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.