Monday, December 27, 2010

Oconee BOE Scheduled to Swear in Two Members at Meeting on Jan. 3

May 10 Again

At its Jan. 3 meeting, the Oconee County Board of Education is scheduled to swear in two members, bringing to an end a year that saw one board member resign, the board announce and then abandon a plan to replace the member, and voters toss out an incumbent.

Mark Thomas will join the Board at that meeting as Post 2 member after handily defeating both incumbent Post 2 Board member Mack Guest in the July Republican primary and Democrat Carter Strickland in the November general election.

Kim Argo, who ran unopposed in both the Republican primary and in the general election in November, also is scheduled to be sworn in for a second four-year term. She holds Post 3.

The two will join Wayne Bagley, chosen by the Board on Oct. 4 to replace Post 5 Board member Tom Breedlove, who resigned on May 10 after he decided to move out of the state to take a new job.

The terms of Board Chairman David Weeks, Post 4 member Mike Hunter and Bagley will expire in 2012. The terms for Argo and Thomas run until 2014.

On May 19, the Board announced it would turn to the four candidates who had filed for the Post 2 and 3 positions to find a replacement for the Post 5 vacancy.

That meant that Argo and Guest, along with Weeks and Hunter, were inviting Argo and Guest, along with Thomas and Strickland, to ask to be considered to replace Breedlove.

In the end, only Strickland said he was interested, and the Board decided on June 14 that it would pass Strickland over and seek applicants from the general public.

Bagley was chosen from 17 applicants after the Board shortened the list to three on Aug. 9 and interviewed those finalists on Sept. 2. Bagley was sworn in on Oct. 11, or a week after his selection.

In a conversation with me on Nov. 2, Weeks said the board had learned from the experience of selecting the Post 5 replacement.

“I know we have taken some heat on the process we went through,” he said. “I think in the end it did work out the way it was supposed to work out.”

Weeks said if he could go back to May 10, he would propose opening up the process “right off the bat.” But he said it was easy to second guess the decision and he didn’t want to do that.

Weeks said he didn’t think there would be any long-term consequences of the decision process and he is very pleased with the selection of Bagley.

The official selection of Bagley on Oct. 4 came after the Board voted to go into executive session at the end of its regular meeting, which started at 4:30 p.m.

According to the official minutes of the meeting, that was at 5:22 p.m. The Board returned from executive session at 5:33 and announced the selection of Bagley.

“I know that 11 minutes does seem like it was already predetermined,” Weeks said in our conversation. But he said that was not the case.

The Board had discussed the three candidates following their interviews on Sept. 2, Weeks said.

According to the official minutes of that meeting, the Board spent a little less than an hour and a half in executive session after the Sept. 2 interviews.

“At that time,” Weeks said, “We didn’t have a consensus.”

Weeks told me he encouraged the Board members to talk one-on-one with the candidates on their own, and that he had talked with Townsend by telephone and had lunch with Bagley and Burnette.

Weeks said he also encouraged the Board members to exchange information and ideas, though not in groups of three, since that would violate the state’s open meetings laws.

Weeks said the Board did not discuss the three candidates in meetings held on Sept. 13 and 20, because Guest missed the first of those meetings and Weeks missed the second.

So the next discussion of the full board about the three finalists was on Oct. 4, he said.

“When we got there, everybody said Wayne Bagley was their choice,” Weeks said.

Superintendent John A. Jackson attended the two executive sessions where the three finalists were discussed, according to Weeks, but he did not express his opinion, and the Board did not ask.

“He didn’t play any role whatsoever,” Weeks said.

No reporters for the papers were present when the Board came out of executive session on Oct. 4 and announced Bagley’s selection, and none of the papers mentioned the small amount of time the Board needed to select Bagley at that meeting in the stories they wrote about the meeting.

The Athens Banner-Herald had a story in its Oct. 5 edition about Bagley’s selection, and The Oconee Enterprise and The Oconee Leader had stories in their Oct. 7 editions.

Oct. 4 was a Monday, and that is the final day for copy for the Leader. The Enterprise normally includes in its Thursday editions stories from meetings on Tuesday nights.

Reporter Kathy Russo from the Enterprise was present at the Oct. 4 meeting but left when the Board went into executive session.

Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Brook Whitmire sent a press release immediately after the meeting to the three newspapers, according to the response to an open records request I filed with the school office on Oct. 17.

The meeting ended at 5:35 p.m., and the news releases were sent at 5:46 and 5:47.

Superintendent Jackson handed me a copy of that news release about that same time.

The news release contained a lengthy quote from Weeks explaining the selection of Bagley and noting his credentials.

The Enterprise used the quote in its story, written by Russo, while Ryan Blackburn from the Banner-Herald used a part of the quote. Reporter Katie Tavernier did not use the quote in her story in the Leader.

According to an email message I received on Oct. 18 from Deborah Epps, administrative assistant to Superintendent Jackson, Jackson called Tavernier after the meeting because Epps had told Tavernier earlier in the day that she did not expect an announcement of a selection at the meeting.

Tavernier quoted Jackson praising Bagley rather then Weeks in her story.

The Jan. 3 work session where Argo and Thomas are scheduled to be sworn in starts at 5 p.m. at the school system’s administrative offices, 34 School street in Watkinsville.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Oconee County News and Information Web Site Scheduled to Launch Tomorrow

Hyperlocal and Interactive

Oconee County’s local news and information site is scheduled to go live tomorrow.

Jane Lee, the editor of the Oconee County site, said the plan is for the site to be made available to the public sometime between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.

The Oconee launch will follow a successful launch of a site in Dacula on Dec. 17. A Barrow County site is scheduled to launch on Dec. 28, Lee said. The Athens site will launch after the first of the year, she added.

In all, AOL Inc., the web site owner, plans to launch 12 sites in the northeast Georgia region in coming months as part of the its national roll-out of the local web sites, according to Lee. web site shows the service as available in 19 states and the District of Columbia.

AOL Inc., formerly known as America Online, is attempting to move from being an Internet service provider to an Internet content producer.

The web site will be both “interactive” and “hyperlocal,” Lee said, distinguishing it from anything else available in the market.

It will contain news produced by Lee and correspondents working for her as well as materials submitted by the readers.

Readers will be able to contribute to a calendar, post birth, wedding and other types of announcements, and place advertisements for such things as garage sales. AOL will not charge for these postings.

The company will charge for some types of reader contributions, such as job posting, Lee said.

The site also will have a directory of local businesses and governmental offices. Businesses can pay extra for a larger listing, similar to what they do in printed telephone directories.

Readers will not pay for access to the web site. AOL plans to support the site through advertising.

At present, Lee said she has lined up seven freelance writers to contribute to the Oconee site. She said she plans to cover governmental meetings and post stories to the site upon the meeting’s completion.

The two Oconee County weeklies, The Oconee Enterprise and The Oconee Leader, have web sites, but both papers give priority to their print products, which come out on Thursday.

Many county meetings are at the front of the week, with the Board of Education meeting on Mondays and the Board of Commissioners meeting on Tuesdays.

On Dec. 13, a Monday, both papers had reporters at the meeting of the Oconee County Industrial Development Authority and the Oconee County Board of Commissioners. The meeting was from 4 to 6 p.m.

Both included stories in their Thursday, Dec. 16 editions.

Neither paper put the story on its web site.

The daily Athens Banner-Herald also wrote about the story in its Dec. 16 edition and put the story on its web site.

Perry Parks, a Georgia regional editor for AOL’s project, told me in October that he planned to hire a professional editor for Watkinsville and Oconee County in November.

Lee, 47, told me on Saturday that she has been living in Oconee County for a little more than a month.

She is a graduate of the University of Georgia (in classics) and has worked as a journalist in Thomaston, in Upson County, south of Atlanta.

Lee said readers will have easy access to her telephone and email address via the web site.


Online Media Daily on 12/21 released a projection by eMarketer that 2010 will be the first year in which online advertising exceeds advertising by newspapers, including for their online editions. eMarketer also expects online advertising to continue to grow and print advertising to decrease.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Oconee County Industrial Development Authority Seeks Advice from Board of Commissioners

Offers Bond Tips Too

The Oconee County Industrial Development Authority, seeking guidance on what it should do next, spent two hours yesterday afternoon tossing out ideas to members of the Board of Commissioners.

Among the proposals put forward was adding roadways and other infrastructure to the Gateway Park, enticing companies now incubating at the University of Georgia to locate in Oconee County, and getting voters to approve liquor by the drink so the county can develop a convention facility.

Gateway Park, on SR 316 near the Barrow County line and envisioned as a technology park, is a project of the IDA. At present, it is undeveloped.

The commissioners present were less than committal about which projects they favor and what they want the IDA to do.

The ideas the Authority was pitching came for a survey of the members.

Leonard Meyers, acting as facilitator for the meeting, methodically went through the responses, encouraging members to elaborate and commissioners to respond. Meyers said about halfway through the session he was surprised how little comment his presentation was generating.

Those who did speak favored an activist and expansive role of county government in promoting development, consistent with the comments in the survey Meyers was summarizing.

County Attorney Daniel Haygood, who also represents the IDA, said the authority has been in existence since 1962, when it was approved by the citizens of the county under the authority of the state’s constitution.

Haygood said the IDA can receive gifts, it can borrow money, it can make intergovernmental agreements, and it has the powers of private corporations.

This latter power, according to Haygood, means the IDA can do such things as build a building “without having to comply with all the state law that a county would have to comply with.”

“The big one, and this is the one you are all here to really think about and talk about,” said Haygood, “is encourage or promote expansion and development of industrial facilities and commercial facilities in Oconee County to relieve possible unemployment.”

Haygood said the IDA can acquire or build a building and even provide the furnishings and machinery for it.

The IDA also can accumulate funds year to year, he added, and can negotiate tax abatements for businesses seeking to expand or locate in the county.

Haygood introduced Jim Woodward, an attorney at Miller & Martin law firm in Atlanta, who said his speciality is counseling governments on bond sales.

Woodward added “an additional benefit for governments” of the IDA.

“You can borrow money without a voter referendum,” he said.

Haygood said the county can dedicate property taxes to pay for bonds and projects of the Authority.

Commissioner Margaret Hale was unable to attend the meeting, and Commissioner Chuck Horton came in with only about a half hour remaining. He apologized and said he was attending another government meeting.

Commissioners John Daniell and Jim Luke and Commission Chairman Melvin Davis sat through the entire two-hour session.

“We need somebody to come back to us and say here is what you can do in Oconee County,” Daniell said. “If you want this type of business, you’ve got to do this. If you want this type, you’ve got to do that.

“After we have all the options on the table, that is when the Board of Commissioners have got to raise their hands and say, all right, let’s go down this road.”

Commissioner Jim Luke turned to Chairman Davis at one point and said of the IDA:

“They are sitting here asking us, what do you want us to do? We’re saying, figure it out and tell us.”

Horton said the county should not waste its effort going after companies not interested in coming to Georgia.

“I think you’ve got to look at where money currently is going and where you have a legitimate chance of getting some of that money,” he said.

BOC Chairman Melvin Davis, who is a member of the IDA by virtue of his BOC role, was more determined to push forward with a directive for IDA.

He introduced Tom Griffith, whom, Davis said, he had invited to the meeting.

Griffith, founder of Golden Pantry Food Stores, based in Oconee County near Bogart, said the county needs to purchase what is called the Orkin property, a piece of land at the U.S. 78 and SR 316 interchange and stretching into Clarke County, and have it available for development.

Griffith also said the county should put “one person” in charge of leading the development effort in the county and “trust” him to go forward. That person, he said, should be Davis.

The Industrial Development Authority has five members.

Chuck Williams, president of North Georgia Bank, is chairman, and he opened the meeting last night, which was held from 4 to 6 p.m. in the courthouse in Watkinsville.

The IDA meets at 4 p.m. on the second month of each month.

Other members are BOC Chairman Davis, Oconee Chamber of Commerce President J.R. Whitfield, Watkinsville Mayor Joe Walter, and Rick Waller. Waller and Williams are appointed by the BOC.

The county also has a Development Authority, which consists of the IDA and six additional members, four of them at-large appointments of the BOC.

The meeting was last night was attended by two reporters from The Oconee Enterprise, one from the Athens Banner-Herald, and even one from The Oconee Leader.

About a half dozen citizens also attended.

Williams said at the end of the meeting he felt some progress had been made and that the “ball is now in the court of the IDA.”

“I would ask that we keep the dialog open,” he said.


The full video of the meeting is at the Oconee County Observations Vimeo site.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Oconee Planning Commission Adds to Size of Planned Epps Bridge Centre

The Equivalent of Four Trader Joe's

The Oconee County Planning Commission took only 10 minutes tonight to agree that developer Frank Bishop should be allowed to increase the maximum square footage of his proposed but as yet unstarted Epps Bridge Centre on Epps Bridge parkway.

Bishop, through his representative, Philip Cranmer, told the commissioners tonight he needed the additional 42,185 square feet of space because of an “increased interest in retailers locating in this area." He said “we wanted to make sure we can accommodate those interested parties.”

Bishop has not submitted any construction drawings for the $76 million project and gave only vague indications of how the extra space would be spread around the 22-building complex, located west of Lowe’s.

The documents Bishop did submit list one tenant, Georgia Theatre Company, which, according to the documents, will occupy an 80,000 square foot building at the rear of the complex. The building will have 16 screens and seat 2,992, according to the submitted documents.

The Board of Commissioners approved a rezone for the 68-acre tract in October of 2008.

The state currently is building the Oconee Connector Extension, which will provide five of the six proposed entrances to the shopping center. The sixth is off Epps Bridge parkway itself.

The Planning Commission’s unanimous recommendation is scheduled to be on the agenda of the Board of Commissioners at its Jan. 4, 2011, meeting.

Planning Commission member George Rodrigues, who represents Watkinsville, asked Oconee County planner Brad Callender if there was going to be any change in the amount of paved parking area as a result of the increased size of the shopping center.

Callender said the increase would be about three percent.

Rodrigues had complained about the amount of impervious surface in the complex back when it was before the Planning Commission in 2008.

According to the documents submitted with the rezone modification request by Bishop’s Oconee 316 Associates, LLC, the Atlanta company developing the project, tree canopy on the site now covers 35 percent of the site.

Bishop plans to clear 100 percent of the land but replant tress so that 34 percent of the site will be covered by trees within five years of build-out of the center and 40 percent of the land will be covered “at tree maturity.”

According to the submitted documents, the project will take about six years to build out once construction begins.

Bishop also plans to put two streams on the site in pipes and to fill wetlands on the site. He has been given permission to do this by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is allowing him to mitigate these damages on a site Bishop purchased in Greene County.

Planning Commissioner member Bill Ramsey asked where the mitigation site was and if it was going to be “downstream from here.” Greene County is south of Oconee County.

In addition to the increase in total square footage for the project from the 444,056 approved in 2008 to the 486,241 requested, the Planning Commission also recommended that the BOC grant Bishop three additional exceptions to zoning regulations.

Bishop wants to increase the number of lots that will use a private access road, modify the minimum front and side yard setbacks for parking areas, and modify the setbacks between buildings.

The 42,185 increase in square footage will allow Bishop to add the equivalent space of 80 percent of the Kroger’s across Epps Bridge parkway from the planning shopping center.

Or, about the size of four Trader Joe’s, also located across Epps Bridge parkway from Bishop’s complex.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Board of Commissioners Approves Rezone Modification for Possible Move of Oconee County USDA Offices

Dormers Added

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners tonight approved a modification to an earlier rezone that could result in the United States Department of Agriculture relocating its offices from the county Government Annex on Greensboro highway south of Watkinsville to near the USDA farms on Hog Mountain road.

The modifications would allow Allen Giddens of Gainesville to purchase a vacant lot (below) in Twelve Oaks Office Park, build a single-story building and lease the building to the USDA.

Prior to the unanimous vote tonight, buildings in the five-lot office park could not be larger than 2,800 feet of ground coverage. The BOC vote increased the amount to 5,600 square feet.

The USDA currently is renting space on a monthly basis in the Government Annex for its Farm Service Agency and for its Natural Resource Conservation Service. The county had a lease with USDA for the space, but the lease expired earlier this year.

In May the county began discussing the possibility of renovating the Government Annex to accommodate county space needs. It told the USDA after those discussions began that it would have to leave.

On Nov. 2, the BOC voted to stop the discussions of the renovation.

County Administrative Officer Alan Theriault told the BOC tonight that the county has informed USDA it can stay. In that circumstance, the county and USDA would have to renegotiate the lease.

Theriault told me after the meeting that the USDA was paying about $10,000 a year for use of the Government Annex space and has not told the county what it plans to do in the future.

Giddens told the BOC tonight he has an option to purchase the lot in the Hog Mountain road office park from Robert and Joanne Fine of Bishop. Giddens said the option runs only through the end of this year.

Giddens said he submitted a bid to USDA earlier this year but has not heard if it will be accepted. He said he hopes to hear in the next few weeks.

“If we don’t get the bid, the project will not go forward,” he said.

The proposal calls for use of 4,100 square feet of the 5,500 square-foot building Giddens said he plans to build. He said the additional space would be available to the USDA for future expansion.

Giddens told the Board the USDA specified it wants a one-story building. He told me that the cost of an elevator for such a small building would increase the price by $100,000, making it too expensive for him to build.

Total estimated cost of the proposed building without the elevator is $400,000, according to a letter Giddens submitted to the county along with the rezone application.

The rezone the BOC approved in March of 1993 for the office park specified that the buildings must have a brick exterior, be built “in a Georgian style” and be one and a half stories or two stories in height.

The BOC tonight added the requirement that Giddens modify his submitted plan to add dormers at the front of the building to give it the appearance of being a story and a half in height.

The Board also added the stipulation that the change it was making to allow Giddens to build a single-story building did not apply to another unbuilt lot in the subdivision.

Giddens was the only person speaking in favor of the proposed change tonight. No one spoke against, though I did ask the Board several questions about the proposal, including how the one-story structure meshed with the 1993 ordinance and whether the change applied to the other empty lot.

Twelve Oaks Business Park was designed when the adjoining Twelve Oaks subdivision was built early last decade. Both adjoin USDA farm land.

Two lots in the subdivision are used by Summer Hill Recreation Club for a commercial pool and tennis court facility under a Conditional Use Permit approved by the county in 1994. Summerhill also uses space in Twelve Oaks Business Park for parking.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Oconee County Board of Commissioners Gives Nod to $1.9 Million Sewer Projects


The Oconee County Board of Commissioners gave tentative approval last night to two new sewer projects that include an upgrade to the county’s only existing sewage plant and replacement of the main arterial line that feeds the plant.

The $1.9 million project will be funded in part through a loan from the Georgia Environmental Facilities Authority (GEFA), the state agency that administers programs that provide financial assistance and other support services to improve Georgia’s environment.

The money actually comes from the federal government through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund, which provides funds for water quality protection projects around the country.

The county applied for and was awarded a $1.8 million loan for the project. GEFA already has indicated it will forgive $270,000 of the loan, which is not due until completion of the project or September of 2011.

The county either will pay off the 10-year loan when it comes due with monies already available, County Finance Director Jeff Benko told the commissioners last night, or it will pay off the $1.53 million over time at 3 percent interest, depending on which is more favorable to the county.

Benko said the county has collected fees from developers wishing to reserve capacity for sewage treatement that will allow the county to pay for the project and that money is invested and earning interest.

Benko told me after the meeting that the county also will seek additional loan money from GEFA, since the $1,939,057 total cost of the project is greater than the initial estimated budget of $1.8 million.

The commissioners last night gave initial approval to a bid of $1,233,809 from Southern Champion Construction Inc. of Stone Mountain for the upgrade to the head works of the Calls Creek sewage plant and immediately included a change order that would reduce that project’s total price by $84,500.

The commissioners also gave preliminary approval to a bid of $789,778 to Gary’s Grading and Pipeline Company of Monroe for a replacement of the main sewage line feeding that plant.

Approval of both bids will be on the consent agenda at the Dec. 7 meeting, meaning they will be approved without further discussion unless a commissioner asks that the items be removed from the agenda for further consideration.

Jimmy Parker from Precision Planning Inc. of Lawrenceville, acting as a consultant to the county, told the commissioners last night that the county’s application with GEFA was rated tops in the state, receiving a score of 93 out of 100 possible points, because of project needs and environmental impact and because of the compliance record of the county’s utility department.

“A lot of things your utility department has been doing spoke well in that application,” Parker said.

The Calls Creek sewage plant upgrade includes a new receiving well below the plant into which the sewage flows before it is pumped uphill to the treatment plant itself as well as screens to filter out heavy materials before they enter the plant.

That well will have a 5 million gallon per day capacity, although the plant itself is only permitted to operate at 0.67 MGD at present.

The county will use an existing emergency backup pump rather than buy a new one, as originally proposed, saving the $84,500 covered by the change order.

The upgrade also will include a septage receiving station that will preprocess the contents of septic tanks that haulers bring to the plant.

At present, the county does not have such a facility, though one had been incorporated into the plans for the proposed Rocky Branch sewage plant. Those plans are now on hold due to the drop in demand in the weak economy.

Chris Thomas, Utility Department director, said last night the inclusion of the septage receiving station at Calls Creek could make such a facility at Rocky Branch unnecessary.

The sewer line to be upgraded currently handles all of the effluent going into the Calls Creek plant and follows Calls Creek from near the county jail on Experiment Station road in Watkinsville to the plant itself.

The county will replace a 10-inch line with a 24-inch line and remove four aerial crossings of Calls Creek and Lampkin Branch, which feeds into Calls Creek. The new line will be entirely underground, flow by gravity and run a total of 5,500 feet.

The county also has received a grant of $187,000 from the state for an unrelated sewage project that would serve Zoom Bait and St. Mary’s Hospital Highland Hills on Jennings Mill road. That project is currently on hold while the county negotiates over easements.

Funding for that grant also comes from the federal government.