Friday, November 26, 2010

Oconee County Land Use Committee Delays Decision on Bike and Walking Plan

I’ll Say Please

The Oconee County Citizen Advisory Committee for Land Use and Transportation Planning has delayed until at least January any decision on the Northeast Georgia Plan for Bicycling and Walking.

The plan, designed to increase the safety and prevalence of walking and bicycling, was developed by the staff of the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission in collaboration with its Regional Bicycle and Pedestrian Task Force. Six Oconee County representatives serve on that 32-member body.

The Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee reviewed and discussed the plan for 75 minutes at its Nov. 9 meeting and considered a resolution drafted by Oconee County staff that would have “recognized” the plan rather than “adopt” or “endorse” it, as NEGRC proposed.

The Committee voted 9-2 to consider the plan again in the future.

Twenty-five minutes later the Committee cancelled its December meeting, meaning the earliest it can discuss the plan again is at its scheduled meeting on Jan. 11.

The plan has four goals and objectives.

*Develop “facilities and policies” to encourage walking and bicycling in Northeast Georgia.

*Generate “confidence and security” for people walking and bicycling through the region.

*Support bicycling and walking trips between neighborhoods and regionally important destinations.

*Foster “active lifestyles,” promote “community-based commerce” and reduce the environmental impact of motorized transportation.

The plan contains a proposed “Bicycle and Pedestrian Network” that includes SR 15 from Watkinsville to the Greene County line, US 441 from Clarke County to Morgan County, and Mars Hill road.

The plan proposes that SR 15 have a paved shoulder in the future and that US 441 have a separate path for biking and walking. Mars Hill road widening plans already include a bike lane.

The plan also lists greenways along the Apalachee, Middle Oconee and Oconee rivers and the Athens Line, the rail line running from Athens to Madison and now designated as a Regionally Important Resource by NEGRC.

The biking and walking plan is advisory. NEGRC has no enforcement authority.

Following the vote to postpone a decision on the Bicycling and Walking Plan, the Committee took action on a request from the Oconee County Cycling Organization to post Share the Road signs on four county roadways.

All 11 members of the committee agreed to recommend to the Oconee County Board of Commissioners that the signs be installed on the roadways if OCCO pays for the signage.

County Public Works Director Emil Beshara said he would put the signs on Simonton Bridge road at county expense, but he also wants to put up a sign that says bicyclists should Ride Single File on the road, even though state law allows bicyclists to ride two abreast.

Beshara said his sign would be yellow—meaning it was advisory—rather than white, which, he said, designates a requirement.

Beshara also said he already has put up Share the Road signs on New High Shoals road, one of the four roads for which OCCO had originally requested the signage. The others were Simonton Bridge road, Colham Ferry road and Barnett Shoals road.

The Athens Banner-Herald reported on Nov. 15 on the Nov. 9 recommendation of the Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee that the roadways be signed, but it made no mention of the discussion of the Plan for Bicycling and Walking in its story.

I did not attend the Nov. 9 meeting, but I did watch a video of it made for me by citizen Sarah Bell.

The Committee first viewed a PowerPoint presentation about the Bicycling and Walking Plan by Nina Kelly, a planner with NEGRC, and then discussed biking in the county. Little was made of walking, and almost nothing was said of the actual details of the plan.

NEGRC included two sample endorsement resolutions as part of the appendix to the bicycling and walking plan.

In one, Oconee County would endorse the plan. In another, the county would adopt the plan.

Wayne Provost, director of Strategic and Long-Range Planning for Oconee County, offered the Committee a third resolution that he said he had drafted. It merely recognized the plan.

The two resolutions proposed by NEGRC said the county recognized the “need to promote non-motorized transportation options to improve air quality and public health.”

Provost’s rewrite said the county “recognizes the potential for non-motorized transportation options to improve air quality and public health.”

Provost said he offered the revision because of “a skepticism of central planning” on the part of local government officials.

In fact, BOC Chairman Melvin Davis sent the other four members of the Commission an email message on Oct. 1 telling them he thought “the Board should give strong consideration to supporting the ‘Recognition” resolution” rather than the two from the NEGRC.

Committee member Richard McSpadden spoke out against Provost’s resolution.

“Let’s either have the leadership to say we endorse the plan or we don’t,” he said. “I want this committee to take a leadership stand and push the county into thinking strategically about where we want the county to go.”

Planner Kelly told the Committee NEGRC expects each of the 12 counties in the NEGRC region to reach a decision on the plan by June.

After deciding to continue discussion on the plan in the future, the Committee turned to the signage issue.

In a letter written in July by McSpadden, who was then president of the Oconee cycling organization, the cyclists asked the county to sign the four roads and said the group “is ready to partner with the county to fund and install the signage.”

The county sent the request to the Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee, which took it up at its meeting on Sept. 14.

At that meeting, Public Works Director Emil Beshara said he was concerned that installation of the signs might increase the county’s liability should an accident with a cyclist take place on a road with a sign.

Beshara conceded at the Nov. 9 meeting that the signage would have no effect on liability. State law specifies that bicyclists have the same right to the roadways as do drivers of automobiles, he said.

Beshara also acknowledged at the Nov.9 meeting that he had installed the signs on New High Shoals road this summer, even though he raised the objection at the September meeting.

The Committee dispensed with the signage issue in 10 minutes.

Citizens attending Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee meeting are allowed to speak only on issues on the agenda, and only after the committee has finished its discussion of those issues.

So Committee chairman Abe Abouhamdan recognized the dozen citizens present, mostly bikers, after the action on signage had already been taken.

Tony Glenn, an Oconee County citizen representative to the Regional Bicycle and Pedestrian Task Force, was present. He, among others, objected to the proposed signs telling bicyclists to ride single file.

The argument was that motorists would think riding two abreast was a violation of the law.

Beshara offered a counter proposal.

He said he would be willing to change the wording of the sign to Please Ride Single File.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

University of Georgia Law Students Report Findings from Monitoring of Calls Creek

Cows and Septics

Nearly a year of monitoring of multiple sites on Calls Creek in Oconee County by law students at the University of Georgia has confirmed what the Georgia Environmental Protection Division concluded based on single reading of the same creek back in 2004.

Calls Creek, at least at times and in some places, has fecal coliform readings that exceed federal standards, meaning that the stream is legally impaired.

The most likely culprits are failing septic systems and cattle.

The question now is what to do about it.

The UGA students, in a meeting tonight at the Oconee County Government Annex attended by about 20 people, proposed a series of activities.

These included continued monitoring of the stream, precise identification of the sources of the pollution, talking with the owners of the cattle and with owners of the septic systems about federal and state funding for compliance, and working with county and Watkinsville officials to determine what else can be done.

Lee Carmon, from the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission, who chaired tonight’s meeting, said she will follow up on these suggestions.

Carmon opened tonight’s meeting with some background of the work of the students and then turned it over to those students to report on the findings of the monitoring.

The monitoring project has been funded by a grant to the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission from the Georgia Department of Community Affairs.

Students enrolled in a course directed by Laurie Fowler, associate dean, Odum School of Ecology, undertook the stream monitoring. Fowler was at tonight’s meeting.

Back in 2004, Calls Creek had a reading of 9,000 colony forming units (cfu), or more than double the 4,000 cfu standard for a fishing stream for the sampled time period.

In 2007, the state designated the 4-mile segment of the creek from where Lumpkin Branch meets Calls Creek near the county jail to the Oconee River as impaired. Calls Creek is roughly six miles long.

According to the report by the UGA students tonight, monitoring from March to the end of the summer confirmed problems with Calls Creek particularly in the area downstream from Oconee County’s Calls Creek sewage plant.

Many of the Watkinsville homes in this area are on septic, the students reported, and a small farm with cattle is nearby.

The sewage plant itself has not been identified as a source of the pollution, the student team reported.

As a result of the higher cfu levels near the plant, the students began monitoring additional sites in that area.

Again in September, October and November, the students found high levels at several sites, including those around the sewage treatment plant.

Calls Creek is particularly important because it flows through Watkinsville and other neighborhoods in the county.

Children wade in Calls Creek in many places, and particularly at Harris Shoals, a popular park in Watkinsville.

So far, the readings at Harris Shoals usually have not exceeded federal standards, according to the law students.

“There are kids and mommies playing in that creak about nine months out of the year,” former Watkinsville Mayor Jim Luken said at the meeting tonight. “It is terribly important to the local community that that is safe.”

Carmon said that concern would be incorporated into the future program.

“I would like to see us build some partnerships in the community so that the community will long-term take on this monitoring,” she added.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Regional Commission to Hold Meeting on Calls Creek at Government Annex

Goal: Make Creek Safe

The Northeast Georgia Regional Commission will hold a meeting starting at 6 p.m. on Nov. 16 at the Oconee County Government Annex on SR 15 to present the results of its study of pollution of Calls Creek and its recommendations for dealing with the contamination.

The meeting is a follow-up to one held in September, at which data were presented from monitoring of the stream from March through September and from a walk of the stream from its origins west of Watkinsville to its confluence with the Oconee River just upstream from Simonton Bridge road.

The monitoring plan calls for continued sampling of data from the stream from nine different sites until the end of the year.

The study is the consequence of the classification by the state of Georgia of a section of the stream as impaired due to a fecal coliform reading in 2004 of 9,000 colony forming units (cfu), or more than double the 4,000 cfu standard for the sampled time period.

That state took its reading just upstream from confluence of Calls Creek and the Oconee River and about two miles downstream from where the Oconee County Calls Creek sewage plant discharges. The discharge from the sewage plant is constantly monitored to meet state discharge standards.

The state designated the 4-mile segment of the creek from where Lumpkin Branch meets Calls Creek near the county jail to the Oconee River as impaired. Calls Creek is roughly six miles long.

The popular Harris Shoals Park in Watkinsville is on Calls Creek.

NEGRC initiated the monitoring plan in March to determine the source of the contamination and to develop strategies to reduce it.

At the first meeting in September, the monitors reported that the stream was “visually healthy.” At the same time, the report said that “debris was found in larger quantities near houses and other developments.”

A report by those who walked the stream noted “trash and rusting appliances” and “junked vehicles” near the county’s sewage plant. “During the stream walk,” according to the report, “students observed a foul smell immediately at and after”the sewage plant.

The report is called a Visual Field Survey.

NEGRC states that its goal for the project is to “bring Calls Creek up to regulatory water quality standards so that it is again safe for community use.”

The meeting on Tuesday will be held in the Small Conference Room at the Annex, 1291 Greensboro highway (SR 15).

Monday, November 08, 2010

Oconee County Land Use Committee Has Bike Signage and a Biking and Walking Plan on Agenda

Only Maybe

The Oconee County Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee will return to the issue of bicyclists tomorrow night when it takes up a request that the county put up Share the Road signs on four Oconee County roadways.

The committee also is scheduled to review a Plan for Bicycling and Walking from the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission.

On Sept. 14 the Committee discussed at length the July request from the Oconee County Cycling Organization that the county install Share the Road signs on four county roads.

Those roads are Colham Ferry road from Watkinsville to Watson Spring Mill road, Simonton Bridge road from Watkinsville to the county line, New High Shoals road from U.S. 441 to SR 186, and Barnett Shoals road from Watkinsville to the county line.

Much of the discussion was quite critical of the request, with Emil Beshara, county director of Pubic Works, saying he believed the signs would create liability issues for the county.

Committee Chairman Abe Abouhamdan agreed to take up the issue again at the meeting tomorrow night, which begins at 7 p.m. at the Community Center in Veterans Park.

The committee’s last meeting was devoted to a discussion of a new judicial facility for the county.

In the meantime, the Board of Commissioners has sent the Land Use Committee the Plan for Bicycling and Walking for review.

The citizen committee has been asked by the BOC to make a recommendation to it both on the signage issue and on the Northeast Georgia plan.

The Bicycling and Walking plan was on the agenda of the BOC for Oct. 26 when County Clerk Gina Lindsey released it on the afternoon of Oct. 22. She released a revised agenda on Oct. 25 that eliminated the item.

Lindsey said in releasing the second agenda that the biking and walking plan was being sent to the Land Use Committee for review.

Chairman Melvin Davis sent the other four commissioners an email message on Oct. 1 advising them of the request by the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission that the county approve the plans.

He sent with his Oct. 1 memo three resolutions for the commissioners to consider. One endorsed the resolution and one adopted the resolution.

The third, which Davis said he recommended, simply recognized the resolution. That third resolution, which he told the commissions had been drafted by Strategic and Long-Range Planning Director Wayne Provost, greatly distances the county from the plan.

The other two drafts say that the county “will implement” or “will consider implementation” of the plan.

The document drafted by Provost says the county “may consider” the plan “when making some planning development decisions.”

Nina Kelly of the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission is scheduled to appear before the Land Use Committee to make the case for the plan.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Oconee County BOC Refuses To Rebid Zoom Bait/St. Mary’s Sewer Project

Developer’s Name Surfaces

A sewage line that the Oconee County administration has been touting as a way of providing sewage services for two existing customers, Zoom Bait and St. Mary’s Health Care System Highland Hills, actually will provide sewers for a separate tract of land that the county wants to open for development.

The 114-acre tract, previously undiscussed in public meetings, is owned by Evelyn and Frank Gordy Family, a limited partnership from Atlanta. Varsity Real Estate, also of Atlanta, is a partner of the Evelyn and Frank Gordy Family company.

Representing the Gordy Family in discussions with the county about the tract and sewage services is developer Frank Bishop, who expects to open his Epps Bridge Centre once the Oconee Connector Extension, now under construction, is completed.

According to an Oct. 29, 2010, email message from Chris Thomas, Oconee County Utility Department director, to Alan Theriault, Oconee County administrative officer, Bishop has an option on the 114-acre tract, which also will be accessible via the new roadway.

Bishop also purchased part of the tract for his shopping center from the Gordy Family.

The state is paying for that roadway, which will loop traffic from State Route 316 just west of LOOP 10 through the Bishop and Gordy land back to Epps Bridge Parkway just west of Lowe’s.

At the meeting of the Board of Commissioners on Tuesday night, Chairman Melvin Davis urged the Board to approve rebidding for the sewer line project, since the bids received in response to a request for proposals of September of 2009 have now expired.

The four other members of the board objected, however, because both St. Mary’s and the Gordy Family are asking the county to pay for easements to run the proposed sewer line across their property.

That means that the owners of two of the properties that would benefit from the sewer line not only are not willing to help pay for its construction but also want the county to use taxpayer dollars to pay them for use of their land.

The city of Athens, which also owns a piece of land the line will cross, also is asking the county to pay for an easement.

Despite the request from Davis to go forward with the project, the board agreed only to continue discussions regarding the easements.

Davis, in fact, had tried to keep the item off the agenda on Tuesday night, telling Theriault in an email message on Oct. 18 that “the board has already approved the project, the need for the project has not changed, the projected expense was approved from SPLOST and the grant, the BOC was aware that the property owners had the option of being paid for the easement.”

The grant he referred to was for $186,711 from the Georgia Department of Community Affairs. The remainder of the estimated $773,000 cost of the sewer line is to be paid for from Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax revenues.

The sewer line appeared on the Nov. 2 BOC agenda because commissioners Jim Luke and Chuck Horton objected to going forward without further public discussion.

The possibility that some properties other than Zoom Bait and St. Mary, both on Jennings Mill road, might be served by the proposed sewer line was an issue at the July 27 meeting of the BOC, when the issue was last discussed publicly.

Commissioners Margaret Hale, Horton and Luke specifically asked Thomas of the Utility Department if other properties would be served by the sewer line.

In the exchange, Thomas seemed to be conceding that the new sewer line might be used by customers other than Zoom Bait and St. Mary’s.

Economic Development Director Rusty Haygood interrupted him.

The land available for development behind WalMart and Lowe’s can be better served by an existing line the county installed more than a decade ago, Thomas then said.

“This project is specifically designed for those two businesses,” Thomas said. No other customers had been identified, he said, but, at least theoretically, others could use it.

When I called Haygood on the phone on July 30 and asked him again if there were others customers, he said the sewer line was for two customers, Zoom Bait and St. Mary’s.

The county also told the state of Georgia in its Department of Communnity Affairs grant application that the project was designed to help Zoom Bait and St. Mary's, existing businesses in the county.

While Davis on Tuesday night was acknowledging that Zoom Bait and St. Mary’s were not the only parties involved in discussions, he refused to even use the name of the owner of the “large tract” in arguing that the rebidding should go forward.

It was Thomas who explained who really is to benefit from the sewer line.

He told the commissioners that he had organized a meeting with Bishop on July 7 that was attended by Davis, Theriault, Rusty Haygood, County Attorney Daniell Haygood, and county Strategic and Long-Range Planning Director Wayne Provost.

“We were going to try to get some participation from the Gordy family for the project to help cover that shortfall,” Thomas said.

The project nearly doubled in cost after the first estimates used in the Department of Community Affairs application, and Thomas was hoping Bishop or the Gordy Family would help make up the difference.

Thomas even said he told Bishop the county might actually cancel the sewer project without some assistance.

The threat didn’t work, and Bishop didn’t come up with any money, though he did say he would work on the easement issue, Thomas said.

Commissioner Horton told me yesterday that he first learned of Bishop’s involvement in the discussions with the county about the sewer line only on Oct. 25.

Horton said he and Commissioner Hale met with Bishop–at Bishop’s invitation--at the Starbucks in downtown Athens at 10 a.m. that day to talk about progress on Epps Bridge Centre.

At the end of the meeting, Horton said, after Hale had already left, Bishop brought up discussions with the county about the sewer line on the Gordy property.

“That was the first I knew he had something to do with the Gordy property,” Horton said.

He said he also checked with Commissioners Hale, Luke and John Daniell and learned that they also were in the dark about discussions between the county and Bishop regarding the Gordy property.

On Oct. 28, Horton sent an email message to Davis and the other commissioners, with copies to Thomas, Rusty Haygood and Daniel Haygood, and Theriault.

“I would also like to know about any meetings with other landowners or possible purchasers of property that would be positively impacted by the infrastructure improvements by the county” on the Zoom Bait/St. Mary’s sewer project, Horton wrote.

On Oct. 29, Thomas wrote back to Theriault, saying “I believe the meeting Commissioner Horton is referring to took place on 7/7/2010. I attended and initiated the meeting along with the Chairman, Frank Bishop, Rusty, Wayne, you.”

He included in his email to Theriault a copy of an email he sent to Bishop “following the meeting.”

In that letter, Thomas estimated that it would cost the developer of the Gordy property about $975,000 if it had to pump sewage to the existing sewer line–the one Thomas had said would serve the property at the July 27 meeting–if the new line were not built.

The proposed new sewer line would be downhill from much of the expected development on the Gordy property, so lift stations would not be required, making the project less expensive.

I obtained this correspondence via an open records request I filed on Thursday night. I asked the county to provide to me what Theriault had provided to the commissioners to brief them on the Tuesday night meeting.

Included was a hand-drawn map, which Rusty Haygood also had provided me on Wednesday.

It also included copies of detailed maps produced by Williams & Associates of the actual sewer line.

The maps make it clear how much of a benefit the new sewer line would be to Bishop or whoever develops the Gordy track.

While the project has been described as a gravity flow system from Zoom Bait, which sits on a high bank above McNutt Creek, to a pump station on McNutt creek behind Kohl’s on Epps Bridge parkway, the maps show that the sewer line, in fact, does not follow McNutt Creek.

Rather the line would leave Zoom Bait, cross Jennings Mill road, and follow the existing roadway on the creek side of the St. Mary’s complex.

Zoom Bait is willing to grant an easement for the small part of its land the line will traverse.

After leaving the St. Mary’s property, the sewer line would cross an edge of the property owned by Athens and then traverse large sections of the Gordy property before actually approaching McNutt Creek, which serves as the border with Clarke County.

From there it would connect with the existing sewer line.

An Athens-Clarke County line, according to the hand-drawn map, runs on the opposite side of the creek and roughly follows the creek.

Chairman Davis offered member of the audience a chance to speak on Tuesday night after he urged the commission to move forward on the project, and John Morrison, a member of the Oconee County Development Authority, came forward to support Davis’ recommendation.

He said he was certain that Zoom Bait was thinking of leaving the county if it didn’t get the sewage line to replace the septic system it now uses and said the county should do what it could to help support existing employers in the county. Zoom bait makes fishing lures.

St. Mary’s sends its sewage across McNutt Creek to the sewage line that parallels the creek and flows to a Clark County sewage treatment facility.

Commissioners Horton and Luke urged Thomas to explore whether Athens-Clarke County could handle the Zoom effluent as well.

A story in the the Athens Banner-Herald on Aug. 17 said, in its headline, that the proposed sewer line “will help prevent job drain.”

The story also said the new sewer line will “encourage more commercial growth along Jennings Mill road.”

To substantiate that, reporter Erin France included a quote from Oconee County Finance Director Jeff Benko saying the sewer line “strategically opens up a corridor that goes toward Epps Bridge parkway.”

Jennings Mill road does not connect with Epps Bridge parkway, but much of the traffic leaving a developed Gordy Family tract certainly will.

Benko, it seems now, had it right, though he was not toeing the official line when he said that a key purpose of the proposed sewer line is future development.


I have put the full video of the discussion of the sewer line at the Tuesday meeting on the Oconee County Observations Vimeo site.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Oconee County BOC Says No to Government Annex Renovation

Judicial Facility Also Panned

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners last night officially voted to end discussion of renovation of the Government Annex on SR 15 south of Watkinsville.

Commissioner John Daniell argued that the county should go forward with the latest plans for the building and was supported by Commissioner Margaret Hale.

Commissioners Chuck Horton and Jim Luke were opposed, as was Commission Chairman Melvin Davis.

The Board has been discussing since May a major renovation of the facility, which now houses the Public Works and Utility departments as well as an office of the United States Department of Agriculture and an adult education program of Athens Technology College.

The Board held a public session on the plans at the Civic Center on Sept. 21. At that time, several board members expressed concerns about the cost. One of the proposals was just under $2 million.

At its Oct. 26 meeting, County Administration Officer Alan Theriault brought forward a scaled back version costing $1.3 million. In deference to Commissioner Hale, who said she still needed more information, the Board agreed to postpone final action until last night.

Daniell, who has been a strong proponent of the renovation, gave a five-minute argument last night for the scaled back plan and then made a motion that the county go forward with the renovation. The motion was seconded by Hale.

That motion was defeated 3-2 with Horton and Luke voting against and Davis breaking the tie with his no vote.

Luke next made a motion, seconded by Horton, that the county cease planning for the annex renovation.

That motion was passed 3-2, with Luke, Horton and Davis voting in the majority.

Daniell used an estimate of $2 million in costs for the renovation by adding costs for a needed new roof and other code upgrades to the $1.3 million figure used by Theriault.

Finance Director Jeff Benko had proposed the plan to renovate the Government Annex back in May as a way of saving money on the current and future budgets.

The idea was for the county to vacate the Courthouse Annex, located across the street from the courthouse in downtown Watkinsville, and move the departments housed there to the renovated Government Annex.

The county leases the Courthouse Annex, referred to as the Dolvin property, and pays other expenses totaling about $105,000 per year.

Running parallel to the discussion of the renovation of the Government Annex has been discussion in the county’s Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee about the future of the county courthouse.

At a public meeting on Oct. 19, that group argued that the county needs to build a separate judicial facility near the county jail in the next 10 years. The committee estimated the cost at between $20 and 22 million.

That proposal came up last night as well.

Davis told Daniell he thought the proposal for the Annex renovation “was way to expensive.” Daniell countered that it was a lot cheaper than the proposed judicial building.

“I don’t have any alternatives at this point,” Davis responded.

Luke used the opportunity to express his views on the judicial building proposal.

“I have no intention, probably in my life time, of going out and looking at that judicial center,” he said.

Horton also said he wanted to be on the record as not wanting to go forward with the plan of the Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee.


I have put the video of this entire section of the BOC meeting on my Oconee County Observations Vimeo site.