Sunday, February 28, 2010

Oconee County Commissioner Horton Plans to Take Lead on Mitigation Resolution

Doing Homework

Oconee County Commissioner Chuck Horton has decided to take the lead in studying the stream and wetland mitigation resolution before the Board and said he plans to report back to his colleagues on his findings.

Horton made the announcement of his intention during the section of the Board of Commissioners meeting last Tuesday night that is set aside for the comments of commissioners.

“Just to let folks know, I’m doing some homework and will do some research on the mitigation issue,” Horton said. “As soon as I find some of that out I’ll certainly share it with everybody.”

As Horton noted, the issue had come up at the town hall meeting the commissioners held at the Civic Center on Feb. 16, when more than a half dozen citizens spoke out in favor of it.

The resolution would put the Board of Commissioners on record with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as favoring restoration of streams and wetlands in Oconee County or upstream from the county when the Corps grants permits allowing the piping, filling or other alteration of streams and wetlands in the county.

When the Corps issues permits, it require mitigation of that damage, usually by restoration of streams and wetlands damaged through such things as pasturing, dredging or earlier construction. At present, the restoration should be in the North Oconee River watershed, but not necessarily in the county.

Katie Sheehan, an attorney at the River Basin Center in the Eugene P. Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia, drafted the resolution after I talked with her about mitigation issues in the county.

I asked the BOC in April of 2009 to consider the resolution. At its meeting on May 5, it sent the resolution to the Citizen Advisory Committee for Land Use and Transportation Planning for review.

That Committee decided on Nov. 10 not to recommend that the BOC approve the resolution after Wayne Provost, strategic and long-range planner for the county, advanced a series of arguments against it.

Committee Chairman Abe Abouhamdan reported that vote to the BOC in November, but the full commission has not taken up the resolution for its own review.

At the town hall meeting, all five commissioners stated support for mitigation of damage to local streams and wetlands inside the county or upstream from the county, though they also raised questions about the resolution stating that preference.

Horton told me in a telephone conversation today that he has already spoken to people at the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission and the Georgia Department of Community affairs and “will try to educate himself” by talking to attorneys with expertise on the matter.

He said he also plans to talk to the Corps of Engineers and will work with county Administrative Officer Alan Theriault on the issue.

He said he is willing to talk to anyone else who is interested in the resolution.

I was not able to attend the meeting on Tuesday because of a travel commitment. The report on the meeting in The Oconee Enterprise, the only paper to cover it, did not mention Horton’s statement regarding the resolution.

The minutes of the meeting, released by County Clerk Gina Lindsey on Friday, included the comment by Horton about his plans to study the resolution and report back to the other commissioners.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Daniells Bridge Road Upgrade Not For Bikers or Walkers, Oconee County Leaders Say

For People in Automobiles

The $605,000 the county plans to spend on Daniells Bridge road improvements in the next three years will be only a “patch,” Oconee County Commissioner Jim Luke said in response to a question from a citizen at the Feb. 16 town hall meeting.

That “patch” will not include bike lanes or sidewalks, Luke said. Such improvements will not be made until the county decides to bring the road up to state standards at some unspecified period in the future.

The question about the road came near the end of the meeting, when Karen Kimbaris asked about the construction underway on the Daniells Bridge road and Oconee Connector intersection and about plans for additional improvements to Daniells Bridge road.

“I was wondering if there has been any consideration to bike paths or any bigger shoulders for walking or paths, because our roads are so dangerous,” she said. “You can’t really ride anything on them.”

“We’re doing a patch,” Luke responded. “We committed $400,000 to try to make that road safe for people who have to travel it in automobiles. We don’t have any plan now to do a bike lane on that.”

Luke said the roadway would include bike lanes when it is brought up to state standards, but “I don’t know when that will be.”

BOC Chairman Melvin Davis was the only other commissioner to respond to the question. He said construction of the Oconee Connector Extension, also called the Jennings Mill Parkway, will include bike lanes, as will the proposed widening of Mars Hill road from Butler’s Crossing to the Oconee Connector.

Kimbaris also asked about the status of a proposed bike path from Athens to Madison, which has been talked about for years, but neither Luke nor Davis responded to that part of the question.

The $400,000 figure used by Luke in his response to Kimbaris was an old figure. The commissioners voted on Feb. 2 to commit an additional $205,000 on top of the earlier $400,000 earmarked for the scheduled Daniells Bridge road improvements.

That money is to cover widening Daniells Bridge road from its intersection with the Oconee Connector to just east of the blind curve at Lynn drive. When completed, the road will have three lanes, including a center turn lane.

Reconstruction of the intersection itself is underway to accommodate the QuikTrip gas station now being built on the northeast corner.

Standardization of Daniells Bridge road to three lane with turn lanes from the Oconee Connector intersection to Founders boulevard will be completed this summer, County Public Works Director Beshara said late last month.

Beshara said at that time he planned to wait to do work on the roadway beyond Founders boulevard until the proposed office park is built on Daniells Bridge road just east of the blind curve.

Beshara told the BOC at the end of 2008 when it approved the office park that Daniells Bridge road could not be upgraded to four lanes, as is planned for some point in the future, at its present location without additional right of way.

He also indicated that it would be better to create a new road behind the current houses on Daniells Bridge road, thereby straightening the roadway.

The county plans to build a flyover from Daniells Bridge road to behind Home Depot as part of a full loop around what it plans to be the county's prime commercial hub.

The loop is being built piecemeal, and the $605,000 “patch” is being made until the county decides what to do with the southern part.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Oconee County's Support for Interbasin Water Transfer Not Shared By All

Grabbing for Water

Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis told those attending the town hall meeting last week that the county is continuing to explore the possibility of selling water from the Apalachee River to metro-Atlanta to help meet that area’s water needs.

What Davis did not say was that the county would need a change to state legislation to make it possible for the county to even enter into such an agreement, as current state law bans such a transfer of water to metro-Atlanta.

And he didn’t say that his openness to transferring water from the Oconee River basin to meet metro-Atlanta’s needs is at odds with the position being taken by many outside Atlanta who are guarding their water resources against what is being termed a potential "water grab" by Atlanta.

At the town hall meeting, the five commissioners were asked what their concerns were as the Georgia General Assembly debates how to address the water needs of Atlanta following the ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Paul A. Magnuson that metro-Atlanta has been illegally withdrawing water from Lake Lanier.

The judge ruled last summer that, unless Congress approves a change in restrictions on water withdrawal from the lake, northeast Georgia must return to levels of water withdrawal from the 1970s.

In response to the town-hall question, Oconee Commissioners Margaret Hale and Chuck Horton expressed caution about transfer of water from the Apalachee to metro-Atlanta, with Hale saying "I can assure you I’m going to fight very hard that they do not come in and take the resources we need to move into the future."

Davis’ response to the question was considerably more positive.

"We have expressed about the potential of utilization of that water up until the time it is needed for Oconee County for perhaps other jurisdictions and our selling that water," he said.

According to Jill Johnson, program director for Georgia Conservation Voters, none of the legislation she knows of that is currently being considered by the Georgia General Assembly would authorize transfer of water out of the Oconee River basin to metro-Atlanta.

Oconee and Walton counties are partnering on construction of the Hard Labor Creek Reservoir in Walton County. Financing of the project has been made more difficult by the drought and the housing market collapse, both of which have adversely affected water sales.

Oconee County residents were told that the costs of the county’s participation in the project would be covered by the sale of water to new customers, and that seems unlikely at present.

Ultimately, general county tax revenues could have to be diverted to the project to cover costs.

Officials from the two counties have been exploring the possibility that the state would cover some of the construction costs in return for an agreement to transfer water to metro-Atlanta.

Johnson said she doubts that monies will be allocated for that purpose in this legislative session.

Johnson told me her assessment of the current legislative climate between sessions of the Georgia River Network Conference on Jekyll Island this weekend.

Interbasin transfers of water, which is what the county would be engaged in if it sold water to metro-Atlanta, were strongly criticized at the two-day conference.

The most likely recipient of the Apalachee River water would be Gwinnett County, which currently draws all of its drinking water from Lake Lanier.

According to Johnson, current state law forbids the 15-counties that make up the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District from engaging in new transfers of water from outside that district. Gwinnett is part of that group.

Gov. Sonny Perdue has submitted water legislation to the state House and Senate, but it does not allow for interbasin transfers, Johnson said. Other legislation also is being proposed, but none, as far as she knows, would allow Oconee and Walton to sell water to metro-Atlanta.

Walton County had been a part of the district Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District, but it withdrew when it worked out the agreement with Oconee County on Hard Labor Creek.

Walton is in two watersheds, the Oconee and the Ocmulgee. Water would be drawn from the Apalachee River, which runs between Walton and Oconee Counties, to fill the reservoir in southeastern Walton County.

Hard Labor Creek is a tributary to the Apalachee, so unless water transferred to the more urbanized western part of Walton County is transferred back after use, the Oconee watershed will lose water as a result of the two-county partnership even without the transfer to metro-Atlanta.

I attended the meeting on Jekyll Island because I had been selected by the Georgia River Network as the 2010 Volunteer of the Year Award recipient. The group cited my work as founder of Friends of Barber Creek and this blog in making the award.

I received the award at a ceremony on Friday night, the end of the first day of the conference.

More than 100 people from around the state attended the conference, and interbasin transfers were a frequent topic during the sessions.

Participants, in fact, were urged to sign the No Water Grabs petition being organized by the Georgia Water Coalition, a collection of groups around the state interested in water quality. The Georgia River Network and Friends of Barber Creek are members.

Neill Herring, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club with the Georgia legislature, summarized the mood of the state about interbasin transfers this way: "People outside the area of Atlanta are aware that their resource is under siege."

Jenny Hoffner, director of the Atlanta office of American Rivers, a national advocacy group for rivers, was among several speakers at the Georgia River Network conference raising questions about reservoir construction under any circumstance.

"Dams kill rivers and kill wetlands," she said, "And they cost a lot of money."

She advocated increased focus on conservation, noting that both Seattle and Boston have reduced water consumption in recent years despite growth in population.

The Oconee County BOC considered other reservoir sites before voted 3-2 in 2007 to join Walton County on Hard Labor Creek. Commissioners Hale and Horton voted against the partnership.

None of the discussion at the time focused on alternatives to building a new reservoir.

Jekyll Island Beauty

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Oconee County Town Hall Meeting Draws Crowd Concerned about Mitigation and Elder Mill Bridge

Planting Seeds

More than 60 people showed up at the Civic Center tonight to voice support for preservation of land around the Elder Mill Bridge and for a mitigation resolution before the county. They also expressed concerns about a wide range of issues from taxes to a need for community gardens.

The five commissioners showed little to no support for creation of a county park around the covered bridge on Elder road in the southeastern part of the county, though they did support purchasing and preserving Elder Mill, just down Rose Creek from the bridge, should that come on the market.

Board members were more receptive to the mitigation resolution that would put the county on record with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as favoring mitigation in the county or upstream from the county when the Corps issues permits for destruction of streams and wetlands in the county.

The Board members also expressed reservations about the resolution, with Chairman Melvin Davis saying he is worried about “unintended consequences” for development and Commissioner John Daniell saying he was not sure the resolution goes far enough.

More than 20 persons spoke at the session, and seven spoke in favor of the mitigation resolution after I asked each of the commissioners to state where she or he preferred that mitigation be done when county streams are damaged.

All five of the commissioners said they preferred restoration upstream or in the county, consistent with the language of the resolution itself.

I introduced the mitigation resolution to the county last spring, but the board has taken no action on it.

Russ Page, long-time advocate for a park at the Elder Mill Bridge, spoke first and asked the members if they were willing to take action to preserve the area.

Commissioner Jim Luke said the proposal for the park back in 2007 “scared me to death” because of its scope, and Chairman Davis once again said the county simply did not have money for the project.

Davis acknowledged, however, that the county spent nearly $1 million on park improvements elsewhere in the county in the last five years.

Despite the lack of funds, Luke said, if the mill comes on the market, “we’ll find a way to protect the mill.”

One questioner asked Commissioner Daniell and Commissioner Margaret Hale about the upcoming elections. The term for each expires this year, and Daniell and Hale said they planned to seek re-election.

Pat Priest suggested the county consider developing a community garden, and Commissioner Luke said he felt there was land available for that purpose in the county if someone came forward with a specific plan.

Stuart Cofer, owner of Cofer’s Home and Garden Store in Athens, said he would donate seeds for the project.

Bill Mayberry, active in anti-tax initiatives in the county, asked if the county would work more closely with the school board to reduce the tax burden in the county. The commissioners indicated they already were doing a number of things in this regard and were willing to do more.

The session lasted two hours, and many stayed for about a half hour afterwards to talk individually with the commissioners. The commissioners also engaged in informal conversation in the half hour before the formal session.

This was the second town-hall style meeting held by the commissioners in recent months. About 40 persons attended the first back in October.

I recorded the session and uploaded that recording to my Vimeo site.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Oconee County Had a Conceptual Plan for Elder Mill Park

What Could Have Been

Some Oconee County leaders envisioned a park around the historic Elder Mill Covered Bridge on Elder Mill road in the southeastern part of the county back in 2007 that included hiking and equestrian trails, a museum, a nature center and an interpretation center including Elder Mill itself.

John Gentry, director of the Oconee County Parks and Recreation Department, sent me an email message on Nov. 21, 2007, indicating that he was in discussion with Dr. Charles Morgan, owner of the mill, about the county’s possible purchase of the mill.

“The mill is the key to success with the BOC (Board of Commissioners),” Gentry wrote me.

A conceptual plan for the Elder Mill Park was drawn up by Williams and Associates, a local land planning firm, on June 13, 2007.

The north entrance to the park was on SR 15 at Elder road, and the south entrance was at the intersection of Elder and Saxon roads.

The park also incorporated the W. Joe Elder Cemetery, near the bridge.

The park museum and information center were to be housed at the home of Al Cuming, who lived at the historic covered bridge and was its protector and advocate. He allowed access across his property to the shoals just downstream of the bridge.

For reasons that have never been publicly divulged, the county never moved on the plan for the park, and all of the land remains in private hands.

The Cuming home is under contract to be sold, with closing expected later this week. Cuming no longer lives there.

I had spoken with and sent email to Gentry as the discussions of the park progressed back in 2007.

Gentry, who is now on leave serving in Afghanistan, never got back to me about the plans for the park after that Nov. 21 message.

The county owns the bridge, which spans Rose Creek, and it has a scenic preservation overlay district covering some of the land that was to serve as the core of the park, including the land where the Cuming home and the mill are located.

The county zoning code says the preservation district “is comprised of land which in the best interest of the citizens of Oconee County should remain in a natural state as nearly as possible.”

The only uses allowed in the Scenic Preservation District are “buildings and associated structures and digs which are necessary to the improvement, restoration, maintenance and scholarly study of such areas, so long as such buildings and associated structures and digs do not conflict with the intent of this Development Code to preserve the special character of these areas.”

The BOC discussed creating a park that would include the bridge and at least some surrounding property in a closed-door session on Sept. 4, 2007. No details of the discussion, which was in executive session, have been released to the public.

Even the Williams and Associates conceptual plan was not widely circulated.

At that Sept. 4 meeting, the BOC voted to continue to pursue a grant from the Georgia Land Conservation Program to help create the park, but the BOC refused to allocate any funds to support the application.

According to the historical marker at the Elder Bridge, it was built in 1897 and carried the Watkinsville-Athens road across Calls Creek. Today, Calls Creek flows through a culvert under the current SR15, which is the descendant of the Watkinsville-Athens road.

The 99-foot-long bridge was moved to its present location in 1924. The bridge is made entirely of wood, and its planks are held together with wooden pegs.

The grist mill, just downstream from the bridge, was built about 1900 and stopped operating in 1941, according to the marker at the bridge. It contains many of the original inner workings of the mill.

In an Aug. 23, 2007, letter to the commissioners, Gentry said there was $452,000 available in the 2003 SPLOST “that is not earmarked for any particular project at this time.”

Plans were to use the money for amenities in other county parks, and Gentry said that committing the funds to the Elder Mill Park would delay purchasing some of these items.

“My recommendation to you first and foremost is to fully support the conceptual plan” for the park, Gentry wrote.

It never happened.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Second Oconee County Town Hall Meeting Set for Tuesday Night

Lots to Discuss

If a crowd shows up at the Oconee County town-hall style meeting with members of the Board of Commissioners at 7 p.m. on Tuesday night at the Civic Center, it probably will be because of word-of-mouth and informal notification about the meeting.

The county did post a notice of the meeting on its website and on the bulletin board at the courthouse on Feb. 3, the same day it sent notices to The Oconee Enterprise, The Oconee Leader and the Athens Banner-Herald.

The county did not take out any advertisements in the three papers.

Neither of the two weeklies included the meeting it its calendar of upcoming events.

The Banner-Herald ran two very short stories. The first was two paragraphs long and was the second item in the Around Oconee cluster of short reports on page two of the Oconee Living insert to the paper on Feb. 10. A four-paragraph story appears on page B2 of today’s paper.

The Leader ran a 10-paragraph-long story on page 6 of its Feb. 11 edition.

Oconee County Clerk Gina Lindsey sent me an e-mail message on Friday morning confirming the county’s efforts to promote the meeting.

A little after 3 p.m. on Friday she sent another announcement of the meeting via e-mail to a list she maintains of media and interested citizens. Today’s Banner-Herald item was a rewrite of the announcement in that second mailing.

Wendell Dawson sent out a message to his listserv today and directed readers to his web site, on which he urged citizens to “Attend and speak up at Oconee Town Hall meeting on Tuesday, February 16, 2010 & take action to Lower Your Property Taxes.”

Dan Matthews also posted a note on his blog this morning saying that “I think it is very important that each and every one of us attend this town hall forum 7 p.m. Tuesday" and encouraged readers "to ask the Oconee County Board of Commissioners any question you want.”

The county held its first such meeting with citizens on Oct. 20, 2009, and about 40 people turned out for an hour-and-a-half-long exchange.

Neither of the weeklies made any reference to that town-hall meeting in the calendar listing in the Oct. 15 editions, and the county did not run advertisements.

According to a second document Lindsey sent out with her Friday afternoon email, Alan Theriault, administrative officer for the county, again will serve as moderator for the session.

Melvin Davis, chairman of the Board of Commissioners, is scheduled to begin the session with a “call to order and welcome” at 7 p.m.

The session is schedule to last two hours, and commissioners have promised to be available for informal conversation for a half hour before the call to order. The Civic Center is at 2661 Hog Mountain road, west of Butler’s Crossing and near the Oconee High School.

The four commissioners initiated the town-hall meetings as a way of improving communication with the citizenry, and Commissioner John Daniell was the one to first announce this meeting at the BOC agenda-setting meeting on Jan. 26, giving the precise time, date and venue.

Chairman Davis was a little flustered, and he responded: “It is at 7. I believe that is correct. Thanks. John.” Then we went immediately to the next time on the agenda.

Daniell also took the initiative in re-announcing the session a week later at the regular meeting on Feb. 2. Again, Davis’ response was brief.

“That is Feb. 16, 7 p.m., at the Civic Center, for the town hall meeting. Any other comments?” he said hurridly.

I reported on the first announcement in my report on the Jan. 26 meeting of the BOC, but the Enterprise did not mention it in three stories it ran on Jan. 28 about issues covered at that meeting.

The Banner-Herald ran a story on the meeting on Jan. 29, and it also did not mention the town-hall meeting.

The Leader does not cover BOC meetings and rarely writes about governmental issues in the county.

I also reported on the town hall meeting in my story on the Feb. 2 posting, but the Enterprise did not.

The Enterprise in its Feb. 11 edition did include an oblique reference to the town hall meeting in a story on the bottom of page A5 about a Greenways Master Plan discussion scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday at the community center in Veterans Park.

In the middle of the second paragraph, the story includes a direct quote, “A Commissioners’ Town Hall meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. at the Civic Center also on Feb. 16,” but it gives no idea who was being quoted of why.

The Banner-Herald didn’t have a reporter at the Feb. 2 meeting, and it ran a short report on the meeting on the front page of the Oconee Living section on Feb. 10. It attributed the information to the circulated draft minutes from the county and did not mention the town-hall meeting in that story.

The Leader, once again, did not cover the meeting.

It seems likely that the county’s unwillingness to move forward with plans for creation of a park and protection of land around the history Elder Mill Bridge (above) will be a topic raised at the meeting on Tuesday.

The Enterprise gave some attention to this issue in its story about the Jan. 26 BOC meeting that appeared on page A12 of the Jan. 28 edition. The story was disjointed and hard to follow, but it did indicate in a nuetral way that two citizens, Russ Page and Robert Wyatt, expressed their disappointment that the county had not acted.

The paper gave further uncharacteristic coverage to someone who questioned the county when, in the Main Street column by Publisher Vinnie Williams on Feb. 4, it commented favorably on the color of the sweater Wyatt wore at the meeting. “Liked the daffodil-colored sweater that Dr. Bob Wyatt wore,” Williams wrote.

The future of the courthouse is likely to be another topic that will come up Tuesday.

The Citizen Advisory Committee for Land Use and Transportation Planning has been discussing this issue, and Dawson, a former BOC chairman, suggested in his blog posting today that this should be discussed.

I plan to bring up the resolution I introduced–but that the BOC has so far refused to discuss–that would put the county on record with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as favoring local stream and wetlands restoration when the Corps grants a permit for stream and wetland destruction in the county.

The county’s slowness in moving forward on the promised widening of Daniells Bridge road was raised at the last town hall meeting and might come up again Tuesday.

Other roadway projects that citizens might ask about could be the proposed four-laning of Simonton Bridge road and the proposed flyover from Daniells Bridge road to the roadway at Home Depot.

The county is just starting its budget process for the 2010-2011 fiscal year, and citizens might have questions and comments about county priorities.

An issues that is left over from last year is how the county cut back on the budget of the Keep Oconee County Beautiful Commission. That could come up again on Tuesday night.

Related to that is the reorganization plan the four commissioners put into place in August over the objection of Chairman Davis that gives the four commissioners more access to information from Administrator Theriault and Finance Director Jeff Benko.

Franklin Shumate suggested at the time he planned to make that an issue in the upcoming elections.

The terms of commissioners Daniell and Margaret Hale expire at end this year, and filing for candidates who wish to run as a party nominee begins on April 26 and ends at noon on April 30.

Independents file from June 28 to noon on July 2.

It is possible there will be hints of the election on Tuesday night.

NOTE: In the original version of this posting, I did not mention the story in the Feb. 11 issue of the Leader. Anna Dolianitis, a staff writer for the paper, sent me an email on Feb. 17 pointing out the error.

"While you were correct in that we did not run anything in our weekly calendar, we did print a story about it on Page 6 of our Feb. 11 issue (it is in a box near the middle of the page)," she wrote. "Since your post talked about how little publicity was given to the meeting, I thought it was worth mentioning that The Leader article about it showed up in 92 percent of Oconee mailboxes last Thursday."

She is correct. I somehow missed the story, and I apologize for the error.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Snow Highlights Beauty of Oconee County's Elder Mill Bridge

Snow at the Bridge

The 4 inches of snow that fell Friday night and Saturday early morning made access to the historic Elder Mill Bridge on Elder road in southeastern Oconee County treacherous.

I waited until the sun on Saturday made it possible for me to get out of my driveway and subdivision and headed immediately to the bridge. Elder road was still partially snow covered, but I was not the first to cross the bridge or even park in the visitor parking lot on the west side of the bridge.

When I parked my car, it was exactly noon, and while there were many footprints already on the path to the shoals, I was alone at the shoals and bridge for about 15 minutes.

When I left a half hour later, a carful of new visitors had arrived.

Here are some pictures for those not lucky enough to see the bridge, shoals of Rose Creek and Elder Mill on this beautiful Oconee County day of winter.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Oconee County Land Use Committee Chair Controls Meetings

I Wish I Knew

Abe Abouhamdan, chair of the Oconee County Citizen Advisory Committee on Land Use and Transportation Planning, runs a tight meeting.

His handling of the gathering of the group on Tuesday night illustrated that point well.

A seemingly mild-mannered guy with a soft voice, Abouhamdan started the meeting promptly at 7 p.m.--with a warning to the public.

"We have business to discuss," he said. The public should hold its comments to the section on the agenda for that purpose and limit those comments "to the items listed on the agenda," he added.

Abouhamdan passed out that agenda, which placed the public comments opportunity near the end--just ahead of the announcement of the time and place of the next meeting and of adjournment.

In case the public–and at that time, I was the only member of the public present–didn’t hear the admonition about holding comments and sticking to topic, Abouhamdan had it printed at the bottom of the agenda itself.

Abouhamdan then started into that agenda, but he stopped abruptly after getting approval of the minutes of the last meeting.

He had forgotten to introduce Jim Luke, a member of the Board of Commissioners, two members of the county staff, Blake Giles, editor of The Oconee Enterprise, and me. He acknowledged each of us--by name.

One other citizen arrived a few minutes later, as did a third staff member. They missed the chance to be introduced.

Abouhamdan is president & CEO of ABE Consulting, Inc., and he does contract work for the county, including on the design of the often-discussed but not-yet-realized widening of Daniells Bridge road.

He is in his second term as chairman of the 14-member committee, having been elected to that position by the members, who are appointed by the BOC.

Abouhamdan next turned to the discussion of the first item on the agenda, the future of the county courthouse.

He methodically outlined options, expressed his opinions about them, and let the individual members ask questions or make comments.

That agenda item exhausted (though without any agreement on what to do about the courthouse), Abouhamdan called for other business from committee members.

Richard McSpadden seized the opportunity to say he wanted to know the status of the mitigation resolution the Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee reviewed at its November 2009 meeting.

McSpadden added that he "saw something in the paper" about it.

The committee voted on Nov. 10 not to recommend the resolution to the BOC, and the BOC has not taken any action on the resolution.

The only thing that has been in any paper about this in 2010 was a letter I wrote (using my name) to the Athens Banner-Herald. The paper published the letter (with my name) on Feb. 3.

I also had introduced the resolution to the BOC, had lobbied the Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee to put it on its agenda, and had corresponded with Abouhamdan numerous times about it.

I did miss the November meeting when it was discussed because of a prior international commitment, but the resolution was presented to the committee by an attorney working with me. She told the committee she had written the resolution at my request.

Abouhamdan told McSpadden that as far has he knew, the resolution had not been addressed by the commissioners, but he was not certain.

He turned to Wayne Provost, county strategic and long range planner, who also said he didn’t know the status of the resolution.

"I wish I knew," Abouhamdan said apologetically as he brought the matter to a close.

Commissioner Luke, who certainly knew the answer, was still sitting at the back of the room, exactly where he had been when Abouhamdan introduced him earlier.

And I was still sitting exactly where I had been when Abouhamdan introduced me.

The next item on the agenda was citizen comment, and I stood and distributed to the committee a copy of a posting from this blog providing information on land for sale around the courthouse.

By my interpretation–and apparently by Abouhamdan’s–that was appropriate, given that the courthouse was listed on the agenda.

The mitigation resolution was not, and no one asked me about it.

Abouhamdan adjourned the meeting at 8:07 p.m., missing his stated goal of ending the meeting in an hour.

But he missed only slightly.

"The 'I wish I knew' Clip"

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Discussion of Oconee County Courthouse Continues

Collecting the Dots

The Citizen Advisory Committee on Land Use and Transportation Planning spent a little more than an hour tonight once again discussing options for the county courthouse.

As was true last month, the discussion ended with Chairman Abe Abouhamdan saying that maybe next month–or maybe the month after–the committee would give its recommendation to the Board of Commissioners.

On March 31 of last year the BOC asked the citizen committee for advice on what the county should to do address future space needs for court and administrative functions of the county.

The Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee began discussion of the issue the next month and has devoted most of its monthly meetings since to the issue.

At tonight’s meeting Abouhamdan led the group through a discussion of the four options it listed at the January meeting: (1) Keep all government activities in one place, (2) Separate judicial and administrative activities, (3) Do nothing, and (4), Combine administrative operations with the Oconee County Board of Education.

Abouhamdan and Wayne Provost, the county administration’s liaison to the committee, argued that it would be advantageous to separate the court and administrative offices of the county.

Abouhamdan said it would be "a pretty expensive deal" to create a single facility, that it would "require a large tract," and that "some departments cannot be physically connected" to the courthouse because of equipment.

He mentioned Public Works as an example of an office that he felt could not be at the courthouse. Presently it is at the Government Annex south of downtown Watkinsville.

No support for the third option–doing nothing–was voiced, and board member Courtney Gale made a motion that the third option be dropped. Abouhamdan argued successfully against doing that because he wanted the record to reflect that it was discussed.

The fourth item was expanded to include retail space as well as space for the county schools and county government.

Abouhamdan said that would be "tremendous if it works," but he expressed doubt that land was available for that purpose.

Questions about the availability of land came up frequently during the meeting, and several committee members made reference during discussion of the fourth option to the decision by the Board of Education to purchase land on the north of downtown Watkinsville for future administrative offices.

Committee member Flynn Warren also said there was land available in downtown Watkinsville.

The committee agreed that it would rank the four options at the next meeting by placing "dots" next to them on a board at the front of the room. Each committee member would have a number of dots and would place the dots next to the options favored.

During the citizen comment period, at the very end of the meeting, I passed out printed copies of the story I posted here Sunday on land being offered for sale near the courthouse and on the land purchased by the BOE.

Abouhamdan then said the committee would continue its discussion next month, asked for a motion to adjourn, and ended the meeting.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

For Sale Signs Tout Available Land Around Oconee County Courthouse

Missing the Signs?

As the Oconee County Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee continues its deliberations Tuesday about the future of the courthouse and the Board of Commissioners awaits the Committee’s report, 11.44 acres of land sit for sale literally at the courthouse doorstep.

The asking prices for that land, which runs from the courthouse northwest toward the new jail, is just a little more than $2 million, according to Eddy Thaxton, who represents one of the sellers and checked with the other property owners to give me that price on Friday.

The assessed value on the tax records for these properties is $810,143.

As of June 30, 2009, the county was sitting on $4,281,944 in unspent and unallocated Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax revenues dedicated to county facility expansion and renovation, including for the courthouse.

The Board of Commissioners voted last Tuesday night to spend $170,000 to renovate parts of the Government Annex building on Greensboro highway, which would reduce that figure to $4,111,944.

The county collected an additional $631,266 in SPLOST revenues before the tax expired with the November 2009 monthly collection and also has a yet unspecified amount of interest income from the tax.

If the $631,266 were allocated proportionately to the original categories, $116,153 would go to the courthouse and other facility projects.

The available properties are located on Durham street, Water street and North Third street, and anyone driving along Water street, a major access to the rear parking lot of the courthouse, has to pass three prominent signs touting the properties.

View Oconee County Courthouse, Watkinsville in a larger map

Thaxton said his property has been on the market for two years, and one of the others has been listed for more than a year.

Thaxton is with The Leader Real Estate Group, and he represents the family of Inez Christopher with three parcels totaling 5.15 acres at the corner of Durham and Water streets.

He told me on Saturday that he has talked to BOC Chairman Melvin Davis about the properties, but nothing has come of the discussions so far.

The BOC meets frequently in closed session, and land purchases are one of the topics the commissioners legally are able to discuss in secret. It is possible the properties have been discussed in those sessions. The BOC met in secret session as recently as Jan. 26.

Thaxton told me the asking price for his property is $1.1 million. The property runs all the way to Tanyard Creek, a tributary of Calls Creek, and contains two houses.

Two additional tracts lie between the Booth property and the courthouse. Helen Booth is listed as the owner of the tracts making up 4.34 acres.

These two tracts are listed by Oconee Properties, and Thaxton told me the asking price is $500,000. These properties also contain two houses, and the larger tract also runs to Tanyard creek.

The third property technically is not on the market, but Thaxton told me yesterday he talked with the owner and learned that it could be purchased with the others.

This 1.95-acre tract contains a house that is now used as a law office by Dennise Grayson and was formerly occupied by the Oconee County Planning Department. Thaxton said the owner, Leona Grayson, is asking $425,000.

The Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee has received briefings from county officials indicating that the county needs to dramatically increase the space available for both the court activities and the administrative needs of the county.

Courtroom safety has been mentioned as a prime concern, as has proximity to the jail on Experiment Station road.

County officials also told the Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee that the existing 5-acre parking lot is only adequate for current needs, meaning that space could not be used for future construction. That parking lot is adjacent to the Grayson law office building.

County officials meeting with the Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee also have quested whether the courthouse could be expanded by adding additional floors because of structural limitations.

At present, the county uses space in what is called the Courthouse Annex, which sits across Main street from the courthouse. That building, according to tax records, is owned by the Bank of America.

County officials have acknowledged that there has been some preliminary discussion of working with the Oconee County Board of Education on future office space needs.

The Oconee County BOE late last year voted to set aside $1 million in Educational Local Option Sales Tax revenue to purchase land on North Main street for a future administrative office facility.

The BOE spent $900,000 on two adjoining tracts totaling 6.6 acres that were assessed, according to the tax records, at $632,844.

The smaller of these was owned by John David Williams and Charles Edward Williams, and the larger by Will-o-War LLC. The secretary of state lists Charles Edward Williams as the registered agent for Will-o-War.

Charles Williams is the president of North Georgia Bank.

Will-o-War also owns a 12.81-acre tract valued for tax purposes at $1,575,900. That property abuts the property sold to the Board of Education and also the land on which the county’s jail sits.

County officials discussed with the Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee the possibility of moving from the current courthouse site in central Watkinsville entirely, arguing that only the court functions need even to stay within the county seat itself.

The Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee is schedule to meet from 7 to 8 p.m. in the Community Center at Veterans Park on Hog Mountain road.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Georgia River Network Announced River Celebration Award Recipients

Volunteer Winner a Local

The Georgia River Network today announced the winners of its 2010 River Celebration Awards, to be recognized Feb. 19 at the group’s sixth annual conference at the Jekyll Island Convention Center.

The winners are: the Coosa River Basin Initiative from Rome as the Watershed Group of the Year, Gordon Rogers of Albany as the River Conservationist of the Year, and I as the Volunteer of the Year.

To say I’m delighted and honored is truly an understatement.

The Georgia River Network is a statewide organization working to preserve clean water in the state. It’s offices are at 126 S. Milledge avenue in Athens.

Dana Skelton, director of administration and outreach for the network, made the announcement.

The Coosa River Basin Initiative was founded in 1992 and through its advocation, education, restoration and water monitoring programs has “helped improve water quality in the Coosa River Basin and helped citizens better understand water resource issues,” according to the news release by Skelton.

Rogers is the Flint Riverkeeper and a “stalwart of the river protection community in Georgia,” the news release said. He became the Flint Riverkeeper last year and has been a founding board member of the Altamaha Riverkeeper organization and served for five years as the Satilla Riverkeeper.

The news release said my contributions to the Oconee County area are twofold, citing the creation of Friends of Barber Creek in early 2006 and this blog, which it calls an important news source focusing on issues facing the county.

“It is not a stretch to say that Lee, who is both a professor of journalism and a 21st-century citizen journalist, has changed the landscape in Oconee County,” the release said.

I am president of Friends of Barber Creek, but each of the other four board members–Karen Kimbaris, Eleanor Cotton, Tim Price and Joe Block–certainly deserves a share of this award.

Jim Butler, a lawyer in Columbus, Paul Deloach, a business development manager in Andersonville, and Mark Woodall, a lobbyist for the Sierra club from Woodland, were winners of the Volunteer of the Year Award in 2009. They set up the Flint Riverkeeper.

The three 2010 award recipients will receive the recognition in a special ceremony starting at 6 p.m. on the first day of the two-day conference.

The conference will include discussions of current state legislative and policy issues, a history of and recent developments in the water wars between Alabama, Florida and Georgia, and an exploration of current environmental issues on the coast and discussion of what is being done by groups to address those issues.

My wife and I are looking forward to attending the conference.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Oconee County BOC Enjoys a Short Meeting

Maybe a Record

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners tonight met for only a dozen minutes.

The mood was relaxed as the board approved appointments to citizen committees agreed upon in advance and approved all five items on the consent agenda without discussion.

Commissioner Margaret Hale missed the meeting for health reasons.

That consent agenda included funding of a staff position for the tourism department using about $26,000 from the county's hotel/motel tax and agreement on a budget submittal plan for fiscal year 2011.

The consent agenda also called for spending $170,000 to renovate parts of the Government Annex building on Greensboro highway, $12.8 million for a Transportation Improvement and Maintenance Plan for fiscal years 2011 and 2012, and $4.5 million for a Water and Sewer Improvement Plan for fiscal years 2010, 2011 and 2012.

Commissioner John Daniell again announced the town-hall style meeting scheduled to start at 7 p.m. on Feb. 16 at the Civic Center on Hog Mountain road.

Commission Chuck Horton said he thought there might be a little more tension at that session.

Once the budget schedule gets underway, the mood also is likely to change, given the decline in county sales tax revenue and the drop in value of property in the county.

That process actually started yesterday and will culuminate with adoption of a budget in June.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Daniells Bridge Road Set for Improvements, Oconee County Official Says Again

Good Place to Stop

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners is scheduled tomorrow night to approve a Transportation Improvement and Maintenance Plan for fiscal years 2011 and 2012 that includes an additional $205,000 for the widening and upgrade of Daniells Bridge road.

The widening ultimately is scheduled to run from the Daniells Bridge road intersection with the Oconee Connector to just east of the blind curve at Lynn drive.

Work on construction in the intersection itself is expected to start in about three weeks, Emil Beshara, public works director for the county, told me in an email message of Jan. 28.

Beshara said that QuikTrip, which is building a gas station and convenience store on the northeast side of the intersection, is supposed to start work on the roadway at the site in five to six weeks. The county has to have the road work done on the opposite side to handle the resultant traffic, he explained.

Standardization of Daniells Bridge road to three lane with turn lanes from the Oconee Connector intersection to Founders boulevard will be completed this summer, Beshara said in his email message.

Beshara said he planned to wait to do work on the roadway beyond Founders boulevard "until such time as the Lance-Anglin property development begins. I say this because there will be no need for widening DBR (Daniells Bridge road) on that leg until that property develops."

In November of 2008, when the Board of Commissioners first considered a rezone of the 9-acre tract owned by Dolores N. Lance and Dorothy N. Anglin just east of the blind curve on Daniells Bridge road, the commissioners asked Beshara to come up with a plan for improvements in the road to the development site.

The BOC voted to approve that rezone from agricultural and residential use to Office Business Park in December after Beshara presented preliminary plans for the widening of the road to three lanes with a center turn lane.

Beshara said at that time that the work would be finished during the summer of 2009, but no work was ever done. Beshara also told me in July of 2009 that work on the intersection would begin in late summer or early fall, and again nothing happened.

The BOC had approved $400,000 from Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax revenues for the Daniells Bridge road improvements as part of an earlier TIM Plan, and Beshara said at the rezone hearings that $400,000 would cover the costs.

Beshara told the BOC at the agenda-setting meeting on Jan. 26 that he needed an additional $205,000 in SPLOST funds because of new cost estimates for the roadway.

No one from the board asked any questions about the additional expenditures or for a timetable of the work. The commissioners put the proposal on the consent agenda for tomorrow night, meaning it will be voted on without discussion unless a member of the commission objects.

The Transportation Improvement and Maintenance Plan calls for $12,845,000 in spending in fiscal years 2011 and 2012, with $3,380,000 of that coming from SPLOST.

In addition to the Daniells Bridge road widening, SPLOST funds will cover 36 miles of county road repair and resurfacing and maintenance and improvements of county bridges, including the Clotfelter road bridge over Barber Creek and the Old State Route 15 bridge over McNutt Creek.

The TIM Plan also includes $9,465,000 for what are labeled as major transportation upgrades and improvements.

Included are design and right-of-way acquisition for the first phase of Mars Hill road widening from SR 316 to Hog Mountain road, design and sidewalk work for the Oconee Connector extension now under construction, and design, right-of-way acquisition and construction of sidewalks in Butler’s Crossing.

The TIM plan lists $5,518,400 of that as reimbursable from the state.