from NEGRDC.

The BOC seems likely to vote in favor of the rezone for Epps Bridge Centre, if not on Oct. 7, then at a later date.

The citizens of the county are being given a chance to voice their opinions at the public hearing on Epps Bridge Center only after a long series of decisions by the county and its leaders promoting this development.