Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Oconee Voters Say They Lack Information to Decide on Reorganization

Don’t Know Dominant

Three months after the Oconee County Board of Commissioners passed an ordinance that changed the organizational chart for the county, about half of the voters in the county said they didn’t know enough about it to have an opinion on the change.

Of those who did have an opinion, most thought the changes were good for the county.

These are the findings of a scientific survey of 181 Oconee County registered voters conducted from Oct. 21 to Nov. 4. Most were interviewed by telephone, though a few were interviewed in-person.

The findings contrast with those presented to the board before it voted to adopt the ordinance on August 4.

Commission Chairman Melvin Davis, who opposed the changes, said that three-quarters of the people in the county opposed the changes proposed in the ordinance. He said he reached that conclusion based on public comments at the three public hearings and on email messages received by the county.

The survey participants were responding to the following question:

“The Oconee County Board of Commissioners recently passed an ordinance changing the organizational chart for the county so that the county administrative officer and finance director report directly to the full board of commissioners rather than just to the board chairman. From what you know, was this change good for the county or bad for the county? If you don’t know enough to have an opinion, just tell me that.”

The survey was conducted by graduate students in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia enrolled in a class designed to teach them about social science research methods.

I was the instructor for the class.

As part of the class, the students designed and conducted a survey of Oconee County registered voters that included questions on a variety of topics, mostly dealing with national issues. To localize the survey, which was only conducted in Oconee County, the students included two questions about the county, including the one on the reorganization.

The students followed all standard procedures for such surveys. In the end, they were able to complete interviews with 26.3 percent of the persons whose names were selected randomly from the voter registration list for the county.

They completed interviews with 30.5 percent of those persons whose names were selected and used and who were judged to be living in the county.

The sampling error for the survey was 7.3 percent. This means that the odds are high–19 to 1, in fact–that had all registered voters in the county been surveyed rather than the sample, the actual answer would have been within plus or minus 7.3 percent of the answer obtained from the sample.

The survey found that 51.4 percent of the registered voters said they didn’t know enough to have an opinion on the reorganization, and 35.4 percent said they thought the change was a good idea. Only 5.5 percent said they thought it was a bad idea for the county.

The best estimate, then, is that between 44.1 and 58.7 percent of the registered voters did not feel they had enough information to have an opinion, and between 28.1 and 42.7 percent felt it is a good idea. Between 0.0 and 12.8 percent thought it was a bad idea.

Of course, the question on the reorganization could have been asked many different ways, and the answer might well have been different. I wrote this question at the students’ request focusing on what I judge to be the key change brought about by the ordinance, passed unanimously by the four commissioners.

Chairman Davis, who votes only in the case of a tie, did ask that his opposition to the ordinance be recorded in the minutes of the meeting.

The other question in the survey that dealt with Oconee County asked the registered voters how often they read the weekly The Oconee Enterprise.

Of those surveyed, 36.7 percent said they read the paper every week, and another 21.1 percent said they read it at least once a month.

Readers of the Enterprise were less likely to say they didn’t know enough to have an opinion on the issue than were nonreaders and were more likely to think the change was bad for the county. The changes were large enough to be likely to reflect real differences among all registered voters.

The Enterprise editorialized strongly against the change and attacked the four commissioners promoting it during the months leading up the passage in August.

Oconee County had 21,853 registered voters on Oct. 4, 2009, when I purchased the electronic file from the Secretary of State’s office.

Oconee County has an estimated 32,221 residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and 23,940 are estimated to be of voting age. So the ratio of registered voters to eligible voters is very high.

The sample of 181 registered voters interviewed for the survey matched the characteristics of the 21,853 total registered voters in terms of race, gender, and region of the county (rural versus urban precinct).

Interviewers were less likely to be completed with persons under 41 years of age. In the final sample of 181 voters interviewed, 20.4 percent were under 41 years of age, while among registered voters overall 37.8 percent are under 41 years of age.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Oconee BOC Struggles with Rezone Concept Plans

Building Number Five

In concept, it was to include 12 storage buildings ranging in size from 3,000 square feet to 9,375 square feet for a total of 50,925 square feet, and an office building of 686 square feet.

All building exteriors facing Hog Mountain road were to be brick facade.

In preliminary design, it was to be eight storage buildings ranging in size from 800 square feet to 17,400 square feet for a total of 50,810 square feet, and an office building of 685 square feet.

What was built as Oconee Safe Storage at 1711 Hog Mountain road was eight storage building ranging in size from 800 square feet to 34,800 square feet for a total of 68,210 square feet, and an office building of 1,270 square feet.

The second floor of built building number 5, shown on the preliminary site plan of July 27, 2007, as a single story tall and 17,400 square feet, is two stories tall and has 34,800 square feet. It does not have a brick facade on the rear, but it is clearly visible from Hog Mountain road.

According to B.R. White, Oconee County Planning Department director, the important discrepancy was not between the concept plan submitted by Beall & Company for the site with the original rezone request in October of 2006 and the preliminary site plan submitted in July of 2007.

The key discrepancy was between the preliminary site plan and the buildings actually built.

Code enforcement, not his office, discovered that discrepancy when doing inspection before the occupancy permit could be issued, White said.

Concept plans are just that, White told me when I visited his office on Friday.

According to White, the site plan often is quite different, as Ken Beall told the Board of Commissioners on Dec. 2, when Oconee Safe Storage was back before the commissioners because of the discrepancy.

This means that Oconee Safe Storage will get to use the extra space it built. It will be required to put brick facade on the top of building number 5.

The public may assume that if a developer proposes to build 12 storage building and an office that the final project will include 12 storage buildings and an office.

What the planning office is focusing on is the total square footage, however, not the number of building, White said.

Commissioner Chuck Horton made it clear at the Dec. 2 meeting that he felt the discrepancy between the concept plan and the buildings actually built was too great, and he said Beall should have come back before the board with new plans before building what he built.

According to the Unified Development Code for the county, "no building permit, other permit or certificate of occupancy shall be granted except for uses or structures conforming substantially with the Concept Plan and related documents submitted with the application."

The BOC has struggled frequently with what "substantial compliance" means within the last year and a half–a relatively slow period in terms of rezone activity.

On Oct. 7, 2008, the Board debated at length whether the developer of the Epps Bridge Centre on Epps Bridge Parkway could develop the center in substantial compliance with the submitted concept plan if the state did not build the planned roadway to the shopping mall.

It concluded developer Frank Bishop would not be in compliance, so it rewrote the enabling ordinance to stipulate that he could not start work on the shopping mall until the state let the contract for the roadway.

Bishop at that time also did not have his permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for filling and piping the streams and wetlands on the site or his variance from the state of Georgia for violation of the buffers on those streams. The Board was willing to ignore this issue entirely.

Yet Bishop could not have built his shopping center in "substantial compliance" with the concept plan had he not gotten the permit and variance.

He got his permit from the Corps in January and his variance from the state in April.

On Jan. 6 of this year, the Board rezoned property at the corner of LaVista road and U.S. 441 owned by Fred Gunter Property LLC for office-institutional-professional use.

The concept plan that had been submitted was for a shopping center, which requires a business classification.

No concept plan at all had been submitted for the office park.

White told me on Friday that anyone who develops the site with the current rezone classification (O-I-P) simply will have to meet the UDC requirements, since there is no concept plan for the site to use as a guideline.

About an hour later at the Jan. 6 meeting, the BOC debated whether a second rezone–for a shopping center on U.S. 78 at Dials Mill road–would meet the requirement of being in substantial compliance with its concept plan if a proposed roadway inside the development could not be built.

The developer needed approval of a pipeline company before it could build the roadway, and it did not have the approval.

The board ultimately included in its rezone language a stipulation that the developer would have to come back to the board with a new plan if it did not get permission for the roadway.

At the Feb. 3 meeting of the BOC, this issue came up again when state Rep. Bob Smith was before the board because he needed to modify the concept plan for the subdivision he has developed on Porter Creek drive off Barnett Shoals road east of Watkinsville.

White explained at that time that Smith already had built as many houses as the original concept plan allowed. If Smith wanted to add more lots and houses, he needed a new concept plan, White said.

The board approved a new concept plan for Smith’s subdivision.

Despite these inconsistencies in how the concept plan is viewed by the commissioners, the lesson for citizens of the Oconee Safe Storage rezone is clear.

What you see at the public hearing on the rezone is not necessarily what you are going to get.

To know what you are going to get you’ll have to monitor processes and activities currently carried out away from the public spotlight.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Oconee Official Lined Up Opposition to Mitigation Resolution

Calling on Bishop

Prior to the Nov. 10 meeting of the Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee, Oconee County Strategic and Long-Range Planning Director Wayne Provost sought input from developer Frank Bishop.

Provost asked Bishop for his reaction to a resolution before the committee that would put the county on record with the United States Army Corps of Engineers as favoring local mitigation for damage to streams and wetlands in the county.

One of Bishop’s businesses–a mitigation bank in Greene County--could be at a disadvantage if the resolution were to pass.

Provost did not seek input from two other businessmen who could be positively affected by the resolution.

Mike Kelly owns land on Rose Creek in the southern part of the county and went through the permitting process with the state and federal governments to operate a mitigation bank there.

Jay Thrower is in the final stages of setting up a mitigation bank on tributaries to the Apalachee River in the western part of Oconee County.

Kelly’s and Thrower’s banks, if they become operational, will be in competition with Bishop’s bank in Greene County.

The resolution before the committee would favor Kelly’s and Thrower’s sites over Bishop’s, since it states that the county, in the future, would prefer that the Corps grant permits for mitigation for damage to county streams and wetlands at restoration sites in the county or upstream from the county rather than elsewhere in the watershed.

Before that Nov. 10 meeting and in response to Provost’s initiative, Bishop provided Provost with a document called "A White Paper to Help Understand Stream and Wetland Mitigation in Oconee County."

Before the meeting, Provost sent that document to the committee–minus any identification on the cover that it came from Bishop.

Provost also sent the committee a marked-up copy of the resolution itself and a marked-up copy of a legal justification for the resolution. The marking on the documents challenges statements in them.

And at the Nov. 10 meeting, Provost made it clear how he felt about the resolution.

According to the draft minutes of that meeting, which I obtained through an open records request, Provost told the committee the resolution could "drive up the price of mitigation credits" and that "limiting the scope of available mitigation remedies would dilute free market competitiveness."

Provost "noted that he doesn’t see this as a valid area for local government intervention since both the state and federal governments are already involved," according to the minutes. "He expressed a concern about exposing the county to lawsuits if it gets involved in this arena."

Bishop also spoke at the meeting "about his experiences with the mitigation process from a developer perspective and the problems with buying credits," according to the draft minutes.

Greg Smith, a vice president of Wildlands, an environmental company, also addressed the committee, according to draft of the minutes.

Smith told the committee members that "mitigation sites almost never allow public access," so there would be no recreational advantage to creating mitigation banks in the county at least during the "7-10 years" during which monitoring of the sites occurs.

Wildlands lists on its web site the Greensboro Mitigation Bank that Bishop developed. According to that listing, the Greensboro site has 8,900 feet of stream restoration credits and three acres of wetland restoration credits available.

As it happens, Smith also is chair of the regulatory committee of the "newly formed" Georgia Environmental Restoration Association (GERA), which also sent a letter to the county opposing the resolution.

Provost sent that letter to the Land Use and Transportation Committee members before the Nov. 10 meeting.

After hearing from Provost, Bishop and Smith, the committee voted 9-2 on Nov. 10 not to endorse the proposed resolution.

Chairman Abe Abouhamdan reported that vote to the Oconee County Board of Commissioners on Nov. 24, but the BOC took no action. Commissioner Chuck Horton said he wanted to see the minutes of the Nov. 10 discussion before he made any decision about what to do next.

I had offered the mitigation resolution to the Board of Commissioners at its April 28 meeting, and it was referred to the Land Use and Transportation Committee for review at the May 5 BOC meeting.

The resolution, written by Katie Sheehan, a staff attorney at the River Basin Center in the Eugene P. Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia, "urges the Army Corps, when making compensatory mitigation site decisions for impacts to wetlands and streams in Oconee County, to compel permitees to engage in compensatory mitigation in the following order of preference: (1) on-site, in-kind mitigation; (2) mitigation in Oconee County in wetlands or streams with a high conservation value; (3) mitigation in Oconee County; (4) mitigation upstream of Oconee County."

The Corps, which has responsibility for waters in Georgia and throughout the country, can and often does grant permits for destruction of wetlands provided the permit recipient mitigates those damages with stream and wetland restoration elsewhere.

Mitigation credits are often purchased from commercial bankers, who develop sites and sell credits.

Bishop bought land in Greene County and developed a mitigation bank there to sell himself credits for the piping and fillings of streams and wetlands he plans on the site of his $76 million shopping center on Epps Bridge Parkway near Lowe’s.

Those streams and wetlands feed to McNutt Creek, which forms a border between Clarke and Oconee counties near the shopping center site.

After leaving Bishop’s site, the streams flow through currently undeveloped land that likely will be developed in the future.

If the developers of those sites want to pipe and fill the streams for their development, they will have to mitigate that damage. One option would be to purchase credits from a commercial mitigation bank, such as the one Bishop developed in Greene County or the two under development here in Oconee County.

Atkel Development Company of Greensboro owns 160 acres on Rose Creek on the west side of SR 15 just north of the Green County line and was in the process of developing 60 acres of that land for a mitigation bank.

Kelly told me via an email message on Dec. 9 that he has a contract on sale of the 160 acres and expects the deal to close by the end of this month.

Kelly was one step away from finalizing the mitigation bank when he put it up for sale. He never put the restrictive covenants on the land required to make it a bank, but the new owner could still do that.

Tim Funk, who is working with Jay Thrower in development of the mitigation on Goat Farm road in western Oconee County, told me in a telephone conversation on Dec. 7 that all that remains to finalize that mitigation bank is the filing of the protective covenants.

Attorneys currently are working on that process, said Funk, who is with Wetland & Ecological Consultants in Woodstock.

While the Corps of Engineers determines the number of credits needed to mitigation a permit to damage streams and wetlands and it must approve the final sale, it does not set the price. That is up to the market.

The Corps does determine that the restoration be in the same watershed. In the case of Oconee County, that is the upper Oconee watershed.

Land prices are a component of mitigation credit pricing, making it harder to profitably operate a mitigation bank in a county in which land prices are high.

Bishop told the Oconee County Planning Commission at its Aug. 18, 2008, meeting that he could not find "affordable" land in Oconee County for his mitigation needs.

According to Greene County tax records, Bishop Farms LLC owns two tracks of land on the east side of SR 15 north of Greensboro, for a total of 183 acres. The land is valued at an average of $2,328 per acre for tax purposes.

The Atkel land on SR 15 in southern Oconee County is valued for tax purposes on the Oconee County tax lists at $1,229,141, or $7,682 per acre.

Westland-TLG owns two tracts, one with considerable frontage on US 78 as it crosses the Apalachee River and the other on Goat Farm road. The mitigation bank Thrower is developing will be carved out of these properties.

Total acreage for these two tracts is 375, and the average land value for tax purposes is $13,358.

Thrower, of course, had the option of seeking a Corps of Engineer permit to disturb the streams and wetlands on the site but decided instead to put them into a mitigation bank, which will be protected via the covenants now being placed on the land.

I asked the Oconee County Board of Commissioners at its agenda-setting meeting on April 21 to consider the resolution written by Sheehan.

At the May 5 meeting, the Board decided it would be best to send the resolution to the Land Use and Transportation Committee for preliminary evaluation.

Commissioner Chuck Horton at the meeting said the county should "invite people in to address both sides to get everything out on the table. It provides an education and a dialog."

Commission Chairman Melvin Davis said he would ask Provost "to take leadership on this."

According to the minutes of the Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee, the committee did not take up the issue until I appeared before it on Aug. 11 and asked Chairman Abouhamdan to put the resolution on the agenda. He then scheduled it for the Nov. 10 meeting.

Abouhamdan did not ask me if that fit my schedule when he selected the Nov. 10 date. I told him after the meeting that I would be unable to attend because of a foreign travel commitment.

Sheehan did attend the Nov. 10 meeting and was the only person who spoke on behalf of the resolution, according to the minutes. Neither she nor I had received the "White Paper" written by Bishop or any of the other materials Provost sent to the committee members.

In fact, from May through Nov. 10 neither Sheehan nor I heard anything from either Abouhamdan or Provost other than Abouhamdan’s confirmation that the resolution would be on the Nov. 10 agenda in response to an email message I sent him on Oct. 26.

The draft minutes are the only record of the discussion at that Nov. 10 meeting.

They show that, in addition to Provost, Sandy Thursby from Public Works, Planning Director BR White, and county Administrative Officer Alan Theriault were in attendance. The minutes of the Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee show that these individuals are not usually in attendance.

Chairman Davis also was present. Provost and the other county officials present report directly or indirectly to him.

Provost told me when I spoke with him by telephone the day after the Nov. 10 meeting that he had contacted Bishop and asked for a response to the draft resolution.

"I asked them, here is the resolution. Give me your take on it," he said.

I filed an open records request with the county on Nov. 29 asking for correspondence between Davis, Provost or County Administrative Officer Theriault and Bishop or representatives of Georgia Environment Restoration Association before the Nov. 10 meeting that dealt with the proposed resolution.

Davis and Theriault reported that there was no correspondence in their files.

Provost said in an email response to Gina Lindsey, county clerk, on Dec. 2 that he had no record of his correspondence with Bishop. Lindsey handles open records requests for the county and forwarded Provost’s message to me.

"As I said before," Provost wrote to Lindsey, "I have provided Mr. Becker with everything I can find on this. I don't recall if I mailed the resolution to Mr. Bishop, faxed it or if he picked it up in person. However, there was no cover letter or memo that went with it. We just talked on the phone and he came by the office at least once but that was about it."

Provost confirmed in a telephone conversation with me on Dec. 8 that he did not talk to Kelly or Thrower or anyone else except Bishop and a representative of the Georgia Environment Restoration Association. He said he thought that the GERA representative had called him on the telephone.

During that conversation on Dec. 8, Provost said that "in conservative Oconee County" people don’t want any more regulation, particularly "given what is happening in Washington," and they don’t want to take a chance on hampering development, even it means "support for other local businesses."

Oconee County has no authority for the issuance of permits for flowing waters and streams, which are under federal control as part of Section 404 of the 1972 federal Clean Water Act.

The resolution written by Sheehan acknowledges that fact and does not propose any additional regulation.

The Oconee County BOC would simply pass the resolution once, indicating its preference on mitigation, and that would be the end of its action.

Abouhamdan told me on Nov. 11 that one of the concerns raised by committee members to the resolution was that the Corps of Engineers would not listen to the county regardless of what it said.

The efforts by Davis, Provost, Bishop and GERA indicate that at least they think the Corps just might listen.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Oconee's Simonton Bridge Road Widening Stays Atop MACORTS List

Losing Lanes Is Difficult

The four-laning of Simonton Bridge road made it onto the Madison Athens-Clarke Oconee Regional Transportation Study (MACORTS) list of top roadway projects for Oconee County when the Policy Committee approved its 2010-2013 Transportation Improvement Program and 2014-2015 Second Tier of Projects on Nov. 17.

The action was taken despite the protests of Watkinsville city officials against the project and overwhelmingly negative feedback during the public comment period.

Wayne Provost, strategic and long-range planning director for Oconee County, said at the Nov. 17 meeting that the county will come back early in 2010 and ask for an amendment to the report the Policy Committee adopted, according to Sherry Moore, a transportation planner with Athens-Clarke County and the designated contact person on MACORTS matters.

Moore told me in a telephone conversation on Nov. 24 that Provost said Oconee County wants to specify that only intersection improvements will be made to Simonton Bridge road.

The document approved on Nov. 17, however, describes the project this way:

"Widen/reconstruction from 3rd St. to Athens-Clarke County line to make 4-lane roadway with additional turn lanes as needed. Project will include 4-ft bicycle lanes."

This actually was a change from the draft document, which the Policy Committee had approved on Sept. 9. That document described the project this way:

"Widen Simonton Bridge Road from SR 15 to the Clarke County line. This project would include 4-ft. bike lanes." The box on the form in which number of lanes was to specified was marked "n/a".

At that same meeting on Sept. 9, the Policy Committee approved the final draft of the 2010-2035 MACORTS Long Range Transportation Plan (LRTP) update, which described the Simonton Bridge road project this way:

"Widen/reconstruction from 3rd St to Athens-Clarke County line to make 4-lane roadway with additional turn lanes as needed. Project will include 4-ft bicycle."

The 2005-2030 Long Range Transportation Plan contained the same description, according to the Feb. 10, 2009, minutes of the Oconee County Citizen Advisory Committee for Land Use and Transportation Planning.

Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis and Oconee County citizen representative Frank Watson attended the meeting on Sept. 9, according to the official minutes, and both voted for the 2035 Long Range Transportation Plan with the four-lane description and the draft of the 2010-2013 Transportation Improvement Program, which does not specify the number of lanes for Simonton Bridge road.

The official minutes of the Nov. 17 meeting have not yet been released, Moore told me, but she did say that in addition to Strategic and Long-Range Planning Director Provost, Davis and Watson were in attendance. Provost is not a voting member of the Policy Committee, but Davis and Watson are.

The Watkinsville city council voted unanimously on Aug. 12 to oppose the widening of Simonton Bridge road because of its effect on the city.

According to the proposal, the widening would run from the Athens Clarke County line to Third avenue in Watkinsville, where it would revert to two lanes. At that point, Simonton Bridge road continues for three additional blocks to Main street.

MACORTS is required to prepare and annually update the Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) that includes a four-year program of projects (Tier 1) and a second two-year program of projects (Tier 2) to be undertaken in the MACORTS Area.

All federally funded transportation projects for the urbanized part of Oconee County must be included in the Policy Committee-approved TIP prior to receive federal funding. The state also uses TIP to target state roadway funding.

Oconee County has three road projects on the TIP list of transportation improvements to be considered for financing in the next six years by state and federal road funds.

The three are the widening of Mars Hill road/Experiment Station road from SR 316 to Watkinsville, the widening of Simonton Bridge road, and an extension of Daniells Bridge road with a flyover of SR Loop 10.

The first phase of the Mars Hill road project–from SR 316 to Hog Mountain road in Butler’s Crossing--is the only Tier 1 project in the county. The state has promised to provide funding to cover right-of-way purchases in Fiscal Year 2010.

Funding for actual construction does not appear in the TIP plans running through Fiscal Year 2013. [The Oconee Enterprise reported on page A3 of its Nov. 19 edition that the roadway "could become a reality" within two years, but the right-of-way work is expected to take that long alone.]

The remainder of the Mars Hill road project, all of the Simonton Bridge road project and the Daniells Bridge Road Extension are listed as Tier II projects.

No money has been set aside so far for the second and third phases of the Mars Hill road widening or for the Simonton Bridge road widening, and both are designated as long range.

But the TIP includes $50,000 for preliminary engineering of the Daniells Bridge Road Extension in fiscal years 2014 and 2015 and indicates that construction will begin in 2017.

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners has chosen not to get involved in the priority listing of the county’s roadway projects in the MACORTS documents, though Commissioner Chuck Horton suggested at the Sept. 29 meeting that it would be a good idea for the county to take the Simonton Bridge road project off the list to avoid confusion.

Chairman Davis told Horton at that time that the county was engaged in discussions about the project with MACORTS.

At the Nov 24 BOC meeting, Horton asked Abe Abouhamdan, chairman of the Citizen Advisory Committee for Land Use and Transportation Planning, about the MACORTS process and "how roads get on that list."

Abouhamdan didn’t answer the question.

"I’ll tell you one thing," he said. "If you have an idea of a road to be funded by the (Georgia) DOT or the federal government, do not hesitate to put it on the list, even if it is long-term."

He said if a project is on the plan "it will be seen" and if money becomes available for some reason, maybe because another project is cancelled, the state "could pull that project up" and fund it.

Although the Citizen Advisory Committee for Land Use and Transportation Planning did discuss MACORTS projects at its Feb. 10, 2009, meeting, it did not rank order them or indicate which projects should be placed on the draft TIP document approved in September or the final TIP document approved in November.

Watson, the Oconee County citizen representative on the MACORTS Policy Committee, is a member of the county Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee.

MACORTS held three public hearings on the draft TIP and accepted public comments from Sept. 21 to Oct. 21 via its website.

According to the TIP document approved at the Nov. 17 meeting, no one attended the public hearings in Athens-Clarke and Madison County, but nine people attended the public hearing on Oct. 13 in Oconee County.

The report listed 17 distinct comments on the Simonton Bridge road widening, and not one of them was positive. The most common response was "I am against this project," which 27 individuals offered.


I have extracted the five pages of comments from the final TIP and put them on my web site.

The report lists 31 comments about the widening of Mars Hill Road. The most common response was "I do not support this project," given 25 times. One comment clearly supported it.

The report lists 25 responses on the Jennings Mill Parkway project, also called the Oconee Connector Extension. This project is funded and under construction. All 25 were "I do not support this project."

Of the 43 comments regarding Simonton Bridge Road, 27 were "I am against this project. It would ruin the character of downtown Watkinsville and significantly impact those living along the road." None were in favor of the project.

The report lists 27 comments on the Daniells Bridge Road Extension. Of those, 25 were "I do not support this project." None were in favor.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Oconee Commissioner Horton Voices Criticism at Zoning Request

Visions of bombers?

The image is pretty hard to create.

According to a literal reading of the Dec. 3 edition of The Oconee Enterprise, Oconee County Commissioner Chuck Horton blew himself up--"exploded"--at the end of the Tuesday night meeting of the Board of Commissioners.

As is often the case, a literal reading of the Enterprise isn’t to be recommended.

Here’s what actually happened:

At the 35th minute of a 60 minute meeting, Horton, without raising his voice, expressed his disappointment with a rezone request that had come back before the board for review.

"I’m disappointed with this project," Horton said calmly. "I think the record will show I voted for it back in ‘06. But this is not what I voted for. I’m not in the construction business and I understand slight modifications. But this is not a slight modification, Ken, I’ll tell you that. That’s me. Seventeen thousand four hundred feet is not a slight modification."

Horton said the design of the buildings also was not what had been approved, and he added, "To me, it should have come back before the board and we deal with it."

He spoke for one minute and 30 seconds, and he stopped.

Here’s how the paper started its report on that meeting at the top of the front page of Thursday’s edition:

"All was calm, even dull, until the end of the Oconee Board of Commissioners meeting Tuesday when member Chuck Horton exploded.

"‘This is not what I voted for,’ he declared. ‘It’s not what we talked about. These aren’t minor modifications, and they’re already built! You need to come back before this board!’"

The applicant already was before the board, and Horton was talking to the representative of the applicant, which should have been a tip for the reporter that Horton didn't say that.

Commissioner Jim Luke "chimed in" to support Horton, the paper wrote, while Chairman Melvin Davis "murmured" and Commissioner John Daniell "sat silent." Commissioner Margaret Hale "was out sick."

Ken--in Horton's actual quote--was Ken Beall of Beall and Company, representing Oconee Safe Storage, 1711 Hog Mountain road, which was seeking to modify the original development plan to increase the overall square footage for the storage facility, which already has been built.

In October of 2006, the BOC had approved a rezone for the site to allow for construction of an office building of 686 square feet and 12 storage buildings totaling 50,925 square feet.

Instead of that, the current site has an office building of 1,270 square feet and eight buildings totally 68,210 square feet. The storage building square foot difference is 17,285, though the application uses the 17,400 figure Horton referred to.

Beall explained the changes by saying "we discovered there was more topographical relief on the site that what we originally envisioned," causing the builders to alter the plans accordingly. He said such modifications of plans were routine.

The 3.3 acre site fronts on Hog Moutain road and slopes down to the adjoining pasture of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Southern Piedmont Experiment Station.

In the end, the board voted unanimously to approve the changes, allowing the builder to have fewer buildings with more square feet in storage and of a different design than had been proposed and approved initially.

The Enterprise consistently provides negative coverage of the four members of the Board of Commissioners, so the exaggeration and misquotes of Horton are not so surprising.

The paper usually provides favorable coverage of Chairman Davis, however, making the second known error on the front page of the Dec. 3 paper a little more surprising.

In a story at the bottom, left side of the page, based on the agenda-setting meeting of Nov. 24, the paper announced that because of budget problems "county jobs will go and expenses will be cut across the board."

This statement--not attributed to anyone--appeared near a picture of Davis, who is quoted as saying "FY 2011 and 2012 will be tough and even more so (than this past year). Where else can we cut to make up the difference?"

Here’s what Davis actually said, this time literally at the end of the meeting:

"I’m predicting...that FY11 and FY12 is going to be just as tough as FY10, maybe more so. We’re looking already at what our revenue and expenditures will be and whether or not it will go south as far as income is concerned, or where else we can cut in order to make up that difference. We’ve got to have a balanced budget, just like everybody else."

Neither he nor county Finance Director Jeff Benko, who also spoke, said anything about cutting jobs or cutting across the board.

Journalists are supposed to worry about mistakes out of fear that readers who find errors in stories they know something about will assume that other stories they don’t know anything about also have errors in them. Then the whole paper becomes something not to be trusted.

Because the county now puts recordings of BOC meetings on Vimeo, readers have the opportunity to judge for themselves how accurately the Enterprise covers commission meetings.

They have to judge for themselves what to believe about other stories in the paper.

Because of personal knowledge, I can say that the Dec. 3 issue of the paper did contain at least one other error.

The Enterprise ran a letter from me on page A5 in which I tried to correct errors in a story in the Nov. 19 issue of the paper about a mitigation resolution I had introduced to the BOC.

The letter was used unedited, except for my address.

I closed the submitted letter with my name, street address, and "Oconee County." My mail is delivered out of Athens, as is the case for many others in the county, but I did not list that on the letter, which was submitted electronically.

The paper removed "Oconee County" and substituted in "Athens," so the letter was signed, according to the paper, as from "Lee Becker, Athens."

I am from here, even if the Enterprise wishes–and wishes to suggest–otherwise.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Citizen Committee Gives Report on Courthouse, Mitigation to Oconee BOC

Details to Follow

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners received a report last Tuesday from its Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee that included a summary of committee discussions on the future of the courthouse and the committee's recommendation regarding a resolution on stream and wetland mitigation, but it took no action in response to the report.

Abe Abouhamdan, chairman of the citizen advisory committee, said "right now, we’re formulating questions" to ask officials in other counties that recently have constructed new court and administrative facilities in their counties to learn from their experiences.

He said he expected to make a report to the board in the "next few months" about recommendations from the committee on how the county should handle expected increased space needs for both court and administrative activities now housed in the courthouse.
He also reported at the Nov. 24 meeting that the committee did not endorse a resolution originally submitted to the BOC but referred to Abouhamdan’s committee for review that would put the county on record with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as favoring mitigation within the county when streams and wetlands in the county are piped, filled or otherwise damaged for development and other purposes.

Abouhamdan said his committee had a "pretty lively discussion" of the resolution at its Nov. 10 meeting but "did not endorse the resolution for several reasons." He did not elaborate, but he said the commissioners would get the minutes summarizing the discussion "in good time."

He said the vote was 9-2 against endorsing the resolution. The committee has 14 members.

In April, I introduced the resolution, which was written by Katie Sheehan, a staff attorney in the Odum School of Ecology's River Basin Center at the University of Georgia, to the Board of Commissioners. I could not attend the Nov. 10 meeting, but Sheehan did.

The committee, according to Abouhamdan, also earlier this year discussed the regulation of bicycles on Oconee County roads, but he said the committee only wanted to continue that discussion "if this board wanted us as a committee to look at it and study it further."

The citizen committee during the past year also had looked at a number of intersections in the county, including where SR 15 intersects with US 441 east of Watkinsville, and was continuing its review of traffic problems in the county.

The committee has asked the Georgia Department of Transportation to look at the SR 15 and US 441 intersection to see what improvements could be made, Abouhamdan said.

BOC Chairman Melvin Davis, in introducing Abouhamdan, said he asked the committee to give its report since "one of the requests from the board is periodic reports from committees."

Members of the commission made the request following passage of an ordinance this summer to change the organizational chart of the county to give the full board more control over administration of the county.

The report by Abouhamdan produced little response from board members. Commissioner Chuck Horton said he might have additional questions of Abouhamdan once he reads the minutes of the discussion of the mitigation resolution.

Commissioner Jim Luke asked if the committee had a priority list in terms of intersections that needed to be improved. Abouhamdan said the Rocky Branch road and Mars Hill road intersection is a high priority.

In other action at the Tuesday night meeting, county Finance Director Jeff Benko gave his summary of the first three months of the 2009-2010 fiscal year.

"We’re staying on track with revenues we projected and, more importantly, the expenditures are coming in under budget," Benko said.

As an example, according to Benko, the Utility Department collected 29 percent of its projected revenue in the first quarter of the year and spent only 19 percent of its budget.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Oconee BOC to Get Report from Land Use Committee

Finding Katie Who?

The Citizen Advisory Committee for Land Use and Transportation Planning is scheduled to make a report Tuesday night to the Oconee County Board of Commissioners on its work over the last year, including its review of a resolution on stream and wetland mitigation and its consideration of options for expansion of the courthouse.

The report is the fourth item on the agenda for the BOC meeting, which starts at 7 p.m. at the courthouse in Watkinsville.

The agenda released just before 4 p.m. on Friday by Commission Clerk Gina Lindsey does not give any indication of the nature of the report, but Committee Chairman Abe Abouhamdan confirmed tonight that he plans to report on the committee’s action on a proposed mitigation resolution before it and on the committee’s discussion of options for the courthouse.

The BOC meeting is the regular agenda-setting session.

The Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee voted on Nov. 10 not to recommend to the BOC that it pass a resolution that would put the county on record as favoring mitigation of damage to streams and wetlands in the county with restoration within the county or upstream from the county.

Abouhamdam said that the report will not offer any recommendation on what to do about the courthouse, as the committee has not yet completed its review.

The committee made its decision not to recommend passage of the resolution on mitigation after Frank Bishop, developer of the planned Epps Bridge Centre on Epps Bridge Parkway, appeared before it on Nov. 10.

Contrary to what was reported in the Nov. 19 issue of The Oconee Enterprise, however, the committee was not reviewing Bishop’s mitigation plans for that project.

Under the headline "Developer gets OK on wetland plans," Editor Blake Giles wrote that the committee decided that "developer Frank Bishop will not have to adjust his stream mitigation plans."

The committee was not reviewing Bishop’s mitigation plans. Bishop obtained his permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in January, and the county has no authority to issue or modify such permits.

The resolution, if it were to be passed by the BOC in its present form, would state a preference on the part of the county for where mitigation takes place when permits are granted in the future for waters in the county. The Corps would not be obligated to follow that preference.

Specifically, the resolution would put Oconee County on record with the Corps as preferring that damage done to local streams and wetlands be mitigated by restoration of streams and wetlands in the county–or at least upstream from the county.

In April, I introduced the resolution, which was written by Katie Sheehan, a staff attorney in the Odum School of Ecology's River Basin Center at the University of Georgia, to the Board of Commissioners. The BOC referred it to the Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee for review.

Sheehan explained the resolution to the committee at the Nov. 10 meeting.

Wayne Provost, director of strategic and long-range planning for the county, sought Bishop’s opinion on the resolution, and Bishop also spoke at the Nov. 10 meeting before the committee voted not to recommend the resolution.

According to Abouhamdan, among the concerns voiced by the committee was the possible increase in mitigation costs if the Corps required that mitigation be done on more expensive land in Oconee County as opposed to cheaper land elsewhere.

Abouhamdan told me tonight he still does not have a tally for the committee vote since he has not yet reviewed the committee minutes. He told me after the meeting he thought eight committee members had voted not to recommend the resolution and two voted in favor. The committee has 14 members.

Bishop bought land in Greene County and developed a mitigation bank there after looking at land in Oconee County and deciding it was too expensive, he has acknowledged.

That mitigation bank, called Greensboro MB, LLC, currently has stream and wetland credits available for purchase, according to the web site of Wildlands, which worked with Bishop to develop the site.

If the county were to pass the resolution, the Greensboro site could become less viable for future mitigation of stream disturbances in Oconee County.

The Georgia Environmental Restoration Association (GERA), which represents commercial mitigation banks, sent the county a letter opposing the resolution. Those banks also could be adversely affected if the Corps honored the resolution before the BOC.

The error in reporting what the Land Use and Transportation Committee was actually reviewing at the Nov. 10 meeting was only one of several in the report in the Enterprise.

The story said I requested that Bishop be required to mitigate in Oconee County. When I spoke before the BOC back in April, I specifically said I had waited to introduce the resolution until after Bishop had his permits and that the resolution was directed at future development.

The paper also said I live downstream from the Epps Bridge Centre site. Bishop received a permit to pipe and fill tributaries to McNutt Creek. I live on Barber Creek, several miles upstream from where it flows into McNutt Creek.

The story says the Epps Bridge Centre development "disturbed a stream" on the site. The Corps permit will allow Bishop to pipe and fill several streams on the site as well as fill wetlands.

It is a small point, but the story says I was in Egypt when the meeting took place. I was driving back from the Atlanta airport, having flown in from Egypt a few hours earlier.

Giles, who attended the Nov. 10 meeting, called me on at my office at the university on Nov. 12 and asked me to help him find Sheehan, whose last name, he said, he had forgotten. I told him how to find her at the River Basin Center.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Oconee QuikTrip To Include 19 Willow Oaks and 7 Red Maples

Not Hiding the Drinking

Sometime in the next three to six months, drivers using the Mars Hill road/Daniells Bridge road/Oconee Connector intersection will have a chance to stop for a coffee/toilet/snack break mid-junction at the new QuikTrip, officially to be QuikTrip Store No. 819.

Construction crews started clearing the 1.3 acre lot at the northeast corner of the busy intersection on Monday.

When work is finished–the construction plans submitted on Oct. 22, 2009, and approved by the county on Nov. 4 show this lasting six months–all but 0.3 acre of what was until Monday a mostly wooded lot will be covered with impervious surface.

Included will be a 4,555 square foot building with a metal exterior, eight pumps, two of which will dispense diesel fuel, and 27 parking spaces.

Also included will be the tree buffer that the county insisted must be planted on the site to meet uniform development code standards. QuikTrip chose 19 willow oaks and seven red maples, each to be 12-feel tall when planted, according to the construction plans.

QuikTrip had asked for a variance so it didn’t have to plant the trees and said denial would be a deal-breaker, since the trees would hide the gas station from passing motorists.

The construction work on Monday confirmed that QuikTrip was going to build the gas station even though the county–at the insistence of its planning staff--held the line.

QuikTrip purchased the property on June 10, or eight days after the variance hearing, with the stipulated purpose of building the gas station and convenience store.

B.R. White, planning director of the county, told me today that QuikTrip said it plans to complete construction in half the six months listed on the plans, but he doubted this would be possible.

Gina Lindsey, clerk of the Board of Commissioners, said today that QuikTrip has not yet submitted an application for a license to sell beer and wine on the site but that the process usually only takes about 45 days, giving QuikTrip plenty of time to get the license before its grand opening.

QuikTrip also had asked for a variance in the county’s vegetative buffer requirements for behind Store No. 819 because it was worried about people drinking beer and wine hidden from public view by the trees. It agreed to a wooden fence instead.

So if QuikTrip gets the beer and wine license as expected, those stopping for a coffee/toilet/snack break at the Mars Hill/Daniells Bridge/Oconee Connector intersection also will be able to pick up a six/pack.

They just won’t be able to hide in the trees on site and drink it.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Oconee Citizen Committee Hears About Space Options for Courthouse

Mayor Weighs In

Watkinsville Mayor Jim Luken told the Oconee County Citizen Advisory Committee for Land Use and Transportation Planning at its meeting last week that he believes the county administrative offices should remain at the present courthouse while the court functions could be moved close to the jail.

Abe Abouhamdan, chairman of the committee, gave me this summary of Luken's comments on Nov. 11, the day following the committee meeting. I was traveling and unavailable to attend the meeting itself.

The committee discussion was part of its ongoing review of options available to the county as the county considers space needs and ways to meet them. The other item on the agenda was a resolution on mitigation banks, which the committee did not approve.

Luken’s comments followed a presentation by county Administrative Officer Alan Theriault at the Oct. 13 meeting of the committee. Theriault listed four options for the county as it explores its future space needs.

The county could retain the existing courthouse for administrative functions only and construct an addition on the same site for court functions.

The county could retain the existing courthouse for court functions only and construct an addition on the same site for administrative functions.

The county could retain the existing courthouse for administrative functions and construct an off-site facility for court functions.

The county could retain the existing courthouse for court functions and construct an off-site administrative building.

Theriault told the committee the existing courthouse contains only 45,000 square feet of space, about 20,000 of which are taken up by court functions. The estimate is that the court services alone will require 62,000 square feet of space in 20 years.

"For any of the options noted," Theriault said, "the purchase of land is a given." The existing land already is used up for parking and the courthouse itself.

Theriault’s comments were delivered to the committee by Wayne Provost, director of Strategic and Long-Range Planning for the county. Theriault was called out of town unexpectedly on family matters.

I did not attend the Oct. 13 meeting. Russ Page did attend and gave me a copy of the materials Provost distributed.

Theriault attached to the memo he prepared for the committee another memo he had produced for the Board of Commissioners on July 29, 2005. It was in that memo that he spelled out the four options.

Theriault also gave the committee a July 11, 2005, report from Bramlett Associates Architecture of Winder.

In that report, William Bramlett said the county "should give heavy consideration" to focusing first on moving the existing court space away from the administrative space.

Bramlett recommended building a new facility with 20,000 square foot of space for court services that could be expanded in the future to add an additional 42,000 square foot of space.

"This would mean that most of the $4.2 million SPLOST, that is reportedly earmarked for the first phase, would be spent on building a new Court Svcs. Structure that is only approximately the same size as what you have now," Bramlett wrote.

The county included $4.6 million in the November of 2003 SPLOST allocation for expansion of the courthouse, the county government annex and county libraries. About $4.2 million remains unspent.

According to Bramlett’s analysis, by moving the court functions out of the courthouse the county would gain the additional 16,700 needed for the next 10 years for administrative services and about half of that needed for the 10 years beyond that point.

Theriault warned in his note that the analysis by Bramlett had not been examined "by another design professional to determine accuracy of assumptions" and that no analysis had been done of the feasibility of "vertical or horizontal expansion" of the current facility.

Theriault also gave the committee a letter Bramlett sent to Superior Court Judge Lawton Stephens on June 15, 2005, outlining Bramlett’s proposed response to court space needs.

Bramlett said that Stephens had requested a new jury trial courtroom and related space in the next 10 years and another jury trial courtroom and related space in the second 20-year period.

The requests were based on the projection that Oconee County’s population would double during the 20 year period, which now seems very unlikely.

Strategic and Long-Range Planning Director Provost recommended to the Board of Commissioners on March 31 that it seek proposals from qualified planning firms to assist with a long-range planning study of county judicial and administrative needs.

The board decided that a request for proposals was premature and that the public should be involved in the planning process. It asked the Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee to initiate a public study on future facility needs and issue a recommendation.

Abouhamdan said back in September he thought the committee was four to five months away from being able to report back to the Board.

Mayor Luken's recommendation that the court functions be moved to near the jail would keep both the court and administrative activities within Watkinsville, since the new jail is only a short distance from the courthouse on Experiment Station road.

By law, the court functions have to be within the county seat, which Watkinsville is.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Oconee County Citizen Committee Says No to Mitigation Resolution

A White Paper from Greene

The Oconee County Citizen Advisory Committee on Land Use and Transportation Planning voted overwhelmingly last night not to recommend that the Board of Commissioners pass a resolution before it stating the county’s preference for mitigation of damage to stream and wetlands in the county with restoration in the county.

The committee took the action after hearing from developer Frank Bishop, who is mitigating damage to streams and wetlands on the site of his proposed shopping center on Epps Bridge Parkway in Oconee County on property he purchased in Greene County north of Greensboro.

The committee also heard from Gregory Smith, vice president of Wildlands, which lists on its web site for sale available stream and wetland credits for Bishop’s site, Greensboro MB, LLC.

In addition, the committee was given a letter written to BOC Chairman Melvin Davis on August 24, 2009, from the Georgia Environmental Restoration Association (GERA) asking the county not to pass the resolution because it would place "a preference on mitigation actions performed only within Oconee County or within the watershed above Oconee County."

The resolution, drafted by Katie Sheehan, a staff attorney in the Odum School of Ecology’s River Basin Center at the University of Georgia, asks the BOC to state just that preference to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which issues permits for destruction of streams and wetlands and determines where the mitigation for that destruction can take place.

Sheehan drafted the resolution after I had posted several stories on this site about the mitigation process involving Bishop’s proposed Epps Bridge Centre, to be built near Lowe’s on Epps Bridge Parkway. The development will pave over and fill streams and wetlands feeding into McNutt Creek.

I asked the Board of Commissioners to consider the resolution back in April, and the Board sent the resolution to the Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee for review. The committee put the item on the agenda after I appeared before it on Aug. 11 and asked that it take up the matter.

Committee Chairman Abe Abouhamdan scheduled discussion of the resolution for last night. I was returning from a business trip outside the country and could not attend.

Sheehan presented the resolution to the committee. Tim Price, vice president of Friends of Barber Creek, spoke in favor of the resolution on behalf of the five-person board of directors of the organization, of which I am president.

Abouhamdan told me this morning that he did not know how many people voted in favor of the motion not to recommend the resolution to the BOC, but he thought it was about eight members. He said two voted against the resolution.

The committee, appointed by the BOC, has 14 members.

Bob Isaac told me this evening he was one of those members voting against the motion and that Frank Watson was the other.

Abouhamdan said the objections of the committee members were that mitigation should be in terms of the water basin, not just the county, that the Corps of Engineers would not listen to the county regardless of what it said, that the county’s involvement would just add another layer of government to the mitigation process, and that the prices of mitigation credits could become too expensive if only county sites were considered.

Wayne Provost, strategic and long-range planning director for the county, who attended, also could not remember how many committee members were present. He said official minutes were taken by member Courtney Gale, whom I have been unable to reach this evening.

Provost said the resolution assumes that mitigation inside the county was more helpful than mitigation outside and this might not be true. He also said that if mitigation was required inside the county those with credits "could charge whatever they wanted" and that would be at odds with the economic development goals of the county.

He said there also was a "fairness concern" raised since businesses operating in Oconee County would be required to do something not required in other counties.

He also said "it is not clear how the Corps (of Engineers) would react."

Provost said that prior to the meeting the county sent to the members a copy of the resolution, a short biographic note on Sheehan, comments she had made when she presented the resolution to the BOC on April 21, a blog I had written about that meeting, the GERA letter to Davis, and a "White Paper" on wetland mitigation prepared by Bishop. (Provost provided all of these to me this afternoon.)

Provost said he contacted Bishop and asked for a response to the draft resolution.

"I asked them, here is the resolution. Give me your take on it."

The Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee is only advisory, and the BOC could still take up the resolution if it wished.

Chairman Davis attended the meeting but did not speak, according to Sheehan and Abouhamdan.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Oconee BOC Refinances Bond for Utility Department

Easing Some Debt

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners met in a special called meeting at noon on Oct. 22 to approve refinancing of a $12.3 million revenue bond the county issued in 1998 to provide funding for water and sewer construction projects.

The refinancing at a lower interest rate will result in savings of more than $900,000, according to figures prepared by County Finance Director Jeff Benko in support of the decision to refinance the debt.

Prior to the refinancing, the county owed $9.5 million on the bonds in principal and interest.

After the refinancing, the county will owe $8.6 million. Both before and after refinancing, the debt is to be retired in 2019.

The county was able to obtain an interest rate of 3.1 percent for the new bond. The interest on the original bond was 4.75 percent.

The savings of $917,535 is the net gain to the county, Benko said in an email message to me yesterday. The costs of refinancing have been included in the calculations, he said. According to the minutes of the BOC meeting, that cost is $195,000.

The refinancing will provide some relief to the county Utility Department, which issued the bonds and which has had budget shortfalls in recent years because it has not been able to sell the amount of water originally projected due to the drought.

In the current fiscal year with the new schedule, the department will pay $187,117 in interest on the loan, compared with the $938,655 due this year on the principal and interest on the original schedule.

Next fiscal year the county will pay $827,575 with the new bonds, compared with $933,580 in the original schedule. In subsequent years, the gap between the old schedule and the new becomes smaller, with $868,400 due on the new schedule in the final year, 2019, compared with $875,080 in the prior schedule.

The minutes of the Oct. 22 BOC meeting indicate that Jamie Wilson of Merchant Capital reported a savings of $391,989, but Benko said that figure does not include a payback of more than half a million dollars the county will receive once the refinancing is complete.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Oconee Citizen Advisory Committee to Discuss Mitigation Resolution

On Referral from BOC

The 14-member Oconee County Citizen Advisory Committee on Land Use and Transportation Planning is scheduled to take up the issue of mitigation for wetland and streambed destruction at its regular meeting that starts at 7 p.m. on Nov. 10 at the Community Center in Veterans Park.

Katie Sheehan, a staff attorney at the River Basin Center in the Eugene P. Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia, will present to the committee a resolution she drafted for possible adoption by the Oconee County Board of Commissioners.

The resolution, if passed, would put the county on record with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as preferring mitigation in Oconee County or upstream from the county for damage done to streams and wetlands in the county.

Developers that want to drain wetlands and pipe or divert streams on their sites must get a permit from the Corps of Engineers before being allowed to do so. The Corps, in granting permits, requires some form of mitigation.

Builders of roads and other projects that affect flowing waters in the state also must obtain permits from the Corps and mitigate damage with restoration elsewhere.

Oconee County currently has two commercial mitigation banks in differing stages of development, one on Rose Creek in the very southern part of the county and the other on tributaries to the Apalachee River in the northwest of the county.

At its May 5 meeting, the Board of Commissioners referred the resolution to the Citizen Advisory Committee on Land Use and Transportation Planning for review. The committee is scheduled to at least initiate that review on Nov. 10.

Sheehan drafted the resolution after talking with me and reading several blogs I had written on mitigation for construction of the planned Epps Bridge Centre on Epps Bridge Parkway near Lowe’s.

Frank Bishop, developer of that site, purchased land in Greene County and developed a mitigation bank there after, he said, he discovered that land in Oconee County was too expensive.

The Corps subsequently granted Bishop permission to mitigate the damage to the tributaries to McNutt Creek on his shopping center site at his Greene County bank.

The Greene County site lies in the Oconee River watershed, meeting current Corps requirements, but it is south of Oconee County, meaning benefit of the stream and wetland restoration there is minimal for Oconee County.

The state purchased mitigation credits in Jackson and Hall counties, upstream from Oconee, to offset damage it is doing to the McNutt Creek tributaries in construction of the Oconee Connector Extension.

Construction of the Connector, which will serve as the entranceway to shopping center Bishop is developing, is currently in its initial stages.

Both Oconee and Walton counties currently are in the process of working through the mitigation for construction of the Hard Labor Creek reservoir in Walton County, on which they are partners. The reservoir will flood wetlands and adversely affect buffers of the Apalachee River, from which water will be drawn to fill the reservoir.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Oconee BOC Gives First Reading to Solicitation Ordinance

Don Norris Remembered

Oconee County moved one step closer to restricting solicitation on its roadways when the Board of Commissioners tonight gave first reading to an ordinance that would require groups to have a permit and limit the locations of and times for fundraising.

Final action is scheduled for the Nov. 3 meeting.

No one spoke against the ordinance tonight or or when a preliminary draft of the ordinance was discussed on Sept. 29.

The ordinance drafted and read by County Attorney Daniel Haygood would exempt official county groups such as the fire department from the requirements but would require other organizations to pay a $50 application fee and a $50 permit fee before being allowed to solicit funds on public roads in the county.

Only charitable organizations would be eligible for the permits, which would have to be requested at least 15 days prior to the event from the county Code Enforcement director.

Each permit would cover not more than two days. Solicitation would be restricted from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays, with the period from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. excluded.

On weekends, solicitation would be restricted from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., or from sunrise to sunset.

Solicitation only would be allowed at signalized intersections designated by the sheriff as appropriate. Solicitors would be required to wear safety vests.

At the suggestion of Commissioner Jim Luke, Haygood said he would add a restriction that limited to one the number of permits that an organization could receive in a year.

The ordinance only would apply to unincorporated parts of the county, Watkinsville already has an ordinance in place prohibiting such solicitation, according to Mayor Jim Luken.

In other action, the board instructed Haygood and county Administrative Officer Alan Theriault to bring back to it proposals for an ethics code that would cover only the commissioners. Earlier discussion had suggested that the code might be more far reaching.

The board also discussed, but did not take action on, a proposal that it join with Clarke County in a development program. That issue will be discussed again in the hour before the official 7 p.m. start of the Nov. 3 BOC meeting. The discussion and meeting will be at the courthouse in Watkinsville

Commissioner Chuck Horton and Chairman Melvin Davis said they continued to have reservations about the proposed joint development initiative, while Commissioners John Daniell and Jim Luke supported it.

Commissioner Margaret Hale was sick and did not attend the meeting.

At the beginning of the meeting, Chairman Davis asked those present to remember Don Norris, 72, a member of the commission for 20 years, who died on Sunday after a battle with cancer.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Town Hall Meeting Gave Insights on Hard Labor Creek Financial Issues

How Strong is the Limb?

Oconee County is engaged in three strategies to manage the financial burden of its decision to enter into the agreement with Walton County to build the Hard Labor Creek Reservoir, citizens at the Town Hall meeting last Tuesday night were told.

The county is doing what it can to slow down the project, hoping to get revenue to pay the $49 million price tag the county agreed to as its share for the first phase of the reservoir, to be located in the southeastern part of Walton County.

It is looking for customers for the water from the reservoir–probably in metro-Atlanta--who will help pay the bills.

And it is turning to the state for assistance.

These answers were given by Commissioner Jim Luke, Chairman Melvin Davis and Commissioner Chuck Horton in response to the first question posed at the session on Tuesday night.

The story in the Athens Banner-Herald on Thursday mentioned part of the first answer, and the story in The Oconee Enterprise that same day mentioned part of the second.

I didn’t include anything about Hard Labor Creek in the story I posted on Wednesday night. I focused on discrepancies between what members of the board said in response to questions about a number of issues and the public record.

The answers of the three commissioners, however, are worth examining in detail.

When the Board of Commissioners voted in March of 2007 to join with Walton County on the Hard Labor Creek Reservoir and water treatment plant, it did so based on the projection of 8 percent growth in water usage each year through 2016 and told citizens the project would be financed by that growth, rather than by an increase in water costs for existing users.

While the completed reservoir is projected to cost $350 million, it will be built in two phases, with the first phase costing $170 million, and Oconee County responsible for 29 percent. The county has been selling bonds to cover its share of the costs.

Russ Page, active in farmland protection and other issues in the county, asked the board at the Town Hall meeting if it still believed the project could be financed with new growth.

Luke said "I don't know that I know the answer" as to whether the project can be financed through new growth. "We’re in an economic condition that probably none of us expected," he said.

"We are starting to drag our feet a little so we make do for the time being with funds that we have because the growth is not there that we anticipated."

Luke, who is chairman of the Hard Labor Creek Management Board and one of three Oconee County representatives on the seven-member board, said that "we are going to do our very best to not use anything other than water fees" to pay for the project.

Luke acknowledged that the taxpayers–even those who do not get water–ultimately could be forced to pay for the project if water revenues are not able to do so.

Chairman Davis, who is not a member of the management board for the reservoir but has been involved in discussions in Atlanta about funding for it, said it is clear now that Oconee County isn’t going to need the water from Hard Labor Creek when it is scheduled to come online in 2014.

Davis said discussions around the state about water needs suggested "There may be purchases of that water" until "Oconee County and Walton County need that water." He said nothing was firm yet on this possibility.

Horton, who became an alternate on the Hard Labor Creek Management Board in April, said the management board was looking for other "revenue sources," including from the state, but he noted that the state struck $40 million in reservoir funding from the last budget because of a lack of tax revenue.

Luke, Davis and then-commissioner Don Norris voted for the Hard Labor Creek Reservoir back in 2007, while Horton and Commissioner Margaret Hale voted against it.

The acknowledgment of the problems with Hard Labor Creek at the Town Hall meeting on Tuesday night were the most complete to date by the BOC.

In January of this year, when Melissa Peppers of Treadwell, Tamplin and Company reported on the completed FY 2008 audit for Oconee County, she made an oblique reference to the Utility Department and concern about the debt obligations for Hard Labor Creek.

On April 7 of this year, Utility Department Director Chris Thomas told the commissioners that the county was slowing its involvement in the project because of a lack of Utility Department Funds.

Only two weeks later Jimmy Parker of Precision Planning Inc., which is under contract with the management board, appeared before the Oconee BOC to counter Thomas by saying everything was "on schedule and under budget."

The difficulty with the financing of Hard Labor Creek results from a fundamental problem with financing of these projects in the state. They are paid for through water sales.

The just-ended drought meant that utility departments around the state had less water to sell.

The state also mandated that they tell customers they could not use the water for outdoor irrigation, which is a large source of revenue for utility departments during the summer months.

The collapse of the housing market around the state also greatly slowed growth of revenue from developers and from new customers.

Oconee County already has put into place two water rate increases since it decided to join the Hard Labor Creek project.

On April 1 of 2008, under the guise of instituting conservation pricing, the BOC approved a rate increase of 30 percent for the highest residential users. The base rate, however, stayed the same. Since water restrictions were in place, it didn’t produce much of a change in revenue.

On July 1 of this year, the county increased the base rate for residential users by 18 percent and increased the rate for each of the categories of use about the base by 32 percent.

The rate increase in 2008 did not affect commercial users. In July, the base rate for commercial users was left unchanged, and the rate for use beyond the base was increased by only 2 percent.

Thomas had sought a 32 percent increase in the base rate for residential users to take effect in July but was turned down by the BOC.

At the Oct. 6 meeting, the BOC agreed to spend unallocated Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) funds to upgrade a county well on Hillcrest road and sell 500,000 gallons of water per day to Walton County to help raise revenue for the Utility Department.

The audit conducted by Treadwell, Tamplin and Company shows the details of the problem. (I obtained a copy via an open records request.)

The county approved $19,535,000 in the sale of Series 2008 Bonds as part of its intergovernmental agreement with the Walton County Water and Sewage Authority for the Hard Labor Creek Reservoir project.

The county is scheduled to make only interest payments on these bonds until the fiscal year ending June 30, 2014, when it also will start paying against the principal. Each year until that point, it is supposed to make a payment of $936,263, but in fiscal year 2013-2014 it is supposed to pay $1.3 million, about $400,000 of which will be the first payments against principal. The bonds are to be paid off in 2038.

As Davis said, since Oconee County does not feel now it will have customers for that water in 2014, it had better find some other way to make those payments.

The Treadwell, Tamplin and Company audit is explicit about the options if water revenues do not cover the costs.

"In the event that the County System Revenues are insufficient to make the Contract Payments, the County has agreed to levy an ad valorem property tax, unlimited as to rate or amount, on all property in the County subject to taxation for such purposes in order to make the Contract Payments," page 22 of the audit states.

Luke put it more simply. The citizenry is "out on a limb."


The full video is on my Vimeo site.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Daniells Bridge Road Gets Attention at Oconee Town Hall Meeting

2015, 2017, 2025, 2035

About 40 people turned out Tuesday night at the Civic Center for an hour-and-a-half-long exchange with the Oconee County Board of Commissioners in what was billed as a town hall style meeting.

The citizens asked questions of the five commissioners about a covered bridge in Northwest Woods, the possible purchase of land for preservation, the flyover from Daniells Bridge road to behind Home Depot, the widening of Daniells Bridge road, and other topics.

The answers the citizens were given were informative, though not necessarily in the way intended by the commissioners.

"The county did not fully determine who did the damage" to the bridge, Board Chairman Melvin Davis said in response to the question as to why no action was taken against those who hit the bridge. He did not elaborate.

Commissioner Jim Luke said the county didn’t have the money to restore the bridge, though he acknowledged later the county had money it is sitting on for an upgrade of Daniells Bridge road leading to a commercial development site.

The county does not have enough money to buy and protect land threatened by development, such as at Elder Bridge, Commissioner Margaret Hale told Russ Page, an advocate of farmland protection and historic preservation.

Commissioner Chuck Horton said the county is lending the state money--approximately $10 million--to purchase right of way for Mars Hill Road widening, which is supposed to relieve traffic but also is designed to open up land for commercial development.

The county lost about half a million dollars last year in interest on a similar loan of $5 million it made to the state for right of way purchase for the Oconee Connector Extension.

In December of 2008, the BOC approved a rezone for a business park just east of the blind curve on Daniells Bridge road and promised complaining citizens it would widen the road to the site to help address safety concerns.

Public Works Director Emil Beshara told the Board the work would be completed by the end of this past summer.

Since no construction has been done, one member of the audience asked for an update. (I was not that person.)

Chairman Davis said work was on schedule to widen the road from Founder’s Grove to the Oconee Connector Extension–about half the distance promised at the rezone hearing–and was on schedule to be completed by late winter or next spring.

Commissioner Jim Luke said he also believed the work was proceeding as scheduled and noted that $400,000 was set aside for the project.

Another citizen asked for an update on the status of the proposed flyover of SR Loop 10 from Daniells Bridge road.

Davis told her the project is only in the concept stage and "in what is known as the long range plan 2025-2035."

The flyover is one of only three projects in Oconee County in the state and federal Transportation Improvement Program and is slotted for $50,000 in preliminary engineering in fiscal year 2015. Construction is programmed for fiscal year 2017.

Davis was one of two representatives of the county to the Madison Athens-Clarke Oconee Regional Transportation Study, which put the project on the TIP at its meeting on Sept. 9. According to Sherry Moore, a transportation planner with Athens-Clarke County and a designated contact person with MACORTS, Davis attended that meeting.

Another item on that TIP list is the widening of Simonton Bridge road from the Clarke County line to Watkinsville.

No one asked about that at the meeting.


The full video from the meeting is on my Vimeo site.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Oconee Citizen Committee Discussed Banning Bikes from Roadways

Doctor's Appointment the Issue

Though Oconee County expects to begin soon to purchase the right of way for the widening of Mars Hill road from SR 316 to Hog Mountain road in Butler’s crossing and will include in that right of way enough space for bike lanes, clearly not all of the county’s citizens are interested in accommodating bicyclists.

One who is not is Derrek Crowe, who stepped down at the end of September as a member of the county’s Citizen Advisory Committee on Land Use and Transportation.

Crowe told that group back in January that he felt it is the committee’s responsibility to listen to the complaints of citizens, according to the minutes of that meeting.

And he had heard a complaint he wanted discussed.

Crowe, according to the minutes, said he had recently "overheard a woman at the doctor’s office who was upset and crying because she was late for an appointment."

The problem, Crowe said, was the woman got "stuck behind bicycles"–on Mars Hill road!

Crowe asked that committee chairman Abe Abouhamdan put discussion of regulation of bicyclists in Oconee County on the agenda for the committee’s February meeting.

Contrary to what some believe, Crowe told his fellow committee members in February, his legal research indicated that the county can regulate bikes on roads in the county. This is according to the official minutes of that meeting, approved by the board a month later.

"Derrek pointed out that he takes exception with recreational bicyclists being on the roadways, slowing traffic and causing dangerous situations," according to those minutes.

The minutes describe the discussion of Crowe’s proposal as "lengthy." At one point, committee member Bill Tollner recommended that cyclists should be prohibited from using roads without a "certain width of shoulder," the minutes indicate.

Committee member James Morris, however, said problem cyclists are a "minority," according to the minutes, and he felt the county didn’t really have jurisdiction, despite Crowe’s legal review.

Crowe made a motion, seconded by committee member Courtney Gale, that the committee continue its discussion of the issue at future meetings, and that motion passed 5-4.

At the March 10 meeting of the committee, Chairman Abouhamdan brought the matter up again.

Crowe was not at that meeting, according to the approved minutes, and discussion of the topic was brief. It has not appeared in any subsequent minutes of committee meeting.

According to the minutes of the February meeting, Abouhamdan reminded the committee that it did not set policy. That is done by the Board of Commissioners, and he said he would ask the board "if this is a subject they want to take up."

The matter has not appeared on the BOC agenda.

According to Dan Wilson, assistant county engineer, former Oconee Public Works Director Mike Leonas was a strong advocate for including bike lanes on the widened Mars Hill road. The four-lane wide road also will include sidewalks.

Eventually, Experiment Station road from Butler’s Crossing to Main street in Watkinsville also is to be widened to four lanes and include bike lanes and sidewalks.

The Oconee Connector Extension, which will create a half circle from the current intersection of the Oconee Connector and SR 316 back to Epps Bridge Parkway at Lowe’s, also will include bike lanes.

At present, Epps Bridge Parkway in both Oconee and Clarke counties has bike lanes, though they stop as the roadway intersects with Broad street, dumping bicycles into the heavy traffic of that roadway at that point.

The proposed widening of Simonton Bridge road from Watkinsville to the Clarke County line also includes bike lanes, meaning a bicyclist could travel from one Clark county line to another almost entirely within bike lanes. The exception would be along the streets of downtown Watkinsville.

Along most of the route, however, auto traffic would be moving at a pretty quick clip, if the present 45 miles per hour speed limits are maintained.

In many places in the world, it is normal for bikes and autos to travel on the same routes. The Netherlands is particularly sophisticated in integration of bicycles into the country’s transportation system.

Many roads there have bike lanes, which often have separate traffic signals. I shot the video above of auto and bike traffic on a busy residential street in Bussum in late September when I was in the suburb of Amsterdam on a business trip.