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.

No comments: