Saturday, December 24, 2011

Oconee County Officials Did Not Want to Answer All Pinewood Estates South Questions

Pressure on Price

Oconee County Administrative Office Alan Theriault did not answer one question that was central to the concerns of Pinewood Estates South residents when the residents met with county officials at the Civic Center on Dec. 12.

Would the county close down the mobile home park on Jan. 13, when it proposed to cut off water and sewer services to the residents there, one resident asked.

Theriault parried the question for two reasons.

First, he didn’t want to decrease the pressure on Georgia General Kipling Land LLC and its chief executive officer, Maxie Price. Georgia General Kipling owns Pinewood Estates South.

Second, the county really didn’t have a firm answer.

From conversations I had with Theriault, County Attorney Daniel Haygood and County Commissioner Jim Luke after that meeting on Dec. 12, I learned that the county believed that it would never actually face closing the park.

They believed that Price, who owns Maxie Price Chevrolet-Oldsmobile and other automobile dealerships in Gwinnett County, would bend to public pressure and reach a settlement with the county.

In fact, a key element of the county’s strategy was to generate publicity that would adversely affect Price’s reputation and his ability to sell cars.

The publicity produced the desired end on Dec. 15, when the county was able to get the attorney for Georgia General Kipling to sign a consent order to dismiss the lawsuit.

Georgia General Kipling agreed to pay its water and sewer bill.

And the county agreed it would not turn off water and sewer to residents on the park on Jan. 13.

The county, of course, never made known its plan to use public pressure on Price.

The county filed suit against Georgia General Kipling and Price on April 29 of this year in Gwinnett Superior Court, but none of the media picked up on the story.

On Nov. 11, Chris Thomas, Utility Department director, took the very unusual step of issuing a press release that Georgia General Kipling and “its managing member, Maxie Price” owed the county Utility Department “in excess of $150,000.”

The press release further stated that Georgia General Kipling was refusing to pay for service “although it receives money from the residents for utility service.”

That story made news on Oconee Patch, the Athens Banner-Herald, and The Oconee Enterprise.

The county next scheduled a public show-cause hearing on Nov. 17 and issued a press release on Nov. 23 indicating that it found cause to stick to the Jan. 13 shutoff date for water and sewer services to the mobile home park.

“The (Utility) department cannot continue to provide free utility service for a land owner that appears to be profiting from that service,” Thomas said in the release.

That meeting and finding also generated coverage in the local media.

The county next held two public meetings with residents of the park, one on Nov. 28 and the other last Monday, Dec. 12.

At the first, the county reported that it was willing to keep providing water and sewer services to the mobile home park if Georgia General Kipling would pay the contested amount to an escrow account or to the court, pending settlement of the dispute.

At the second, the county repeated that offer and indicated it felt it was close to a settlement.

More than 100 people turned out at the first hearing, and more than 90 at the second.

These meetings, with park residents and their families pleading with the county not to turn off the water and sewer services to their homes and saying they had been faithful in paying Georgia General Kipling for water and sewer, produced news stories.

On Dec. 14—two days after the second hearing--the Board of Commissioners met in a special session to approve the agreement.

The county was able to get attorneys for Georgia General Kipling to sign the agreement on Dec. 15. The county released the document to the public that day.

By the time of the BOC meeting, the story had developed quite a following.

Enterprise Editor Blake Giles, Oconee Patch Editor Stephanie Gross, and Banner-Herald Oconee reported Erin France were in the audience. (I was the only member of the public present.)

The meeting ended at 12:40 p.m., and Giles had a brief story on the paper’s web site at 1 p.m. The paper also held its Dec. 14 edition so it could include the story.

Gross had a slightly fuller account on Oconee Patch a half hour later. She put a message on Twitter about the story 15 minutes later.

France didn’t write about the story until the end of the day, but it appeared in the paper as the lead story the next day.

The county’s publicity strategy had produced the needed media response.

The lawsuit the county filed back in April against Georgia General Kipling and Price made it clear that the central issue was not just a past-due water and sewer bill for the mobile home park but agreements made by the county when the park began getting water and sewer services from the county.

The suit stated that Georgia General Kipling was claiming that the county had made a ”deal” with the mobile home park’s previous owner that allowed it to receive “water and sewer service free of charge, in perpetuity.”

According to county tax records, Georgia General Kipling bought the mobile home park from Lindsey N. Greeson in 2007.

In the suit, the county said it “researched its files and located a letter dated July 29, 1996” that dealt with the agreement on water.

The county said in the suit it “also located a letter dated June 25, 2003,” regarding sewer services.

The county attached both letters to the suit. Neither offers county services to Greeson for free.

In the first of the two meetings with residents of the park, one member of the audience asked Administrative Officer Theriault about an agreement between the county and the previous land owner.

Theriault responded by saying the county was relying on the written record, not reports of verbal agreements.

County Utility Department records–or the lack of them–have been an issue during 2011.

The Board of Commissioners has initiated an audit of department records to determine what kinds of agreements have been made about sewer services for businesses in the county. The outcome of the audit has not been made public.

When the county this summer was trying to figure out what kind of agreement it had with Clarke County for treatment of sewage from the St. Mary’s Hospital Highland Hills facility and other customers along the Clarke County line at McNutt Creek, Utility Department Director Thomas had difficulty finding a copy of its current contract.

In the end, the county found that the contract it does have had expired in May of 2008.

The agreements with Greeson and the contracts with Clarke County over sewer services, predate Thomas as Utility Department Director.

The letter of July 29, 1996, that was attached to the suit and offered water service to Pinewood Estates South was signed by Wendell Dawson, chairman of the BOC at that time.

The letter of June 25, 2003, that offered sewage services was signed by Gary Dodd, director of the Oconee County Utility Department at that time.

Though the county told residents of Pinewood Estates that it planned to turn off the water and sewer services on Jan. 13, it never said what would happen once water and sewer services were terminated.

Theriault told me after the second hearing with residents that the county had discussed several possible scenarios, and Haygood told me after the called BOC meeting on Dec. 14 that he had concluded that the state Department of Health would be the authority that might actually close down the park if it became a health issue.

The owner might have been able, at least in the short term, to deliver water and provide portable toilets to residents, he said.

Haygood said the county itself has no authority to close the park.

Many residents of the mobile home park do own their homes, but they probably aren’t very mobile. According to county tax records, the oldest of the 111 listed homes was built in 1960, and the youngest was built in 2002.

While the county used to have a limit on the age of mobile homes that could be moved, it removed that several years ago to be consistent with a change in state law, B.R. White, director of the Oconee County Planning Department, told me.

But Russ Henson from the Oconee County Code Enforcement Office said current regulations require an owner to get the home inspected by certified inspectors of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development before it can be moved.

Even if residents could get that certificate, there are few places in Oconee County they could move their homes.

The county has only two other mobile home parks, one on the east side of Watkinsville, called Moreland Heights, and the other on U.S. 78 in the western part of the county. Henson said the second is known as Circle C.

Arbor Glen, then the largest mobile home park in the county, was closed down in 2006 when its owners rezoned the property for condominiums. That property, on Old Macon Highway just inside the county line, has not been developed, but White said some grading has been done and the homes have been removed.

A sampling of 16 of the mobile homes in Pinewood Estates shows values ranging from $1,608 to $2,347.

Of the 111 homes, 25 are owned by Georgia General Kipling itself.

The Pinewood Estates South park is in Census Tract 1000 in Block 302.

Census data for 2010 show 258 homes are in Census Tract 1000, 239 of them occupied. The 111 Pinewood Estates homes are part of that total of 258.

Tract 1000 is one of only two occupied tracts in the triangle created by Epps Bridge Parkway, Loop 10 and McNutt Creek. The other is tract 1001, which includes much of the Tanglebrook subdivision.

Census Tract 1000 had 723 residents in 2010, 364 of them listed as Hispanic, and 318 of them listed as single race White residents. Race and ethnicity are separate classifications in the census data.

Of the total population of 522 persons 18 years old and older, 253 were listed as single race White residents.

Tract 1001 had 53 residents, none of whom was Hispanic, and all of whom were listed as single race White.

Census Tract 1000 in Block 302 is part of the Athens Academy precinct in Oconee County, which had 2,097 active, registered voters on Nov. 1 of this year.

Of those 2,097 voters, 1,794 are listed as White on voter records, and only 25 are listed as Hispanic. For voting and other purposes, the Pinewood Estate residents are nearly invisible.

It is not hard to imagine why Pinewood Estates South residents would think someone would like to get rid of them and their mobile home park.

Epps Bridge Parkway is the primary commercial strip in Oconee County.

Greeson tried to rezone a portion of the park that has frontage on Epps Bridge Parkway back in 2006, but he was denied the rezone when Tanglebrook residents complained about the congestion the development would create at the Tanglebrook intersection with Epps Bridge Parkway

Georgia General Kipling has bought up additional land abutting the park on Pine Ridge Court that would give the land that now makes up the park better access to Epps Bridge Parkway.

One additional property lying between the park and Epps Bridge Parkway is up for sale.

Georgia General Kipling is listed by the Georgia Secretary of State as a limited liability company with R. Lee Tucker as its registered agent and P.O. Box 704 in Loganville as its office address.

Another entity, Deferred Tax LLC, also owns three important pieces of property at the intersection of the Oconee Connector and SR 316. The three tracts total nearly 50 acres.

Tucker is listed as the registered agent for that property as well, and the principal office address is listed as 1261 Hammond Creek Trail off Rocky Branch Road is western Oconee County.

That address is the same as the one listed for Maxie Price in the suit filed by Oconee County against Price and Georgia General Kipling.

Maxie Price Chevrolet-Oldsmobile Inc. also has Tucker as the registered agent, and Maxie O’Neal Price Jr. is listed as the CEO, with the address of P.O.Box 704 in Loganville.

Haygood told me that through the discovery process for the suit the county confirmed that Price was the “manager” for Georgia General Kipling. A manager, Haygood said, is the equivalent of president of the legal LLC.

In its suit against Georgia General Kipling and Price, Oconee County sought $48,436 in unpaid bills at the time the suit was filed plus additional fees for unpaid water and sewer services from that time until the bills were paid. It also sought a 10 percent late fee plus interest for the unpaid fees.

It also sought $142,500 for what it claimed were unpaid sewage capacity fees, since, the county claimed, Georgia General Kipling had exceeded the capacity fee it had originally been issued.

It also sought unspecified punitive damages plus attorney fees.

In the consent order dismissing the suit, the both parties agreed that Georgia General Kipling would pay $93,700 in sewer and water fees plus $14,667 as a security deposit.

Georgia General Kipling also agreed to pay its future bills in a “timely” manner.

If Georgia General Kipling defaults, it will pay the county $173,684 plus attorney fees and expenses of $15,739, according to the agreement.

Oconee County otherwise agreed to dismiss the claim for $142,500 in capacity fees.

Georgia General Kipling agreed to drop its counterclaim against Oconee County that it had been improperly billed for water and sewer services.

That counterclaim is the equivalent of a countersuit by Georgia General Kipling against the county.

1 comment:

Xardox said...

It has been clear from the beginning the county went to the court of public opinion mainly for the purposes of cheap pressure. It may be, however, that the true court case is not as strong as all that from observing Price resisting the quick acquiescence. Everyone has egg on his face in this one.