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.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Oconee BOC Schedules First Town Hall Meeting

Also Makes Ad Buy

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners Tuesday night set up the first of its town hall meetings for Oct. 20, following up on a promise made to the public when it passed its reorganization plan on Aug. 4.

Commissioner Margaret Hale (right), who proposed the meetings with the public at that August session, said on Tuesday night she wanted a format "where a citizen has the right to ask the question of one of us or all of us and we respond back with an answer." She said she wanted to "keep it informal as much as possible."

The Oct. 20 meeting will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Civic Center on Hog Mountain road. In the half hour before the formal session, commissioners will be available to meet with citizens and talk one-on-one.

The commissioners said they will be available after the two-hour session to talk individually with citizens as well.

Alan Theriault, county administrative officer, will moderate the meeting. He indicated he would give citizens the chance to ask their questions during the first part of the two-hour session and then allow commissioners to offer their proposals to the citizens if time permits.

Hale proposed the town hall meeting after the board passed an ordinance in August that changed the reporting line for Theriault and County Budget Director Jeff Benko. In the past, they reported only to Commission Chairman Melvin Davis. With passage of the ordinance, the pair reports to the full board.

Hale said the board needed to do more to communicate with the public and proposed the meeting as one strategy. Commissioner Jim Luke spoke out in support.

Commissioner Chuck Horton said Tuesday night it is his hope the board will do a second such town hall meeting after the first of the year.

In other action on Tuesday night the board approved a rezone and a series of variance requests to allow the New Life Apostolic Church on Hog Mountain road in Butler’s Crossing to upgrade its existing neighborhood church to a community scale church. The expansion will increase the capacity of the church from 344 to 500 seats.

The board also approved a request from local businessman Zachary McLeroy to rezone nearly 150 acres on Malcom Bridge road between Hodges Mill road and Rocky Branch road from master plan development back to agriculture.

The land had been rezoned from agriculture in July of 2003 for a high density master plan development to be called Kensington Park.

According to Ken Beall, who represented McLeroy at the Tuesday meeting, developer Bob Cain discovered that the amount of rock on the site made the project extremely expensive.

McLeroy bought the land with the plan to build his own "estate," Beall said, and the agricultural zoning would allow that.

The lot remains wooded with pasture and drains north to Barber Creek and east to a branch of Barber creek.

The board also approved a $300,000 proposal by Utility Department Director Chris Thomas that the county upgrade a well on Hillcrest drive and sell the water to Walton County, but only after Commissioner Horton removed the item from the consent agenda and raised questions about the project.

"I don’t know why we want to spend that kind of money and turn around and sell the water to Walton County," Horton said. The board voted 3-1 with Horton in the minority to go forward with the project.

After lengthy discussion, the board also voted to do its next round of advertising for citizen applications for committee appointments in The Oconee Leader, rather than in The Oconee Enterprise, as has been the policy in the past.

Commissioner Luke said he wanted to provide support to both of the weekly newspapers, since both are businesses operating in the county. He also said the Leader, which is distributed free, has a higher circulation than the Enterprise, which is a paid circulation publication.

Russ Page, a citizen active in many issues in the county, said he thought it was a problem for the board to be involved in making decisions about advertising spending and suggested Administrative Office Theriault was the appropriate person to do that.

The board majority was severely criticized by the Enterprise in the run-up to the passage of the reorganization plan, which Commissioners John Daniell, Hale, Horton and Luke favored and Davis opposed.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Porter Elected to Direct Keep Oconee Beautiful Commission

Meets National Requirements

The Keep Oconee Beautiful Commission voted tonight to elect Esther Porter to serve as its volunteer executive director to replace John McNally, forced into retirement as paid executive director at the end of this month as part of a cost-cutting decision by the county.

Mary Mellein, chair of the commission, said having Porter serve as executive director will allow the local organization to meet the requirements for affiliation with Keep America Beautiful, Inc., a national non-profit organization headquartered in Connecticut.

Originally, Mellein said, the commission thought it needed a full-time paid executive director to meet those requirements.

Keep Oconee Beautiful Commission also is an affiliate of the Keep Georgia Beautiful program in the Georgia Department of Community Affairs.

McNally was budgeted to be paid $33,500 in fiscal year 2008-09, but the Board of Commissioners voted to cut that amount to $12,000 for the current 2009-10 fiscal year and end McNally’s employment at the end of this month.

Porter will use office space in the Utility Department previously set aside for McNally and coordinate her work with Amy Morrison, stormwater/environmental coordinator in the Public Works Department.

Porter is a member of the Keep Oconee County Beautiful Commission and a local businesswoman.

Upon election, Porter announced that an appreciation reception will be held from 3-5 p.m. on Nov. 1 for McNally at the Oconee County Civic Center on Hog Mountain road.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Oconee Presents Confused Picture of MACORTS Priorities

Which List Did We Put That On?

Oconee County has three road projects on the list of transportation improvements to be financed 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 from Clarke County to Watkinsville, and an extension of Daniells Bridge road with a flyover of SR Loop 10.

These are the projects county officials on Sept. 9 put on a priority list when they met with officials of Clarke and Madison counties to designate projects for state and federal funding in the next six years.

They also are the projects interested citizens can review and comment on from 5 to 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 13, at the Community Center in Oconee Veterans Park.

Anyone who attended by Sept. 29 meeting of the Board of Commissioners, however, can be excused for not fulling understand that these are the county’s top road priorities.

At that meeting, BOC Chairman Melvin Davis and Public Works Director Emil Beshara said the Simonton Bridge road and Daniells Bridge Road Extension were on the long-term, rather than short term list of projects.

Beshara also blamed confusing documents for citizen misunderstanding about Simonton Bridge road widening, though documents produced by the Madison Athens-Clarke Oconee Regional Transportation Study (MACORTS) as recently as July listed the project as a four-lane widening, as did ones produced five years ago.

More recent documents simply don’t specify how wide the road will be after it is widened.

The discussion of the roadway projects came at the beginning of the Sept. 29 meeting, when Chairman Davis asked Beshara if the Simonton Bridge road widening and the Daniells Bridge Road Extension were on the list of projects for the next six years or on a list of "long-range plans" for 2020-2025.

Beshara said that it was his "understanding" they were long-range projects.

Beshara also said "no one" he has talked to wants to widen the road to four lanes but that there was some understandable confusion on the part of the public "created by the very brief descriptions of these projects" in the public documents.

The confusion on the part of Davis is particularly surprising.

At its Sept. 9 meeting, the MACORTS Policy Committee was to review and approve a draft of the Fiscal Year 2010 to 2013 Transportation Improvement Program (TIP), according to the Tentative Agenda for that meeting.

Davis and citizen Frank Watson, the two Oconee County voting representatives to the Policy Committee, attended that meeting, according to Sherry Moore, a transportation planner with Athens-Clarke County and the designated contact person on MACORTS matters.

She said the Policy Committee approved the draft TIP that included the Mars Hill road, Simonton road and Daniells Bridge road projects, though she said minutes would not be released until they had been approved by the committee itself.

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, meaning funding is expected in the fiscal years 2010 to 2013.

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, meaning they will be covered in Fiscal Years 2014 and 2015.

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.

Angela O. Whitworth from the Georgia Department of Transportation wrote BOC Chairman Davis on July 29, 2009, regarding the Daniells Bridge Road Extension project, designated CSSTP-007-00(943) in the letter.

That letter was called a Sponsor Project Notification and indicated that the county soon will receive a Project Framework Agreement. That July 29 letter was crucial when the Policy Committee decided on Sept. 9 to include the Daniells Bridge Road Extension on the list, Moore told me in a telephone conversation I had with her on Sept. 22.

I filed an open records request with the county for the letter on Sept. 27 and was given a copy Sept. 30. The letter contains notation from "MD" indicating it was to be sent to Beshara on Aug. 3.

The MACORTS TIP document indicates that Mars Hill road will be widened to four lanes and that the Daniells Bridge road extension also will be four lanes wide.

The TIP document says that the plan is to "Widen Simonton Bridge Road from SR 15 to the Clarke County line. This project would include 4-ft. bike lanes."

In the boxes for number of existing lanes and number of planned lanes, "n/a" is typed.

In the July 15, 2009, draft of the 2010-2035 MACORTS Long Range Transportation Plan (LRTP) update, however, the description for Simonton Bridge road was "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."

That document was on the MACORTS web site before the Sept. 9 meeting and was to be approved at that session, according to the agenda. It is still there tonight, and it contains this same description of the project.

The 2005-2030 Long Range Transportation Plan contained the same description, according to the Feb. 10, 2009, minutes of the county’s Citizen Advisory Committee for Land Use and Transportation Planning. Watson, the citizen member of the MACORTS Policy Committee, is a member of that advisory committee as well.

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

Oconee Commissioner Chuck Horton asked at the Sept. 29 meeting of the BOC if it wouldn’t be a good idea for the BOC to take the project off the list to avoid confusion.

Davis told Horton that Beshara already was engaged in discussions about the project with MACORTS. Horton didn't respond, and none of the other board members expressed an opinion.

The MACORTS Policy Committee could have dropped Simonton Bridge road from the priority list at its Sept. 9 meeting.

It put Simonton Bridge road widening (as well as the other two projects), at the top of a long list of county road projects in the northern, urbanized part of the county.

Included in the rejected projects–listed in the 2010 to 2035 long range plan and eligible for inclusion on the priority TIP list--were a widening of Daniells Bridge Road from Chestnut Hill Road to Hog Mountain road to include additional turn lanes, widening to four lanes of Hog Mountain road from Butler’s Crossing to US 441, a reconstruction and widening of Jimmy Daniell road from the Clarke County line to Virgil Langford road, construction of a bypass for SR 15 as it comes into Watkinsville south of the city, and widening of Union Church Road to four lanes from Hog Mountain road to High Shoals road.

The Mars Hill Road widening is the top unfunded priority for the county, and the county is in the process of beginning right of way acquisition for the first phase of the project. Money for right of way acquisition but not construction has been allocated by the state.

The roadway upgrade is designed to improve traffic flow and to open up more land in the county for commercial development.

No one said this at the meeting on Sept. 29, but the Simonton Bridge road widening can be seen as a continuation of the Mars Hill road project, opening up more land for development along a continuous corridor leading into Athens.

One big problem is moving that traffic through Watkinsville.

The city raised objections to the initial plans to bring the Mars Hill road/Experiment Station road widening into the city because of the disruption it would cause to the city’s existing commercial and industrial sites as well as city buildings.

The traffic also will end on Main street, which is two lanes wide and passes through the heart of Watkinsville.

The proposal to widen Simonton Bridge road from the Clarke county line to two-lane wide Third Street in Watkinsville would create similar traffic flow problems for the city.

The comments by Davis, Beshara and Horton at the Sept. 29 meeting came during the Statement and Remarks by Citizens section of the meeting. I asked the whole board to get involved in the discussion of the MACORTS priority list rather than simply let the chairman speak for the county.

Federal law requires that all urban areas over 50,000 in population engage in a Transportation Planning Process.

MACORTS is the designated Metropolitan Planning Organization for the city of Athens and Clarke County, and, since the 1980 U. S. Census, for the northern portion of Oconee County. The southernmost portion of Madison County was added in 2003.

The urbanized part of Oconee County included in MACORTS coverage is bounded by Hog Mountain Road and then loops south of Watkinsville and continues on a line south of and parallel to Barnett Shoals road to the Clarke County line.

The TIP and the LRTP are required by the federal government for the MACORTS area to receive federal and state urban transportation funding.

TIP contains all the projects that will be eligible for federal and/or state funding during the next four fiscal years, labeled as Tier 1 projects. TIP also includes a second two-year list of projects, called Tier 2 projects.

LRTP lists anticipated transportation needs for the next 20 years. All projects that make it into the TIP must have been included in the LRTP, which is updated every five years.

The MACORTS public hearing on the proposed priority list of projects on Oct. 13 at the Community Center in Oconee Veterans Park is part of the required process for public comment.

A meeting of the county’s Citizen Advisory Committee on Land Use and Transportation Planning will follow. The committee is scheduled to continue its discussion of the future of the county courthouse.

The exchange regarding MACORTS is on my Vimeo site. The full Sept. 29 meeting is viewable on the county's Vimeo site.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Oconee BOC Agrees to Study Economic Development, Ethics

Water for Walton

In response to items put on the agenda by Commissioner John Daniell, the Oconee County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday night agreed to schedule a work session on how to proceed with plans to promote economic development in the county and to create a committee to study and develop a code of ethics for the county.

In addition, the board reviewed two solicitation ordinances drafted by County Attorney Daniel Haygood and decided to reject an ordinance banning solicitation on county roadways and move forward with a plan to restrict such solicitation.

The board agreed preliminarily to issue a request for proposals for utility relocation design for the widening of Mars Hill road from SR 316 to Hog Mountain road in Butler’s Crossing, accept a bid for utility relocation for the Oconee Connector Extension now under construction, and proceed with a plan to upgrade one of the county’s water wells and continue selling water to Walton County.

The agenda-setting meeting lasted about two and a half hours, ending about 9:30 p.m.

The Athens Banner-Herald provided a detailed report on the solicitation ordinance inside today’s paper.

The Oconee Enterprise also had a story today about the solicitation ordinance, though it did not indicate what action the board had taken.

The Enterprise also contained a very confusing story about the ethics and development initiatives of Daniell under the headline "Daniell pushes ethics on BOC."

Daniell, who joined the board in January, said he has been trying to understand what the county is doing to promote economic development.

He mentioned as one of those activities the work of the Oconee Athens-Clarke Joint Economic Task Force, a panel of community and business leaders that recommended in May of 2008 that the two counties work together on development. Discussions of such a collaboration have stalled.

"I kind of want to kick around and see where everybody wants to head," Daniell said. "I’d like to see us start moving in a direction to address some of these issues and put some things on the radar screen that we could attract some good companies to the area."

Following Daniell’s comments, Ed Perkins, chairman of that Task Force, came forward and urged the board to move on the recommendation that the counties work together on development.

He was followed by Chuck Williams, a member of the task force and chairman of the Oconee County Development Authority, who also recommended a collaborative strategy.

Mike Lewis, the chairman of the Oconee Chamber of Commerce, next came to the podium and made the same argument. "A regional approach is the right approach," he said.

The board agreed to schedule a work session to continue discussion on the topic.

Daniell next recommended that the board appoint a committee made up of citizens and members of the commission to look at existing ethics codes and then "make some real strong statements about where we are and how we do business here in Oconee County."

The board agreed to follow its normal procedures of advertising for citizen participants and then creating such an ethics committee.

Haygood told the board that he had two proposed ordinances regarding solicitation in county roadways. He said the county could reject the activity entirely, or it could restrict it.

Daniell said he was comfortable with banning the activity, but the other commissioners were not.
Haygood discussed in detail an ordinance that would require groups to pay $100 for a permit, which would be granted only to charitable organizations that passed a background check.

Under the proposed ordinance, solicitation would be restricted by time of day, solicitors would be required to wear reflective vests, and a designated person would have to be at the solicitation site.

Haygood was instructed to fine-tune the ordinance and bring it back to the board for future action, possibly as early as the Oct. 27 meeting.

The board decided to put on its agenda for its Oct. 6 meeting a vote to issue a request for proposals for the design of utility relocations for the Mars Hill Road widening project. Emil Beshara, county public works director, estimated that the contract will cost between $40,000 and $80,000.

The county expects to begin right of way acquisition for the roadway in about five months and take about two years to complete the process. So far, the state has not found the $19 million for actual construction of the road.

Chris Thomas, Utility Department director, presented the board with a bid by Gary’s Grading and Pipeline to do utility relocation work for the Oconee Connector Extension, also called the Jennings Mill Parkway.

The roadway, now under construction, will form a loop from SR 316 at the current Oconee Connector back to Epps Bridge Parkway near Lowe’s and is designed to open up land for commercial development.

The bid was for $489,558. The county will use unspent Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax revenue to pay for the work.

That item also will be voted on at the Oct. 6 meeting.

Thomas also asked the board to allow him to get bids for an upgrade to an existing groundwater well on Hillcrest drive between Watkinsville and the Civic Center so the county can produce a higher quality water from the well.

The county at present is selling about 500,000 gallons per day of water from its wells to Walton and wants to continue to do so to generate revenue for the Utility Department. The upgrade will help make that possible.

Thomas said he expects the bids to come in around $300,000 and that he had that amount of money in unspent SPLOST funds in his budget that can be used for this project.

Final action on this request also is set for the Oct. 6 meeting.