Sunday, November 29, 2009

Citizen Committee Gives Report on Courthouse, Mitigation to Oconee BOC

Details to Follow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Oconee BOC to Get Report from Land Use Committee

Finding Katie Who?

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

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

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

The BOC meeting is the regular agenda-setting session.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Oconee QuikTrip To Include 19 Willow Oaks and 7 Red Maples

Not Hiding the Drinking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 16, 2009

Oconee Citizen Committee Hears About Space Options for Courthouse

Mayor Weighs In

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Oconee County Citizen Committee Says No to Mitigation Resolution

A White Paper from Greene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Oconee BOC Refinances Bond for Utility Department

Easing Some Debt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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