Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Oconee's Daniells Bridge Rezone Follows Peculiar Path

Making a Crooked Roadway Wider

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners decided sometime before Oct. 7, 2008, that it wanted to settle a lawsuit over the denial of a rezone request for a piece of property just east of the blind curve on Daniells Bridge Road, but it only started serious consideration of improvements to Daniells Bridge Road at the end of that month.

Those improvements to Daniells Bridge Road, however, became the Board’s justification for its decision on Dec. 2 to finalize the settlement of the lawsuit and approve the rezone despite strong protests from citizens near the proposed office park. The vote was 3 to 1 for the rezone.

The Board had approved spending $400,000 for improvements to the Mars Hill Road and Daniells Bridge Road intersection on March 4, 2008, and it shifted that money to widen Daniells Bridge Road from that intersection to the development site with its vote on Dec. 2.

County Administrative Officer Alan Theriault authorized Public Works Director Emil Beshara on Dec. 1, 2008, to award the contract for the design work on the project to ABE Consulting Inc. of Bogart, which submitted the low bid of $20,860.

The contract and the remainder of the $400,000 cost of the project are to be covered by funds from the 2003 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST).

In its March 4 vote, the BOC turned over $2.5 million of SPLOST funds to repair and resurface just less than 15 miles of county roads and for the improvements to the Mars Hills Road and Daniels Bridge Road intersection.

The timing of the decision and the shifting of the funds were revealed by documents released to me by the county on Dec. 16 in response to an open records request I filed on Dec. 8.

I asked to be able to review "Correspondence in electronic or written format that took place from Jan. 1, 2008, to Dec. 6, 2008, between Public Works Director Emil Beshara and members of the Board of Commissioners individually or collectively regarding proposed improvements to or the status of Daniells Bridge Road."

I was given 12 pages of documents and told that the search for the records took two hours. The county charged me $31.96 for the copies and the search.

The chronology of the rezone decision shows how far the Board was willing to go to justify a decision to rezone the property and how irregular the decision-making on the case was.

In May of 2007, the Board turned down by a vote of 3 to 0 a request by Dolores N. Lance and Dorothy N. Anglin to rezone nine acres just east of the blind curve on Daniells Bridge Road for construction of an office park. Commissioner Don Norris recused himself from the vote, claiming he had a conflict of interest.

According to the deed for the property, it once belonged to individuals named George F. Norris and Sarah D. Norris.

Neighbors had turned in petitions with more than 400 signatures of persons opposed to the rezone, claiming it was dangerous because of the blind curve and was at odds with the residential zoning of the surrounding properties. (I was one of the organizers of the petition drive.)

The county presented as part of the rezone a sketch of an extension of Daniells Bridge Road that would fly over SR Loop 10 and connect to the road leading to Home Depot off Epps Bridge Parkway. The county acknowledged that any such improvement to Daniells Bridge Road was at least 10 years away.

Property owner Lance and Anglin, however, agreed to provide a construction easement for the proposed new road, setting back the office park from the road and making it possible for the county to build the roadway at some point in the future.

Anglin and James M. Lance Jr. and James M. Lance Sr., co-executors of the estate of Dolores N. Lance, filed suit in Oconee Superior Court on May 24, 2007, claiming the county’s decision not to rezone their land was unconstitutional.

In an executive session, the Board of Commissioners decided to settle the suit. Since the county does not provide any agenda for or minutes of executive sessions, it is impossible to know from the public record when the BOC agreed to the settlement.

What is known is that Michael Pruett, representing the county, wrote to Superior Court Judge David Sweat on Oct. 7, 2008, indicating the county was prepared to settle the case.

As part of the settlement, Lance and Anglin agreed to 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. Otherwise, the terms of the rezone were unchanged.

The settlement called for the county to go through the regular procedures before granting the rezone. If the Board changed its mind and decided not to agree to the rezone, the suit would continue in court.

On Oct. 20, the Oconee County Planning Commission reviewed the rezone request and decided to send it forward to the BOC without a recommendation. I and a neighbor spoke against the rezone, making the same arguments we had made in May of 2007 and indicating that neighborhood opposition to the rezone remained strong.

Commissioner Chuck Horton attended that meeting.

The hearing before the BOC was scheduled for Nov. 4. Just prior to that, I and others sent out several e-mail messages asking people to contact the commissioners and indicate how they felt about the rezone. Several told me they did so and that they heard back from Horton.

According to the documents released to me by the county, County Administrator Theriault and Public Works Director Emil Beshara met with Commissioner Jim Luke on Oct. 29 and with Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis and Horton on Oct. 30 to review the traffic issues associated with the rezone. At Theriault’s instigation, Beshara visited Commissioner Margaret Hale at her University of Georgia office on Oct. 31 to discuss the rezone.

Horton sent an e-mail message on the afternoon of Nov. 4 to one of the citizens who had written him indicating that he had asked for a postponement of the hearing and that Jeffrey DeLoach, the attorney representing Lance and Anglin, had agreed.

DeLoach did not attend the Nov. 4 meeting. The Board voted to postpone the hearing and to ask Beshara to get bids on improvements to Daniells Bridge Road from the rezone site to the intersection of the road with Mars Hill Road.

On Nov. 25 the BOC reviewed three plans for upgrades to Daniells Bridge Road, including the one submitted by ABE Consulting.

On Dec. 2, the Board held its hearing on the rezone request. This time, Norris did not recuse himself, although he was asked to do so by one of the citizens present. Only Commissioner Hale opposed the rezone.

At present, Daniells Bridge Road starts as a two-lane road at the intersection with Mars Hill Road, then expands to three lanes, reverts to two lanes, expands to three lanes, reverts to two lanes, and expands to three lanes before it reaches Founders Boulevard, the entrance to Founders Grove subdivision. This is a distance of six-tenths of a mile, and the roadway curves several times in that stretch.

From Founders Boulevard to its terminus at Hog Mountain Road, Daniells Bridge road is two-lanes wide.

The design accepted by the county will result in Daniells Bridge Road being three lanes wide from Mars Hill Road to the end of Lance and Anglin property, a distance of about one mile.

The changes will not eliminate the blind curve on Daniells Bridge Road just west of the Lance and Anglin property, though it will make the curve just slighter wider.

The proposed future improvements to Daniells Bridge Road east of the site, however, call for the road to be four-lanes wide and include the fly-over to Home Depot. Beshara told the Board before it voted on Dec. 2 that it will not be possible to squeeze four lanes through the blind curve.

On Sept. 2, I wrote to Gina Lindsay, Clerk of the Board of Commissioners, asking her if she could help me find a copy of plan for the complete Oconee Connector, which would include the upgrades to Daniells Bridge Road between the proposed flyover and Mars Hill Road.

She told me the next day that no plans existed for the Daniells Bridge Road part of that upgrade, other than the section linked to the flyover to Home Depot.

I also checked the minutes of the Oconee County Citizens Advisory Committee on Land Use & Transportation Planning, appointed by the BOC, to see if improvements in Daniells Bridge Road had been discussed.

At its meeting of Jan. 9, 2007, the Committee discussed the Daniells Bridge Road flyover to Home Depot, but, according to the minutes and agendas, the Committee has not discussed since January of 2006 improvements to the section of Daniells Bridge Road between the Lance and Anglin property and the Mars Hill Road intersection.

Abe Abouhamdan, the president of ABE Consulting and winner of the bid for the widening of the road, is chairman of that Committee. He might have been at an advantage in submitting a bid had the Committee actually discussed it.

None of the commissioners has explained at a public meeting why this rezone is so important, particularly given that they had voted it down only a year and a half earlier.

The county Future Development Map does show much of the property on Daniells Bridge Road from the blind curve to Chestnut Hill Road as open for business and commercial development, though none of it is so zoned at present. The county also has designated the area as open for beer and wine sales.

Brad Callender, county planner, told the Board at the Dec. 2 meeting the area would be appropriate for multi-family housing.

Multi-family housing, beer and wine sales, and office buildings would be a radical change for what is now a residential part of the county dominated by four large subdivisions of single-family homes.

For some undisclosed reason, a majority of the Board wanted to approve this rezone and was willing to postpone a hearing without notice, order up a last-minute redesign plan for the roadway, and shift $400,000 in SPLOST funding to make it happen.

The county is asking voters on March 17, 2009, to approve a continuation of this one cent on a dollar sales tax.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Oconee Commissioners Set SPLOST Vote

County Offers Some Details on Last SPLOST Too

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners on Dec. 16 took the final two steps needed to give voters a chance in March of 2009 to decide to reduce local sales taxes by a penny on the dollar or to continue paying that tax for another six years.

The Board approved an intergovernmental agreement with the county’s four cities, which will receive $5.7 million from the $40 million in expected tax revenue if it is approved by the voters. The Board also set the election for March 17, 2009.

Two days later, in a required legal advertisement in The Oconee Enterprise, the county gave a bare-bones report on what citizens have gotten for the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, or SPLOST, which has been in place since December of 2004.

The county reported it has spent 43 percent of the $25 million it expects to take in from the SPLOST when it expires in November of 2009–or 53 percent of the $20.4 million the county has collected as of the end of October of this year.

The report in the Enterprise covered spending through the end of June of 2008, meaning the county still has 17 months of spending left.

To put it another way, the county has spent 43 percent of the projected funds, but it has used up 72 percent of the months it has to spend the money.

According to the statement in the Enterprise, which is the legal organ for the county, the county does expect to spend the money by the time the SPLOST expires at the end of 2009. "There are no surplus funds projected for any SPLOST projects," according to the statement.

The Enterprise did not run any story about the legal statement.

The report was submitted by the county’s Finance Department. Finance Director Jeff Benko told me in an e-mail message of Dec. 19 that the report does not reflect the full level of spending to date by the county on authorized SPLOST projects.

Costs are not shifted to the SPLOST account until projects are completed and audited, he said.

The published report shows that $3.4 million of the budgeted $6 million for water and sewer projects had been spent by June 30, 2008, and $3.8 million of the budgeted $5 million for recreational and cultural projects had been spent.

In addition, $1.5 million of the $6 million set aside for roads, $67,000 of the $1.5 million for a fire station, and $167,000 of the budgeted $4.6 million for county facilities expansion and renovation had been spent.

The full $1.3 million of the budget for the jail expansion and the full $600,000 for the Emergency Operations Center already have been spent, according to the report.

The report provides no details beyond these broad categories, so it is hard to know exactly how the county spent the tax revenues in each of these areas.

I suggested during public comments at the end of the first public meeting on SPLOST on Oct. 21, 2008, that the county prepare a report on how the money was spent so citizens could know what they had gotten for the last SPLOST as they evaluated the proposal for another.

County Administrative Officer Alan Theriault told me that Benko was preparing such a report "that has to be presented in the newspaper and he should have that for you in the next several days as a matter of fact." Benko confirmed that the reports for earlier years already had been published and subsequently provided them to me.

At the beginning of the second public meeting on Nov. 3, Board of Commission Chairman Melvin Davis did recite a list of accomplishments of the current SPLOST.

He mentioned the new jail, the emergency operations center for 911 calls, recreation facilities, fire trucks, renovations at the library, resurfacing of roads and "water and sewer expenditures."

He said Benko could give exact details.

Davis also made an argument in favor of the SPLOST tax. "As most of you know, a great percentage of the revenue we receive comes from out-of-county residents," he said.

When people from Athens-Clarke County or other counties make purchases in Wal-Mart or Home Depot on Epps Bridge Parkway, they leave behind a penny on every dollar they spend for SPLOST projects in Oconee County. Of course, Oconee County citizens also contribute to SPLOST funds when they shop at these and other stores in the county.

Since Clarke also has a SPLOST tax, Oconee citizens give their money to Clarke when they shop there.

Oconee County officials, who are looking for expansion of the commercial base in Oconee County, particularly with the approved Epps Bridge Centre near the Wal-Mart, expect the new SPLOST to bring in more money than the old.

The current SPLOST is projected to produce $25 million over five years, but the county is expecting the new SPLOST to produce $40 million over six. SPLOST taxes must be renewed by voters. To go to the six-year cycle, the county had to agree this time around to share revenue with the four cities in the county, with the ratio based on their population size.

The BOC approval of the intergovernmental agreement on Dec. 16 confirmed that arrangement.

How realistic that $40 million projection is no one really knows, given the current national and local economic downturn. The current SPLOST produced $5.1 million in the fiscal year ending June 30 of 2006, $5.5 million in the year ending June 30, 2007, and $5.4 million in the year ending June 30, 2008.

The county collected a little more than $1,730,695 in the first four months of the current fiscal year, compared with $1,855,978 during this period a year ago. Benko has said he still projects the county will reach the $25 million cap before the current SPLOST authorization expires in November of 2009.

To reach the $40 million figure for the new SPLOST, the county will have to average $6.7 million annually over the six-year run of the tax.

The county clearly is counting on voters to approve the new SPLOST. Funds will be used to pay down the debt on the new park on Hog Mountain Road ($4.8 million) , to pay down the debt on the new jail ($6.0 million) and to provide for road resurfacing ($8 million) and sewer and water projects ($6.8 million).

Other projects are for fire department equipment and facility upgrades, a new communication system for the sheriff’s office, parks and recreation, and farmland protection.

If citizens don’t approve the new SPLOST, the county is going to have to pay for most of these projects from other sources, such as property taxes and the Local Option Sales Tax, which does not require voter approval for continuation and also is 1 cent on the dollar.

The county’s record for approving these local taxes is strong. The SPLOST for $13.5 million in 1999 was approved by 75 percent of the voters. The current SPLOST was approved by 82 percent of the voters.

In 2006, 79 percent of Oconee voters approved a five-year tax of one cent on the dollar for educational purposes.

The 1999 and 2003 SPLOST voters were voted on in special elections, when relatively few voters go to the polls. Only 1,696 people voted on the current SPLOST when it was approved in 2003.

The 2006 educational tax was approved in the state-wide July primary, and 4,110 of the 17,030 registered voters participated.

How many of the 21,579 registered voters in Oconee County will go to the polls in March is an open question. At the general election in November, 17,208 voted.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Corps Near Decision on Epps Bridge Centre Permit

A Mitigation Permit for the Holidays?

The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers expects to reach its decision in the next three to four weeks on the request by the developer for a permit to destroy streams and wetlands for the construction of the proposed $76 million Epps Bridge Centre on Epps Bridge Parkway.

I received an e-mail message on Dec. 10, 2008, from Billy E. Birdwell, chief of public affairs for the Savannah District of the Corps, confirming that as of that date no final permit had been issued for the shopping center.

"We are currently working on the Environmental Assessment and should come to a permit decision within the next 30 days," an attachment to Birdwell’s e-mail said. The attachment was from the Regulatory Division of the Corps, Birdwell reported.

Frank Bishop, developer of the proposed shopping center, also needs the state to sign a contract for construction of the $26 million Oconee County Extension, which will provide access to Bishop’s shopping center, before he can begin work on the site.

Alan Therialt, Oconee County administrative officer, told me on Dec. 12 that bids for construction of the Oconee Connector Extension were submitted to the state at 11 a.m. that day. Theriault said he did not know how long it would take for the state to decide on the contract.

Oconee County already has put up more than $5 million to purchase right of way for the roadway and is waiting on the state for reimbursement.

Bishop also will need a variance to the state’s buffer for the streams on the site, but he cannot obtain that variance until he has the Corps of Engineer permit.

The Corps of Engineers already has granted a permit for the mitigation bank Bishop plans to build in Greene County. That bank is designed to provide credits to offset putting 2,678 linear feet of perennial streams into underground pipes and filling and paving over wetlands and natural drainage areas on the Oconee County site.

The state is reviewing Bishop’s request for a variance to allow him to do the mitigation work in Greene County. The Environmental Protection Division of the state issued a public advisory regarding this variance request on Oct. 20, 2008.

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners, when it approved the rezone for the shopping center on Oct. 7, 2008, said the county will not issue any permits for construction work on the site until the state signs the contract for the Oconee Connector Extension.

"The USACE (Corps of Engineers) is on the last step of developing the Environmental Assessment and Case Document for the final permit decision. The next step will be to issue or deny the permit application," the document I received from Birdwell at the Corps said.

"The USACE approved the (Greensboro) mitigation bank on 6 June 2008. The USACE received copy of recorded restrictive covenants for the site on 7 July 2008. The USACE issued the NWP 27 verification letter for construction work on bank 23 September 2008," according to the document.

Because Bishop wants to pipe the streams and fill wetlands under the jurisdiction of the federal government at the Oconee County site, he must "migitate" that damage by obtaining credits for fixing a stream and wetlands elsewhere.

Bishop said he considered purchasing land in Oconee County for that mitigation but opted for the Greene County land because the Oconee land was not "affordable."

On Feb. 4, 2008, Justin A. Hammonds, project manager at the Savannah District of the Corps of Engineers, told Bishop that the Epps Bridge Centre project as proposed did not meet federal guidelines.

I contacted Hammonds on Nov. 17, 2008, to ask for an update on the permit, but Hammonds told me he was not authorized to talk to me and that I had to work through Birdwell to get information about the project.

In a letter to Hammonds on Sept. 15, 2008, Kendall W. Cochran, a senior biologist at Wildlands Environmental Inc., wrote that Bishop was revising his originally submitted plans to include 0.5 acres of wetlands "avoidance" on the property. The original plan called for filling and paving over 1.06 acres of wetlands.

"This avoidance will be accomplished by placing an arch pipe culvert at a road crossing and utilizing underground detention to achieve the require (error in original) storage capacity for the site," Cochran wrote.

Cochran concluded by saying that the application now meets all the federal requirements and "Therefore, we request that the Individual Permit be authorized."

He should learn soon if he will get what he requested.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Oconee Agrees to Daniells Bridge Road Rezone

Settlement Has a Price

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners has decided to invest $400,000 in improvements for Daniells Bridge Road to justify its decision on Tuesday night to rezone property just east of the blind curve on the road for development of an office park.

The decision on how to spend the money appears not to have been a part of the behind-the-scenes deliberations by the Board to settle the lawsuit filed by the property owners after the Board turned down the original rezone request in May of 2007.

It wasn’t until citizens complained about the proposed settlement that Commissioner Chuck Horton began to push the Board to be specific about the roadway improvements. He asked the Board at the scheduled public hearing on the rezone on Nov. 4 to postpone the decision so it could obtain design plans.

Only at that time did the Board instruct Public Utility Director Emil Beshara to come up with specific plans for the roadway.

Those design plans call for widening of Daniells Bridge Road to include a center turn lane all the way from the Oconee Connector to the end of the proposed office park development.

The plans do not call for elimination of the blind curve where the roadway runs very close to the entrance ramp to SR Loop 10. The office park will be just east of that curve and will have an entrance very near to it.

The concept plan also does not include sidewalks or bike lanes.

Beshara explained on Tuesday night that the improvements will allow for slight improvement in the tightness of the curve. He also said the way to eliminate the curve would be to put in a new roadway behind the houses currently on Daniells Bridge Road.

Beshara said that when the county goes forward with its long-range plans to create a four-lane Daniells Bridge Road as part of a loop around the Epps Bridge Parkway and SR Loop 10 interchange, it will have to follow that alternate route or accept a narrower stretch of roadway through the curve.

It will not be possible squeeze four-lanes through the existing curve, he said.

The county received three concept plans for the roadway work after the BOC postponed the first scheduled public hearing on the rezone.

Beshara explained to me in an email exchange the day after the BOC vote that he had "evaluated the concept plans and their cost proposals and picked the best proposed approach." That, he said, was offered by ABE Consulting Inc. of Bogart. Abe Abouhamdan is the president and was at the meeting on Tuesday night.

The $400,000 for the project is part of the Transportation Improvements and Maintenance Plan adopted by the Board this spring, Beshara said. He said he expects the work on the project to be completed by the end of June of 2009.

Commisioner Margaret Hale cast the only dissenting vote on Tuesday night. Horton made the motion to approve, which was seconded by Commissioner Jim Luke.

Commissioner Don Norris, who in May of 2007 concluded he had a conflict of interest on the same rezone and recused himself, decided Tuesday he was not in conflict and remained in the meeting to vote with Horton and Luke to approve the project. He simply smiled when he was asked by one of the citizens present to recuse himself.

According to the deed for the property being considered for the rezone, the property once belonged to individuals named George F. Norris and Sarah D. Norris.

The rezone request was made in the name of Dolores N. Lance and Dorothy N. Anglin as property owners.

In May of 2007, Hale, Horton and Luke all voted against the same rezone. Anglin and James M. Lance Jr. and James M. Lance Sr., co-executors of the estate of Dolores N. Lance, filed suit claiming their rights had been violated.

In one of its closed executive sessions, the Board decided to settle the suit. It has never released any minutes of those meetings. The vote on Tuesday was simply a confirmation of that closed-meeting decision.

Beshara, director of Public Works, told the BOC on Tuesday that the blind curve was not "dangerous" but the development would make it better because it would include turn lanes and allow the county to swing the curve out just a bit wider.

Jeffrey DeLoach, the attorney representing the developer, forgot to attend the Tuesday hearing, though it had been scheduled at the time of the Nov. 4 vote by Horton, Luke and Norris to postpone the originally scheduled hearing. Hale missed that meeting, as did DeLoach.

County attorney Daniel Haygood left the meeting chamber on Tuesday to call DeLoach to ask him to appear out of concern that the Board could not take action in his absence. The Board dithered, then allowed DeLoach to speak, though his scheduled time to do so had passed.

Seven citizens, including me, spoke in opposition to the rezone. Ben Goss, president of the Welbrook Farms Home Owners Association, presented 384 petitions in opposition and reported that the HOA had voted unanimously against the rezone. A similar number of petitions in opposition had been presented in May of 2007.

Eleanor Cotton, an attorney, presented the Board with a two-page statement by attorney Matt Karzen, who could not attend, arguing that the Board had a solid legal base to reject the settlement and fight to preserve its original decision to turn down the rezone.

Ralph Johnson, a trained engineer, also spoke in opposition, arguing that the blind curve is unsafe and that the extra traffic created by the development would make the roadway even more dangerous.

Two citizens who live opposite the development on Daniells Bridge Road also spoke in opposition.

No one spoke in favor, except DeLoach.

DeLoach said that construction of the property is not imminent and that the owners may well sell the property once it is rezoned. Documents filed as part of the zoning application in August of 2008 by developers Stephen Jenkins and Edward Nichols of Athens had indicated that construction of the two-story office building would start in the summer of 2009 and be completed by January of 2011.

As is usual in such cases, the developer agreed as part of the rezone to pay for turn lanes and acceleration and deceleration lanes at the entrances to the development. On Tuesday night, DeLoach also agreed to let the county go forward with the improvements and that his client will reimburse the county for that work.

Beshara told me in the email exchange that he hoped the county’s portion of the final costs after reimbursement will be between $300,000 and $350,000.