Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Oconee Voters Say They Lack Information to Decide on Reorganization

Don’t Know Dominant

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

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

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

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

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

The survey participants were responding to the following question:

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

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

I was the instructor for the class.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 21, 2009

Oconee BOC Struggles with Rezone Concept Plans

Building Number Five

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Oconee Official Lined Up Opposition to Mitigation Resolution

Calling on Bishop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 07, 2009

Oconee's Simonton Bridge Road Widening Stays Atop MACORTS List

Losing Lanes Is Difficult

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abouhamdan didn’t answer the question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 04, 2009

Oconee Commissioner Horton Voices Criticism at Zoning Request

Visions of bombers?

The image is pretty hard to create.

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

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

Here’s what actually happened:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The letter was used unedited, except for my address.

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

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

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