Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Oconee Moves Forward on TDR Program

If Prompted, I’d Say...

Following the unanimous recommendation of the 16-member citizen Transfer of Development Rights Study Committee, the Oconee County Board of Commissioners Tuesday night voted to issue a request for proposals for a consultant to study how a TDR program could be implemented in the county.

A TDR program, if enacted, would establish development rights for areas of the county, most likely in the south, that are not now developed and allow the owners of those rights to sell them to developers in other designated areas of the county, most likely in the north.

The developers who purchase the development rights from the "sending" areas would be able to use them in the "receiving" areas for such things as more intensive development, priority access to water and sewage capacity or development prohibited by current zoning regulations in the county.

Strategic and Long-Range Planning Director Wayne Provost, who worked with the citizen committee and presented its report to the Board, emphasized that the precise rights of those who own undeveloped land would need to be established after careful study.

How the developer could use those rights also would have to be determined. As an example, he said, the county could decide to allow developers to use purchased development rights to build residential units above commercial properties, which is not now possible in the county.

"It is just a tool," committee member Wayne Jordan told the Board, "and there are other tools. It would be a tool in the kit to give us some generally desired balance between economic development and preservation of our farmland, of open spaces, of green spaces, historic landmarks, our natural resources, that we do want to preserve."

Despite the presentation by Provost, Jordan and several other committee members, including Russ Page and Albert Hale, all of whom urged immediate action, the Board expressed caution, citing Provost’s estimation that the needed follow-up study would cost between $30,000 and $50,000.

When county Finance Director Jeff Benko said there was money in the current budget to cover the costs of the study, the Board decided quickly to instruct Provost to prepare a scope of work statement that would become part of the request for proposals.

Earlier in the meeting the Board heard Melissa Peppers of accounting firm Treadwell, Tamplin and Company present the Fiscal Year 2008 Report.

At that end of her presentation, BOC Chairman Melvin Davis prompted Peppers to provide a simple summary of her findings.

"As an auditor, give us a general feeling about how you feel about Oconee County’s fiscal responsibility as effective June 30, 2008," Davis said.

"As of June 30, 2008, you were in a very strong position," Peppers said. "As we know, sales taxes will be down. We have questions about the overall effects of the economy. You have a fund balance which will allow you more opportunities than a lot of your surrounding counties."

Finance Director Benko followed this comment with a report on the most recent receipts for sales taxes collected in the county, and his report was more encouraging. Though receipts overall for the first seven months of the fiscal year are down from the first seven months of last year, in January the county received $13,115 more than it received in the same month a year ago.

The January disbursement actually represents tax receipts from November of 2008, and Benko said he found that encouraging.

Chief Tax Appraiser Allen Skinner next came before the Board to explain his work and offer his estimation of the likely change in real property value in the county. As property value goes up, county revenue increases, unless tax rates are decreased.

Skinner said he estimates that the value of real property–not including auto or personal property–in the county will increase but by less than one percent in 2008-2009. That compares with a 9 percent increase last year and a 17 percent increase the year before.

Skinner indicated that the state sets standards on what kinds of sales he can use to assess fair market value, excluding foreclosures and other types of sales, such as exchanges within a family.

In 2008, he said, 636 residences sold in the county, but he could classify only 318 of those as fair market sales. Of the 636 sales, 84 were foreclosures.

Commissioners Margaret Hale, Chuck Horton and Jim Luke were suspicious, arguing that the real value should be more reflective of what is actually happening in the market. Skinner’s response was that state low does not allow him to do that.

John Gentry, director of Parks and Recreation, also presented the Board on Tuesday night with a plan to create equestrian trails at Heritage park on U.S. 441. The Board put off a decision.

Russ Page

Commissioners John Daniell and Chuck Horton

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Oconee County Meeting to Focus on Finances

It's the Numbers

Financial reports, which should give some indication of the impact of the national financial crisis on the county, dominate the agenda for the Tuesday meeting of the Oconee County Board of Commissioners.

Melissa Peters from accounting firm Treadwell, Tamplin and Company is scheduled to discuss the Fiscal Year 2008 Audit Report with the Board.

County Finance Director Jeff Benko is to present the county Fiscal Year 2009 six-month financial report and the Fiscal Year 2010 Budget Submittal Plan.

County Chief Tax Appraiser Allen Skinner is scheduled to give the Board an update on his work.

In addition, the Board is scheduled to receive the final report of an ad hoc committee studying the Transfer of Development Rights and to discuss the possibility of equestrian trails at Heritage Park on U.S. 441 in the south of the county.

County Clerk Gina Lindsey released the agenda for the meeting–officially the Board’s agenda setting session--on Friday.

Finance Director Benko told me on Friday he expects to have the state figures for sales tax collection in Oconee County from December before the meeting.

The figures for the last year have not been good. Revenues for four of the last six months and seven of the last 12 months have been down.

Even the first half of fiscal year 2008 (July through December of 2007) was not good, with four of those months producing tax revenue lower than the same month a year earlier.

For fiscal year 2008, Oconee County collected $49,178 less from the Local Option Sales Tax and $69,995 less in the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax. Both are for one cent on the dollar of spending, but LOST has more exemptions than SPLOST.

The pattern of growth year-to-year had been steady for both taxes back to 1999, so the downturn in fiscal year 2008, if not reversed, could produce real problems for the county.

Voters in March of this year will be asked to approve a new SPLOST of one cent on the dollar, and the county has projected that, across six years, the tax will generate $40 million in revenue, or an average of $6.7 million per year, or nearly $1.2 million more than the tax produced in fiscal year 2008.

The county recently has approved two new, large, commercial projects, one on Epps Bridge Parkway and the other on U.S. 78, but neither is under construction, and both are years away from build-out.

The county will have to cover lost revenue for SPLOST and LOST with property taxes, or it will have to cut back on services and capital expenditures.

The county already is struggling with the possible loss of state funding for homestead exemption grants. Gov. Sonny Perdue cut $428 million for the current fiscal year from the state budget and the same amount from fiscal year 2010. Unless the legislature reversed the governor and funds these grants, Oconee County and other counties around the state will have to figure out how to make up the differences.

The problem is particularly difficult for this current fiscal year, since Oconee Countyhomeowners already have received their property tax bills and the county has based its budget on what property owners will pay plus the state contribution.

The state exempts from state, county and school taxes $2,000 of the 40 percent assessed value of residences as a way of reducing the property tax burden for homeowners.

Homeowners can expect to get bills for between $200 and $300 if the county does not get the state reimbursement for this exemption and cannot cut its current budget accordingly.

It is a relatively small amount, but the county also learned this week that it is going to have to spend an additional $30,000 as its part of the boat dock for Bear Creek Reservoir. The full county expenditure is expected to be about $60,000, Jeff Benko told me on Friday, and the county had been expecting the state to pick up about half that amount.

These circumstances make voter approval of the SPLOST tax at the March 17 election all the more important.

Voters in the county have a good record of approving this tax. In 1999, 75 percent of the voters who turned out approved the tax, and 82 percent approved the current SPLOST in 2003. In 2006, 79 percent of Oconee voters who went to the polls approved a five-year tax of one cent on the dollar for educational purposes.

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

Currently there are 21,579 registered voters in Oconee County, and at the general election in November 17,208 voted.

Its no accident that these issues are put on the ballot when few people go to the polls.

Political scientist Changhoon Jung studied SPLOST votes in Georgia that took place from 1985 to 1997 and found that the lower the voter turnout rate, the higher the likelihood that a SPLOST referendum will pass.

Jung, formerly at the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia, is now at Auburn University.

The financial crisis, of course, makes it difficult to offer predictions based on what Oconee County voters or voters around the state did in different circumstances.

Melvin Davis, chairman of the Board of Commissioners, reassured citizens in his column in The Oconee Enterprise of Jan. 8, 2009, that "Oconee County is in excellent financial shape at this point in time."

He said that he believed the county will "weather our current economic situation" but that the county "must continue to carefully analyze current data."

Tuesday night’s agenda should offer the rest of the commissioners and citizens a chance to review some of those current data.

Davis, left, County Administrative Officer Alan Theriault at BOC SPLOST meeting of Nov. 20, 2008.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Oconee's Epps Bridge Centre Gets Federal Permit

Piping and Filling OK with Corps

Another piece fell into place on Tuesday for the developer of the proposed $76 million Epps Bridge Centre on Epps Bridge Parkway when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers granted a permit for piping and filling of streams and wetlands on the site.

The Georgia Environment Protection Division still must grant a variance for developer Frank Bishop of Atlanta to allow him to disturb the 25 foot buffer on the half mile of streams on the site.

Bishop also is waiting for the Georgia Department of Transportation to issue contracts for construction of the Oconee Connector Extension, which will provide access to the shopping mall.

The state rejected bids that were submitted in December and will accept new bids in March.

When the Oconee County Board of Commissioners approved the requested rezone for Epps Bridge Centre in Oct. 7, it stipulated that the county will not grant any permits for the project until the state had let contracts on the roadway project.

The Corps of Engineers has not yet posted its decision on the permit application on its web site, but Billy Birdwell, chief of Public Affairs for the Savannah District of the Corps, told me in an e-mail message today that he had checked with the Regulatory Division and that the permit was issued on Jan. 20.

In the application for the permit filed in late December of 2008, Bishop asked for permission to pipe 2,678 feet of perennial streams and fill 1.06 acres of wetlands and ephemeral drainages of wetlands.

To offset this destruction of the streams and wetlands on the Oconee site, Bishop proposed to restore streams and wetlands on property he purchased and converted to a mitigation bank off State Route 15 north of Greensboro in Greene County.

Construction of the mitigation bank in Greene County also required a permit, and the Corps issued that permit on June 6, 2008.

Bishop told Oconee County officials he passed over land in Oconee County for the mitigation because it was more costly. Two mitigation banks are now being created in Oconee County.

Although the Georgia Environmental Protection Division requires that the applicant must have a Corps permit before it can grant a variance for the buffer, it issued an advisory and solicited public comment on the Bishop application on Dec. 18, 2008.

Among the local individuals and groups that submitted comments and asked for a public hearing were the Upper Oconee Watershed Network and Georgia River Network.

"In order to meet water quality standards, the construction site should be redesigned to retain more of the natural areas and to include adequate sediment and stormwater ponds to improve water quality before stormwater exits the property and enters the McNutt Creek," April Ingle, executive director of the Georgia River Network, wrote in her letter.

The proposes shopping mall is designed to include a movie theater, restaurants and large and small retail space, including for major anchors.

A stream on the site; photo scanned from the application.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Oconee County and Its Citizens

Naysayers, Tongues, Dogs and Fleas

Just-retired Oconee County Commissioner Don Norris used a recent interview with Athens Banner-Herald reporter Adam Thompson to complain about citizens he called "naysayers," singling out me and Citizens for Oconee’s Future President Charles Baugh.

"It’s gotten very complicated to conduct the county’s business anymore," Norris said. "Especially, you know, with the open records requests and everything of that nature."

The interview appears on a blog Thompson filed on the newspaper web site on Jan. 16. Thompson reported that he transcribed parts of an hour and a half long interview with Norris he did in preparation for a story on Norris’ retirement.

An open records request is the way set forth in Georgia law for citizens to ask formally for information from local and state governments. Both Baugh and I have used this procedure frequently to obtain information from Oconee County. The County even requires citizens to file open records requests to view minutes of local meetings.

The Oconee Enterprise, the private weekly newspaper that carries the legal advertisements for the county and usually reflects the county’s point of view, also voiced its complaints about citizens in an editorial in the paper on Jan. 15.

While most of those speaking out at two recent rezone requests before the Board of Commissioners on Jan. 6 were "civilized and cordial," the paper’s editorial said, they contrasted with those speaking at "many earlier hearings that the BOC has held" where "free speech flowered at its ugliest" and citizens were "more like thugs using brass knuckles on their tongues."

Because the county has now started making video recordings of its meetings–after Baugh, Russ Page, Tony Glenn and I said we would make and post the recordings ourselves if the county did not do it–citizens can judge for themselves whether presenters have abused their rights to free speech at recent rezone hearings.

Citizens spoke at hearings before the BOC on Oct. 7, Dec. 2, and Jan. 6, and all of those meetings are on the county’s web site.

Oconee County is going through a transition. It is less homogeneous than in the past, and there is a tension between "old" Oconee, represented by people with deep roots in the county, such as former Commissioner Norris, and people who have moved into the new subdivisions concentrated around the northern part of the county.

Rezone disagreements often pit the interests of "old" Oconee, which wants to do things on its terms, as in the past, and the interests of people in the subdivisions, where some also want to have a say in how things are changed and do not necessarily want to follow the old rules.

The rezone request voted on by the Board on Dec. 2 illustrates the conflict well. It will put another office building on Daniells Bridge Road in what is now a residential neighborhood.

The way the decision was made shows the arms-length distance the county government tries to keep from its citizens.

The property that was rezoned is owned by Dorothy N. Anglin and Delores N. Lance. According to the deed, the property earlier belonged George F. Norris and Sarah D. Norris, distant relatives of former Commissioner Norris.

On April 3, 2007, the BOC decided to approve the rezone of two separate properties on Daniells Bridge Road for another office park and for the SpringHill Suites by Marriott hotel now under construction.

At that April 3 meeting, the BOC required the two developers to agree to work with the county on design and upgrade of the roadway.

On May 1, 2007, one of the developers was back before the Board, seeking to develop another office park on 9 acres further down Daniells Bridge Road–just east of the blind curve in the roadway.

Once again, the planning staff recommended that the developer agree to work with the county on design and upgrade of the roadway.

This time, however, after strong protest from neighbors who said the office park was a safety hazard and would adversely affect the residential character of the area, the Board voted to turn down the rezone.

Just after the Board rejected the Daniells Bridge Road rezone for the office park, Commissioner Chuck Horton told me that the rezone was likely to come up again and that I and others in the area affected by the rezone should be prepared for that eventuality.

As a result, on May 24, 2007, I sent an e-mail message to Alan Therialt, administrative officer of the county, informing him that my neighbors and I wanted to be involved "in discussions about the upgrade of Daniells Bridge Road" that were taking place between the county and the developers.

Theriault wrote me back via e-mail on May 31 saying such involvement was unlikely. He copied the e-mail to all five of the members of the Board of Commissioners.

"While we may ask that the project developers involve or allow citizen input into their design, we cannot force them to do so," Theriault said. The developer has to meet state and national standards, he said, and need not respond to the desires of citizens.

Theriault did say he would "be more than happy to inquire on your behalf" about the willingness of the developers to talk with citizens "and will advise you accordingly."

Theriault also said that if the Board of Commissioners decided to undertake upgrades to Daniells Bridge Road beyond that which would be required of the developers, "we would of course welcome input from residents in the area."

That was the last I or any of my neighbors heard about Daniells Bridge Road from Theriault or anyone else in county government.

On May 24, 2007–the same day I wrote Theriault--Dorothy N. Anglin, James L. Lance Sr. and James L. Lance Jr. filed suit in Oconee County Superior Court, claiming the county had acted unconstitutionally in denying the rezone and asking the court to overturn the BOC decision. James L. Lance Sr. and James L. Lance Jr. are co-executors of the estate of Delores N. Lance.

More than a year later, on Oct. 7, 2008, the county prepared a consent order to settle the suit and to proceed to grant the rezone requested by the property owners.

How, when and why that decision was made remains unknown to the public. The Board of Commissioners meets with County Attorney Daniel Haygood in secret sessions, and records of those sessions are never released to the public. Haygood, however, would not have moved forward with a settlement without Board acquiescence or approval.

It would have been easy for members of the Board to have contacted concerned citizens to explain the decision to settle the suit, either before the Oct. 7 consent order or after.

Commissioners Margaret Hale, Horton and Jim Luke had met with the Welbrook Farms Home Owners Association on April 30, 2007, to learn of the concern of citizens in that neighborhood. I was president of the HOA at that time. The association voted that night to ask the BOC to deny the rezone.

Board Chairman Melvin Davis also had met with several neighbors and me on the site of the rezone before the Board vote.

In addition, the county had in its files the signed petitions of more than 400 citizens, many of them from Welbrook Farms, Lake Wellbrook, Birchmore Hills, Settlers Ridge, Founders Grove, and Chestnut Glen, which are near the rezone site.

Welbrook Farms has a website that lists the association officers. It is easily found through an Internet search.

Citizens learned of the settlement not from their elected officials but via the legally required announcements of the public hearings on the rezone. The legal advertisement for the hearing appeared in the The Oconee Enterprise on Oct. 2, 2008, and signs appeared on the rezone site at approximately the same time.

At the Oct. 20 hearing before the Planning Commission, I and neighbor Ralph Johnson informed the Commission that the neighborhood remained opposed to the rezone. Horton from the Board of Commissioners was there.

Fifteen citizens, again including me, appeared at the legally scheduled hearing on Nov. 4, 2008-- election night--only to learn that the Board, at the initiation of Commissioner Horton, had decided not to hold the hearing.

Instead, the Board decided to ask Emil Beshara, director of Public Works for the county, to come back to the Board on Nov. 25 with plans for improvements in Daniells Bridge Road.

Beshara presented the Board at the Nov. 25 meeting three such designs for a $400,000 widening of Daniells Bridge Road from the Anglin and Lance property to the intersection of Daniells Bridge Road and Mars Hill Road. No citizens had been consulted.

At the rescheduled hearing on Dec. 2, the Board finally allowed citizens to speak. None spoke in favor of the rezone, but seven spoke in opposition, and one of those turned in petitions signed by 384 persons asking the Board to turn down the rezone.

It did just the opposite.

Oconee County has a Citizen Advisory Committee on Land Use and Transportation that meets monthly. In theory, it provides the County with citizen feedback on transportation issues, such as improvements to Daniells Bridge Road.

The minutes of the Committee back through January of 2006 show that the Committee never discussed improvements to Daniells Bridge Road from the Anglin and Lance property to the Mars Hill Road intersection.

At its meeting of Jan. 9, 2007, the Committee did discuss, at the initiation of then County Public Works Director Mike Leonas, the proposed Daniells Bridge Road flyover to Home Depot, an improvement to the east of the Anglin and Lance property that the county has acknowledged is at least 10 years away.

Had Beshara or anyone else decided to involve the Land Use and Transportation Committee in deliberations about the proposed settlement of the Anglin and Lance case or planned improvements in Daniells Bridge Road from the site to Mars Hill Road, they would have reached affected citizens.

Bob Isaac and James Morris are two of the 12 citizens members of that committee. Both live in Welbrook Farms. Both signed the petition turned in on Dec. 2 opposing the rezone.

The Land Use and Transportation Committee is but one of six permanent committees on which citizens can serve. Others deal with such issues as development, recreation and cultural affairs.

The Board appoints members to these committees after advertising for applications. Candidates fill out a form and appear before the Board at one of its regular meetings for an interview.

The Board then goes into closed sessions to talk about the applicants. When it returns, it simply announces the winners, and that is that. No public announcement is ever made of what the Board considered in making its decision.

It is clear, however, that at least some members of the Board are far from passive in getting people to apply.

Isaac and Morris–very able individuals–were professional associates of Chairman Davis when he was an extension agent for the University of Georgia.

In October of 2007, I applied for a seat on the Oconee Development Authority. Another candidate was Steve Hollis, the CEO of Power Partners Inc. of Athens and a resident of Oconee County.

Three times Hollis missed his chance to be interviewed by the Board, and the Board kept putting off its decision. Then, on Nov. 6, 2007, he finally showed up and began his interview with these words: "It is an honor to be asked to serve."

The Board went into executive session that night and appointed Hollis to the Development Authority.

The Board also appoints ad hoc committees to deal with issues that arise. Last fall an Impact Fee Study Committee reported to the Board. It didn’t reach agreement on whether fees should be enacted, and the Board decided to take no action.

Another ad hoc committee has reported favorably on the feasibility of a Transfer of Development Rights program, and the BOC will be asked to act on that soon.

The Board of Commissioners schedules a time for citizen comments at each of its two monthly meetings. Specific rules apply, such as one allowing the Chairman to "terminate discussion of any item or statement at any time it is deemed irrelevant or repetitious."

The time for citizens to talk is near the end of the session, and the Commissioners seldom appear to be paying much attention to what is said.

The public hearings on rezones are required by law, and for these as well the Board has a tightly regulated policy restricting the amount time for comments and how they are to be presented. Chairman Davis reads the rules to the audience at the start of each such hearing.

The Board postpones these publicly scheduled hearings without notice, and citizens who turned out to speak, as was the case on Nov. 4, are simply left hanging.

The Oct. 7 hearing on the Epps Bridge Centre in Epps Bridge parkway had been scheduled for a month earlier and postponed at the last minute without prior announcement. Citizens were in attendance and planning to speak at the originally scheduled hearing.

The Jan. 6 BOC meeting involved two public hearings, and one of those had been scheduled earlier and postponed. It was for a shopping center on U.S. 441 at LaVista Road, and the number of people who turned out in opposition on Jan. 6 was so great that about half were not even able to get into the meeting chambers.

Without any advance warning to those who came to speak, the Board switched the rezone request and approved an office park for the property, though none had been requested. The citizens never had a chance to indicate how they felt about that swap or even see any plans for what an office park on the site might look like.

For the last four years, citizens in the county have closely monitored county plans for an upgrade of the Rocky Branch sewage treatment plant. The upgrade called for discharging treated sewage water into Barber Creek, which flows through many residential neighborhoods in the northern part of the county.

I and others formed a group called Friends of Barber Creek to help keep people informed about this issue and to help organize a public hearing before the state Environment Protection Division on the discharge permit.

The group is legally registered with the Georgia Secretary of State, has officially listed officers and operates a web site.

On Nov. 14, without any prior notice to officers of Friends of Barber Creek or other concerned citizens, County Clerk Gina Lindsey sent out an official announcement that the BOC would hold a work session at 5:30 p.m. on Nov. 20 "to discuss options for the expansion of wastewater treatment capacity."

The Board met in the Grand Jury Room at the Oconee County Courthouse, which is small and has space for only a few citizens. It did not make a video recording of the session. Russ Page, who is an advocate for farmland protection, did record it, however, and I’ve uploaded it to my Vimeo site.

The Board voted to put on hold everything it had discussed for more than four years regarding the Rocky Branch plant and decided instead to expand the operation of the Calls Creek plant outside Watkinsville. Citizens who live along Calls Creek also had no notice of the change.

At the same meeting, the Board put its final touches on its plans for the upcoming Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax revenue allocations. Citizens will be asked to approve or disapprove the tax on March 17.

The county had held two public hearings on the allocation of funds for SPLOST earlier, but citizens at the meetings were presented a list of priorities of the county departments and the Sheriff’s office at the beginning of the meetings. Only once representatives of those units spoke were citizens allowed to indicate what they thought should be included in the SPLOST funding.

Farmland advocate Page asked for $1 million for farmland protection and $1 million for historic preservation. He got half his request for farmland protection and an uncertain amount for historical preservation.

Oconee County Commissioners rarely explain their votes at the public meetings either before or after they make them. Citizens are not given copies of documents they are reviewing, and those documents generally are not shown on the projector in the room, though the commissioners often view them on computers screens at their desktops.

At rezone hearings, most, but not all, of the rezone documents are presented via the projector, but once citizens have made their comments, the Commissioners mostly talk with staff and the developer about their concerns. Rarely is there even reference made to the comments of the citizens.

The five commissioners are all elected at large, so none of them has any particular connection to citizens in specific sections of the county. They also seem to subscribe to the view that citizens have a chance to vote on them every four years and once elected they have the power to make decisions largely without seeking out citizen input.

The media could serve as an advocate for citizens. Many journalists like to talk about themselves as the watchdog of government and the representative of the public interest.

Now-retired University of Minnesota Journalism Professor Phil Tichenor, an expert on the relationship between the media and the community, has found, however, that the media in small towns are more likely to be supporters than critics of the local government and power structure.

The Enterprise is a case in point.

In fiscal year 2007-2008, the Enterprise received $28,563 for subscriptions, legal advertisements and other public notices it ran for the county, according to documents provided to me by the county in response to an open records request I filed. The year before, the county paid the paper $21,874.

The spending is not clearly delineated in the documents I received, but it appears that most of it is for general notices in the paper, rather than required legal advertising. For example, the Utility Department paid the paper $3,276 in calendar year 2007, much of it for display advertisements about water use restrictions.

Publisher Vinnie Williams reported in her column in the Jan. 8, 2009, issue of the paper that the Enterprise had 12 employees on the payroll, including two reporters and an editor. The two reporters were hired after completing their college studies last spring, the paper reported at the time.

My own research on the journalism labor force shows that the median starting salary for entry-level reporters hired at weeklies around the country last year was $26,900.

The county’s payments to the Enterprise, in other words, would cover a major part of the salary of one of those two reporters–depending on what they actually are paid–but it is only a small part of the overall budget of the paper. Yet the county does have options for its advertising, and it is unlikely the Enterprise would like the county to exercise them.

The treatment the county receives in the Enterprise reflects that.

The paper has begun offering BOC Chairman Davis a weekly column so he can tout what he sees as the achievements of the county. The sheriff also has a column.

Just below the editorial in the Jan. 15 issue of the paper (with the odd simile about tongues wearing brass knuckles), Davis explained how the county decides which roads to pave. He also used the column to make a pitch for the March 17 SPLOST vote.

In the editorial above the column, the paper sang its praises of Davis and his fellow commissioners. "Never have we been as proud of the Oconee County Board of we were last Tuesday evening," the editorial said.

The reference was to the meeting at which the Board swapped the shopping center for an unrequested office park and approved another massive shopping center that citizens said was going to create traffic problems and noise and light pollution for their neighborhood.

The Enterprise in that same editorial said it was proud of the county’s citizens who attended those hearings. The citizens were not critics of the county. Rather, they were "committed, concerned, articulate" and "cordial."

That, it seems, is what citizens in Oconee County are supposed to be–quiet until called upon, and then respectful.

Former Commission Don Norris, in his interview with Banner-Herald reporter Adam Thompson, said the critics were simply "naysayers," but he acknowledge the group was made up of others in addition to Charlie Baugh and me.

"That goes with the job," he told Thompson. "A dog’s going to pick up fleas."

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Oconee Superintendent Finalists Want Conversations with County Government

Same Team, Said One; Share Costs, Said Another

Each of the two finalists for the job of superintendent of Oconee County schools told the approximately 150 persons who turned out to meet and hear the pair respond to citizen questions at North Oconee High School on Tuesday night that he wants to work closely with county government officials if selected.

Interim Superintendent John Jackson said he already is in discussion with county Administrative Officer Alan Theriault and Finance Director Jeff Benko about an administrative building to be shared by the school system and the county and he hopes to move those discussions along if selected.

Banks County Superintendent Chris Erwin, the second finalist, said "we are all in this together" and that the Board of Commissioners and the Board of Education can collaborate to improve education for the county.

Jackson said there are opportunities for the county and the schools to do joint purchasing of such things as fuel to save costs.

Erwin said it is important for the Board of Commissioners and the Board of Education to work as one team, not two teams "working against each other" or even working separately. He said the two boards need to have "critical conversations" about a variety of things, including zoning, and about expectations for the future of the county.

Erwin and Jackson fielded questions asked by Board of Education Chairman David Weeks that covered a wide range of topics. Weeks said the questions all were submitted by citizens, including one question he said he viewed as a "knock" on the Board.

The questioner wanted to know if the candidates are concerned about the turnover in the superintendent position in the county. Both answered that they are.

Former Superintendent Tom Dohrmann stepped down at the end of last school year under pressure from the Board of Education. Dohrmann was appointed superintendent of the Oconee system only in May of 2005.

The session lasted for just less than an hour and included questions on budget cuts, evaluation of school staff and of teachers, technology needs, and the appeal of the position. Each candidate was asked to talk about his qualifications for the job.

I arrived at the session a few minutes after it started and took a seat at the rear. I’ve uploaded a video recording I made of the session, minus the first question and two in the middle when I was changing the battery in the camera. The video quality is poor, as the clip above indicates, but the audio is adequate.

The full video is on my Vimeo site.

Today’s Athens Banner-Herald also contains coverage of the forum, and the paper’s web site has audio recordings of selections of answers to three of the questions posed by Weeks.

Interested citizens can go to the school system web site to express opinions on the forum and the candidates.

Weeks said the Board plans to make a decision on the next superintendent in February.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Epps Bridge Centre Explains Need for EPD Variances

Streams or Shopping

The developer of the proposed Epps Bridge Centre on Epps Bridge Parkway has asked the Georgia Environmental Protection Division to allow him to violate the 25-foot buffer along streams and wetlands on the site because he otherwise cannot do his development given the stream and wetland location.

He also has asked the EPD to set aside its expectation that he mitigate the damage to the streams by restoring other streams on the site because he wants to pave over or pipe all the streams on the site, not leaving any streams for mitigation.

The EPD is considering the request by developer Frank Bishop of Atlanta to get a variance to the state buffers so he can build a $76 million shopping center on Epps Bridge Parkway west of the current Lowe’s.

Citizens have until Jan. 19 to submit their comments.

According to the Jan. 22, 2008, letter from Barney Crooks of environmental consultant ACER that accompanies the application for the variance, Bishop proposes to disturb 62 acres of the 63-acre site on Epps Bridge Parkway.

The site contains five perennial streams, two ephemeral streams and four vegetated or forested wetlands, all of which drain to McNutt Creek, which forms the border with Clarke County near the development.

The application is to allow Bishop to encroach on the 25-foot buffer along 2,678 linear feet of perennial streams (about a half mile), 0.06 acre of ephemeral streams and 1.0 acre of forested wetlands on the site.

Several revisions were made to the conceptual site plan to try to reduce impact on the streams and wetlands "as much as possible," according to the ACER letter. "But, due to the location of the jurisdictional areas on the site, the spatial constraints of the site and the development requirements of the project, impacts of these jurisdictional areas were unavoidable."

EPD requires that the developer "offset the buffer encroachment and any loss of buffer functions" through mitigation, which "should be on-site when possible."

In the Jan. 22 letter, Crooks of ACER argues that Bishop should be exempted from the EPD requirement of on-site mitigation since such mitigation is "unfeasible because of the site’s layout" and because there are no remaining streams or wetlands left on the site that can be restored.

ACER of Lawrenceville prepared the buffer variance application for Bishop and his Oconee 316 Associates.

Bishop told the Oconee County Planning Commission on Aug, 18, 2008, that he was aware of the existence of the streams and wetlands on the site when he purchased it.

According to the application, Epps Bridge Centre, which is proposed to contain a movie theater, restaurants and large and small retail outlets, consumers in Oconee County need the proposed development.

"This section of Oconee County is rapidly growing," the application states, "and the need for commercial retail development that is economically valuable to the consumer and easily accessible from the highway is in high demand."

The letter was written before the current economic collapse of the county, state and nation, and at least one retail development, near Kohl’s just east of the proposed site on Epps Bridge Parkway, is largely unoccupied.

Before the state can grant a variance, Bishop must obtain a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the proposed piping and filling of the streams and wetlands on the site. The Corps is supposed to post its decisions on its web site once they are made, and no posting for the Epps Bridge Centre application has appeared as of this writing.

Billy E. Birdwell, chief of Public Affairs for the Savannah District of the Corps, told me in an e-mail message on Dec. 31 that "We should complete our decision in the next two weeks."

Citizens interested in writing to the EPD regarding the variance request can send their letters to:

Program Manager
Non Point Source Program
Erosion and Sedimentation Control
4220 International Parkway
Suite 101
Atlanta, Georgia 30354.

Reference should be made to:
Control #: BV-108-08-01.

The EPD can hold a public hearing on the variance request.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Oconee Rezones More Commercial and Office Park Space

Something for the New Year: Swapping Zoning Requests

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners approved two rezone projects Tuesday night, authorizing additional retail and office development in the county.

The Commission chambers was packed for the hearings on the rezones, with many citizens crammed into the hallway outside the meeting room for lack of space.

In the first rezone, involving the Fred Gunter Property on U.S. 441 at LaVista Road, the Board voted to grant a rezone for Office Institutional Professional (OIP) use though the developer had asked for a B-2 Highway Business District zone and had presented a concept plan for a shopping center.

The Board approved the OIP zone without seeing any proposal for a relevant use of the land.

The Board then voted to approve a 425,213 square foot commercial project combined with a retirement residential community that stretches from Barber Creek on U.S. 78 nearly to Pete Dickens Lane. The commercial strip is to be called the Markets at the Meadows.

The residential community, separated by a gas transmission line easement, is being called the Village at the Meadows. It will retain and incorporate the existing Pete Dickens Lake, on a tributary to Barber Creek.

Citizens spoke out in opposition to both zoning requests, and the Board showed considerable division over and even confusion about the proper course of action.

Before the hearing, the Board went into a closed session with County Attorney Daniel Haygood to talk about the Gunter rezone request, which is the subject of a lawsuit. The Board had turned down the rezone request in its meeting on July 3, 2007.

In a letter sent to the Board as recently as Jan. 5, 2009, Haygood said "The County intends to vigorously defend" the Board’s decision.

After the public hearing, during which one person spoke in favor and 12 people spoke in opposition to the rezone, focusing mostly on traffic problems, Commissioner Chuck Horton made a motion, seconded by Commissioner Margaret Hale, to deny the rezone.

Commissioner John Daniell joined Hale and Horton in voting for the denial motion, and Commission Jim Luke voted against it.

Then, in response to a question from Chairman Melvin Davis, Haygood said it was permissible for the Board to consider an OIP rezone, though none was requested. Haygood said it was appropriate, but the Board should vote to rescind the just-passed motion first. All four of the commissioners then voted to rescind the denial.

Horton then made a motion to grant OIP zoning for the property, and Hale seconded. Daniell joined Luke in opposing this action. Davis voted to break the tie in favor of the OIP rezone.

The OIP option had been discussed in advance in some fashion, as the county planning staff had been asked by someone to talk to the Board about the option. The planning staff answers to Davis.

Planning Director B.R. White told the Board he could not offer much by way of advice on such a rezone since there was no concept plan to review.

The developer wanted a strip mall shopping center with the only certain exit directly to LaVista Drive.

The citizens spoke in opposition to that concept, noting that no traffic light exists at LaVista and U.S. 441, making a left turn difficult at best. Many also complained about what they felt was an inadequate buffer between the commercial strip and their homes.

The Board voted to approve an office park that no one has proposed and, consequently, without any knowledge that the traffic problem will be less than would have been the case with the shopping center.

The office park rezone requires less of a buffer than was proposed for the shopping center, White told the Board.

The citizens were not given a chance to indicate how they felt about the swap, since the hearing was on the B-2 rezone request, not a rezone for an office park.

The rezone request by 78 Commercial Ventures for the strip mall on U.S. 78 produced a smaller citizen turnout, but the concerns were much the same.

The five people who spoke in opposition expressed anxiety about traffic congestion in the residential neighborhoods behind the property and the need for a buffer from the lights and noises of a commercial development.

Daniell made the motion to approve the rezone of the commercial strip from agricultural to business. Luke seconded. Hale joined the pair in voting for the rezone, and Horton voted against.

Next, Hale made a motion to rezone the property from agricultural to residential for the retirement community, and Daniell seconded. This time, Luke joined Horton in voting against the motion, resulting in a tie. Davis voted in favor of the rezone.

As is usual, with one exception, Board members did not explain the votes. Luke did indicate he wanted to vote for the original Gunter rezone out of fear the court would dictate a rezone without any of the conditions the county was imposing, such as the buffer. He said the county was better off with what it had negotiated with the developer.

Clearly lots of discussion of these two rezones had taken place outside the open meeting.

It is unlikely the Gunter rezone on U.S. 441 is settled, which means there is likely to be more conversations, only some of which the public will be privy to.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Oconee's Epps Bridge Centre Seeking State Variance

To Buffer or to Bury

The Georgia Environmental Protection Division has given those interested in commenting on an application by the developer of the proposed $76 million Epps Bridge Centre on Epps Bridge Parkway until Jan. 19 to file statements about the environmental impact of the development.

Frank Bishop of Oconee 316 Associates of Atlanta is asking the state to set aside its requirements that streams on the site of the proposed development be protected by a 25-foot buffer.

Bishop wants the state to allow him to develop the 62-acre site between Epps Bridge Parkway and SR Loop 10 by piping and filling 2,678 feet of five unnamed perennial tributaries to McNutt Creek.

Before the state can give Bishop the requested variance that allows him to enter the legal buffers for the streams, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must give him a permit to put the 2,678 linear feet of perennial streams into underground pipes.

Bishop also is asking the Corps to allow him to fill and disturb at least some of the 1.06 acres of wetlands and natural drainage areas on the site.

Billy E. Birdwell, chief of Public Affairs for the Savannah District of the Corps, told me in an e-mail message on Dec. 31 that the permit has not been issued by the Corps. "We should complete our decision in the next two weeks," he wrote.

On a related front, the Georgia Department of Transportation on Dec. 24 rejected all eight bids that were submitted on Dec. 12 for the Oconee Connector Extension. County Administrative Officer Alan Theriault told me in an e-mail message on Dec. 29 that the project will be readvertised for March.

The Oconee Connector Extension is the roadway being built to the Epps Bridge Centre. The Oconee County Board of Commissioners approved the rezone for the project on Oct. 7, but it said the developer cannot begin the project until contracts are let on the Extension.

The state did not give a reason for its rejection of the bids, which ranged in price from $14 million to $21 million. Oconee County has purchased the right of way for the roadway for the state with the expectation that the state will reimburse it the $5 million it has spent.

According to an Associated Press story in the Athens Banner-Herald on Jan. 3, the Georgia Department of Transportation had a $456 million deficit for the fiscal year that ended July 31, 2008.

Until the Oconee Connector Extension is built, Epps Bridge Center will have only a single entrance and exit opposite the Waffle House at the SR Loop 10 and Epps Bridge Parkway intersection. Patrons only will be able to make a right turn into the shopping mall and a right turn coming out of it.

Epps Bridge Centre, which is to be anchored by major retail outlets and is to include restaurants and a 16-screen movie theater, also faces significant economic challenges.

According to a story in USAToday on Dec. 30, the International Council of Shopping Centers projected in October that 148,000 stores would close in 2008, the largest number since 2001, and an additional 73,000 stories will close in the first half of 2009.

The Georgia EPD issued its public advisory regarding Bishop’s variance request on Dec. 18, indicating that "The public is invited to comment during the 30-day period on the proposed activity."

The Corps of Engineers also had solicited public response to the permit request for Epps Bridge Centre in late 2007, but no private citizens responded. Two local citizens, Jill Talmadge and Pamela Kohn, both of Holly Hills Drive in Athens, had written to the Corps in May of 2007 asking for a public hearing on an earlier request by Bishop for a permit. Bishop subsequently withdrew that permit request.

McNutt Creek forms one of the borders between Clarke and Oconee counties. Holly Hills Drive runs parallel to McNutt Creek.

At the Oct. 7 BOC meeting, Brenda Rashleigh, president of the Upper Oconee Watershed Network, said her group was "opposed to this rezone because of the environmental impacts on the downstream waters," including McNutt Creek.

UOWN is a nonprofit organization working to protect the Upper Oconee Watershed.
Bishop proposes to mitigate the damage he plans to do to the streams on the Oconee County site by restoration of wetlands and streams in Greene County.

On Oct. 22, the Corps of Engineers solicited public comment on a proposed new mitigation site off Goat Farm Road in northwestern Oconee County, called the Goat Farm Road Mitigation Bank. The bank sponsor is Westland TLG of Atlanta.

Another mitigation site already exists in Oconee County. Atkel Development Company of Watkinsville has a mitigation site on Rose Creek near the county's southern border with Greene County.

Citizens interested in commenting on the Epps Bridge Centre variance request before the state should write to:

Program Manager
NonPoint Source Program
Erosion and Sedimentation Control
4220 International Parkway, Suite 101,
Atlanta, GA 30354.

Reference should be made to Frank Bishop, developer, Oconee 316 Associates, and Control Number BV-108-08-01.

The comments must address environmental issues dealing with air, water and land protection. Citizens can ask for a public hearing.