Sunday, March 14, 2010

Oconee Commission and Citizens Differ on Elder Mill Park

Technically Correct And Incomplete

Last month’s Oconee County town hall meeting showcased the gap between the views of the members of the Board of Commissioners and those in the county who have been trying to preserve the area around Elder Mill Bridge.

The commissioners are focused on preservation of the mill.

The citizens are focused on preservation of the area around the bridge, including the mill.

The commission is content with the status quo for the bridge.

The citizens say the status quo is untenable.

Russ Page, who worked back in 2007 on plans for a park that would incorporate Elder Mill, Elder Mill Bridge and land around both, asked the first question of the five members of the commission at the Feb. 16 session.

“Do you think it is important, that part of the county, and saving that part of the county, the area immediately surrounding the bridge and the mill?” Page asked. “Number two, what is your plan to do something about it, if you do think it ought to be saved?”

Page asked, in the case in which the county wouldn’t do anything to preserve the area, would it support a citizens’ effort to preserve the area?

BOC Chairman Melvin Davis was the first to answer. He said the county only had $27,000 available to spend from the just-completed 2004 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax.

“I would like to see from a personal standpoint the Elder Mill secured if we could get it some way or another,” Davis added. “That would be an asset for the county.”

Commissioner Chuck Horton went next, and he said “We are very interested in the mill, but you have got to have somebody who is willing to sell it to us…We were always committed to that mill, to try to get it as a historical place.”

“I think all of us have said we would like to save the mill,” Commissioner Jim Luke said next. Of the park proposal, he added, “I just don’t see any way we can undertake a project like this in the near term.”

“It would be nice to get the mill,” Commissioner John Daniell said. “Again, it is not for sale. It is also being preserved right now. It is not like it is a rush.”

Commissioner Margaret Hale spoke last, and her view was the exception. “I am supportive of this park and the future it can bring and the historical value it can bring to the county, but, as my other colleagues have said, there is no funding for this,” she said.

All of the commissioners said they would support citizens who wanted to try to do something on their own to preserve the area and create a park.

The commissioners' response on funding is technically correct and incomplete.

It also does not make clear that the commissioners explicitly have assigned acquisition of property to preserve the area around the bridge and the mill a lower priority than other recreation and park projects in the county.

As recently as December, the Board voted to spend $94,000 for playground equipment at Herman C. Michael Park, which is located across Hog Mountain road from the new Oconee Veterans Park. The new park has new playground equipment in place.

As Chairman Davis explained at the meeting, the county allocated $5 million from the 2004 SPLOST (approved in 2003), for parks and recreation.

The county made the decision to spend $4 million of that to retire a general obligation revenue bond used to create Veterans Park, though the resolution for the SPLOST did not obligate the county to that amount.

The county also has taken in $631,266 more than it projected from the 2004 SPLOST, and it has earned interest of $861,049 on the amount collected as of the end of January of 2010, meaning it is today sitting on at least $1,492,315 in unspent and unallocated money from the 2004 SPLOST.

County Finance Director Jeff Benko has told me that the county can spend that money however it likes, meaning, if Benko is correct, all of it could be used for parks and recreation.

If even 20 percent of those funds were set aside for parks and recreation, reflecting the ratio of the original SPLOST ($5 million for parks and recreation out of $25 million), the county would have $298,463 at present to spend for that purpose.

County Parks and Recreation Director John Gentry, in a letter to the commissioners written on Aug. 23, 2007, said that it was his priority that the county start investing immediately in the proposed Elder Mill Park.

“My recommendation to you first and foremost is to fully support the conceptual plan” for the park, Gentry wrote. He also said he recommended committing $233,500 immediately to start moving on the land acquisition for the project, which would take 15 to 20 years to complete.

Gentry said that $452,000 in SPLOST 2004 funds “is not earmarked for any particular project at this time” and that these funds could be used for the new park.

He said that plans were to use this money for “additional site amenities…for the OCC and other parks” in the county” and that committing the funds to the new park “would delay purchasing some of these items with SPLOST 2004.”

If the BOC was unwilling to spend SPLOST funds to start acquisition of land for Elder Mill Park, Gentry said the county could use monies from other tax sources for the project.

OCC stood for Oconee Community Complex, which is now called Oconee Veterans Park.

The BOC rejected Gentry’s proposal and refused to commit any SPLOST or general funds to the project.

Mary Mellein, a long-time citizen activist and president of the Keep Oconee Clean and Beautiful Commission, waited until late in the meeting to follow up on Page’s first question about the park.

She was concerned that development around the bridge would threaten the bridge itself.

“You’ve talked about the mill but you haven’t mentioned the covered bridge. It is my understanding there is willing land owners around that bridge. If we lose that land, we lose the bridge because the bridge cannot accommodate traffic even if it is broken up into very large lots. And it would be a sad thing to lose.”

“The county owns the covered bridge,” Davis said in response. He again said the county lacked money to purchase the land around it.

Luke chimed in to say the county supported the 2007 proposal but was not willing to spend any money on it. “We just didn’t have money to put into buying” property because of commitments made to the other parks in the county, he said.

At present, the bridge carries a single lane of traffic across a gravel section of Elder Mill road. If the land around the bridge were developed, it would create additional traffic on the bridge.

Gentry, in his 2007 letter, recommended moving forward on land acquisition to make it possible to close that section of Elder Mill road to local traffic as a way of protecting the bridge.

Chip Chandler from Madison County was the third and last person to speak about the proposed park at the town hall meeting. He said the Watson Mill Park in his county was a “big draw” and suggested even some scaled-back park around Elder Mill Bridge could have positive impact on the economy of Oconee County.

Commissioners Hale, Luke and Horton again said the issue was a matter of money.

After the meeting, I talked one-on-one with Luke about the property just west of the bridge that had been owned by Al Cuming and went on the market in January.

Luke told me that the Cuming property was “not important” to the county. “It is across the creek from the mill,” he said.

He also said he didn’t think the county should have bought the Cuming property under any circumstance because it has a house on it.

In addition, Luke said, “the county doesn’t move that quickly.”

The scope of the proposed project clearly is an issue for many members of the commission. Luke said at the town hall meeting that the proposal he saw back in 2007 “scared me to death.”

That plan for the park was drawn up by Williams and Associates in June of 2007 and included 10 to 12 different properties, depending on how the properties are counted.

The park stretched from SR 15 to Saxon road, but at the center was the wooden covered bridge and the mill.

The bridge carries Elder Mill road across Rose Creek. Just to the east of the bridge, on the south side of Elder Mill road, are 6 acres owned by Charles Morgan. The mill sits on this site.

Just to the west of the bridge, on the south side of Elder Mill road, is the former residence of Cuming, who was a strong advocate for the bridge and who allowed visitors to the bridge to walk across his property to the shoals of Rose Creek just downstream from the bridge.

Cuming no longer lives on the property, which went under contract a few weeks after it went on the market.

Just north of the bridge, on both sides of the creek, is one of three linked parcels owned by Elizabeth Dolvin and conservator Ray Burress, according to county tax records. Total acreage for the three parcels is 260, but the parcel at the bridge probably is less than 40 acres.

The Watkinsville Garden Club has a small garden on this property at the eastern side of the bridge.

Ellen Vaughn, who has been with the Garden Club since 1972 and was president in 1991, told me in a telephone conversation in early February that the Club started the garden at the Elder Mill Bridge in 1972 to celebrate its 50th anniversary.

She said the Club received permission from the landowner to use the property. “We do have it is writing,” she said.

View Elder Mill Road in a larger map

The county’s Scenic Preservation overlay district covers all of the property formerly owned by Cuming, much of the property on which the mill sits, about a third of the roughly 40 acre Dolvin tract, and the majority of a 23-acre tract owned by James Flanagan.

The county Unified Development Code severely restricts what owners of the affected properties can do, making these four properties of about 70 acres an obvious core for any park incorporating the bridge and the mill.

The Williams concept plan also included other properties for a total of 580 acres, which would make the park about the same size as the county’s two largest parks combined, Heritage Park with 275 acres and Veterans Park with 198 acres.

The assessed property value of the land covered by the Williams plan is just less than $6.2 million.

Tim Bryant of WGAU radio interviewed Chairman Davis on the morning of the town hall meeting and began with a question on the proposed park. “What are you hearing from your constituents on that?” Bryant asked.

“Well, I think if we had the money to spend, and was able to acquire that property or at least a portion of that property, I think that would satisfy and would, most of the citizens would appreciate that,” Davis said.

He again said it was a matter of money and that the mill was the priority.

“To be able to acquire another 200 acres at fully county funded, sources, might be more difficult at this point in time,” he said.

“Yes, that is one of the subjects we are hearing from the public,” Davis said. “Not a huge amount of conversation taking place but there is a group of folks that desire that and it is a good, worthwhile project if we had the funds to acquire it.”

Citizens who want to move forward with plans for the park even without county support have formed a group called Friends of Elder Mill and Elder Mill Bridge. Page, John English, Robert John and Melissa Steele make up the leadership of the group.

General interest in the area seems to be increasing.

Steele organized a successful clean-up of Rose Creek, Little Rose Creek and Elder Mill road on March 6 that was attended by about 50 volunteers.

Jonathan Veit is organizing a public discussion of the proposed park for later this month as a way of keeping it on the agenda.

Veit also has organized an online petition regarding the park.

The full town-hall meeting is viewable on my Vimeo site. In addition, I edited the three exchanges involving Elder Mill into a shorter clip, also on my Vimeo site. (The embedded video above contains only answers.)