Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Oconee BOC Chairman Davis Discussed Third Beneficiary of Zoom Bait/St. Mary’s Sewer Project More Than Two Years Ago

Documents Tell Time Line

In early 2009, months before Oconee County launched publicly what was called the Zoom Bait/St. Mary’s sewer line project, Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis had identified a third interested party.

Atlanta developer Frank Bishop could be involved in the project, Davis wrote to county Utility Department Chairman Chris Thomas in an email message on Feb. 7, 2009.

The public, however, didn’t learn about Bishop’s potential involvement until 22 months later, and only then because the other four members of the Commission refused to move forward with the project.

At a May 14, 2009, hearing, when the project was first presented to the public, Zoom Bait and St. Mary’s were mentioned as those to be served by the sewer project, according to the official public minutes.

On May 26, 2009, the Board of Commissioners unanimously passed a resolution to seek federal funding through the Georgia Department of Community Affairs for the sewer project.

The proposal named only two businesses to be served by the sewer line: Zoom Bait and St. Mary’s.

On Aug. 5, 2009, Davis even wrote a letter to Commissioner Mike Beatty of the DCA listing only Zoom Bait and St. Mary’s as known beneficiaries of the proposed sewer line.

And on July 27, 2010, Country Economic Development Director Rusty Haygood and Utility Department Director Rusty Haygood told the public that the sewer line was for Zoom Bait and St. Mary’s and no other known users existed.

Only on Nov. 2, 2010, did Bishop’s involvement become public.

Utility Department Director Thomas told the BOC at a meeting on that date that he and Chairman Davis had met with Bishop on July 7 to discuss the sewer project.

Thomas also said that Bishop had an option on the largest piece of property that the sewer line would cross, the 114-acre tract owned by the Evelyn & Frank Gordy Family.

Bishop is scheduled to build a shopping center on a 70-acre tract across from the Gordy tract once the state finishes a roadway designed to open the two pieces of property for development.

Construction on that roadway, called the Oconee Connector Extension, is well underway and is, according to county Public Works Director Emil Beshara, scheduled to be completed before the end of the year.

Oconee Connector Extension

The Zoom Bait/St. Mary’s/Gordy sewer line project currently is on hold, in part because the four commissioners have said they were as much in the dark about the known beneficiaries of this project as the public.

On Tuesday night, however, the commissioners are scheduled to make a decision on whether to go forward with the $773,000 project.

Davis’ early involvement of Bishop in consideration of the sewer project came to light only because the Commissioner Chuck Horton asked county Administrative Officer Alan Theriault to provide the commissioners with background correspondence on the project.

I asked Theriault for a copy of the materials he provided to the commissioners. I picked those up on Feb. 10.

These documents and others I have obtained over the last year have allowed me to create a time line for the project.

In the Feb. 7, 2009 memo, Davis told Thomas that he had met with a representative of St. Mary’s about planned expansion of its facility on Jennings Mill Road to include a hospice and Alzheimer’s and dementia center.

“Would Zoom Bait, Frank Bishop and St. Mary’s all be involved in this project?” Davis wrote. “Should the county absorb part of this cost?”

Bishop’s rezone for his $76 million Epps Bridge Centre on Epps Bridge Parkway near Lowe's had been approved by the BOC in October of 2008, and he already had sewage treatment for that property.

Zoom Bait, on Jennings Mill Road across from St. Mary’s, had gotten a rezone in late 2004 to expand the warehouse for its facility, which manufactures fishing lures, and Zoom Bait had said it didn’t need any sewage treatment for the expansion.

The documents show that Thomas sent Davis an email message on March 4 of 2009 indicating that he was having trouble even getting in contact with someone at Zoom Bait to talk about sewers.

St. Mary’s had gotten a modification of its zoning in August of 2005, and the county had granted it ample sewage treatment capacity in December of 2008.

But the future developer of the Gordy tract would benefit greatly from the proposed sewer line, which would be fed by gravity and thus not require expensive pump stations.

The DCA grant, however, had the best chance of success if it could show that the project was crucial to keeping Zoom Bait and St. Mary’s in the county and to retaining jobs of their low-income employees.

The DCA even worked with the county to fine-tune the argument that Zoom Bait might move “operations to China or off-shore...if the public sewer in not provided,” according to the documents Theriault assembled.

One thing, however, did seem not quite right to the DCA.

In the proposal, the county stated it wanted to put in a 12-inch line to serve Zoom Bait and St. Mary.

DCA Program Manager Andy Card thought an 8-inch line would be sufficient for the two businesses, but the county responded that the larger pipe was needed because of the modest slope of the sewer line.

The DCA awarded Oconee County a grant for the sewer line in October of 2009, but DCA agreed to pay only half of the then projected cost.

The county went forward with the project, without bringing it back to the BOC for further discussion at an open meeting.

When those bids came back in May of 2010, the costs of the sewer line had doubled to the $773,000 figure.

The cost overrun brought the project back to the BOC in July of 2010.

Two other problems kept it there.

First, the property owners to be served by the sewer wanted the county to pay for easements to cross their property.

Second, the bids expired last fall, and, despite efforts by Davis to go forward even without further discussion by the BOC, the other four commissioners were unwilling to rebid the project.

They were unhappy with the negotiations over the easements and with the emergence of Bishop as a player. Commissioner Horton said he first learned of Bishop’s involvement on Oct. 25 and only from Bishop himself.

Another issue has been the nature of the arrangement between the two counties for sewage treatment.

The documents assembled by Theriault provide a complex picture of negotiations between Oconee County and Athens-Clarke County over the sewage treatment currently being provided by Athens-Clarke County to St. Mary’s.

While Oconee County has a contract with its neighbor for treatment of 25,000 gallons per day of sewage and is using only about 15,000 gallons per day of that capacity, Theriault, in a letter of March 16, 2010, informed Athens-Clarke County that an additional 750 gallons per day of sewage would result from the St. Mary’s hospice and dementia facilities.

Bobby Snipes, deputy manager for Athens-Clarke County, wrote to Theriault on March 26 that it would accept the additional sewage but only on a temporary basis.

Thomas wrote to Haygood and Theriault on May 18, telling them that Oconee County does not own the actual sewage line that transports the effluent from St. Mary’s across McNutt Creek to Athens-Clarke County. It is a private line for St. Mary’s.

I wrote to Theriault late in the day on Feb. 9 asking him if I could have a copy of the contracts between Oconee County and Athens-Clarke County covering the agreements on sewage treatment. The original agreement dates back to 1994, according to Thomas.

On Feb. 18, Theriault forwarded to me an email from Thomas saying that “records from that era are hard to decipher” and he was meeting with Athens-Clarke County officials to try to sort them out.

Thomas told me after the BOC meeting last night that he was still trying to get with Athens-Clarke County to compare notes and that he hoped to get me the documents soon.

At present, he said, he really isn't sure what the actual agreement between the two counties is.