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.