Sunday, May 15, 2011

Regional Biking and Walking Plan Not An Agenda Item for Oconee County Board of Commissioners

No “Desire” For Discussion

The Oconee County Citizen Advisory Committee on Land Use and Transportation Planning spent much of two meetings last year and this discussing how the Board of Commissioners should respond to a proposed regional plan for bicycling and walking, but the Board isn’t planning to take any action.

County Administrative Officer Alan Theriault confirmed in an email message to me on Friday that the commissioners to this point have expressed no interest in responding to the recommendation of the citizen advisory committee that the BOC pass a resolution to “acknowledge” the plan.

The Plan for Bicycling and Walking is designed as a guide for local governments in developing infrastructure and creating policy to increase the safety and prevalence of walking and bicycling in Northeast Georgia.

The citizen committee voted at its Feb. 8 meeting, after considerble discussion, that the BOC acknowledge the plan, rather than recognize, adopt or endorse it.

The Oconee citizen committee had been asked to recommend to the BOC how it should respond to the plan, created by another citizen committee and planners at the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission.

What happened after that Feb. 8 vote has been something of a mystery.

“Everything we do goes to them (BOC members) in the way of minutes,” Abe Abouhamdan, chairman of the citizen committee, told me on Friday.

Wayne Provost, director of strategic and long-range planning for the county and liaison with the committee, wasn’t so certain what had happened to those minutes when I had spoken with him on May 6.

Watkinsville 5/7/2011

“I assume the Board gets those minutes, but I’m not sure,” he said.

Angela Helwig, administrative assistant for the county who handles the minutes, told me after I spoke with Provost that she also wasn’t sure the minutes had been sent to the full Commission, though she said she had sent them to BOC Chairman Melvin Davis.

County Administrative Officer Theriault said in an email message on Friday that he, too, was not sure the minutes had gone out to the full Commission “and I will have them re-sent today...just to make sure that they have them.”

Theriault did write that he had “advised the BOC” that I had asked him on May 3 about the lack of BOC response to Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee recommendation.

“The BOC has not expressed a desire to add this as an agenda item,” he wrote on Friday.

The Plan for Bicycling and Walking has four goals and objectives.

The first goal and objective is to develop “facilities and policies” to encourage walking and bicycling in Northeast Georgia.

The second is to generate “confidence and security” for people walking and bicycling through the region.

The third goal and objective is to support bicycling and walking trips between neighborhoods and regionally important destinations.

The fourth is to foster “active lifestyles,” promote “community-based commerce” and reduce the environmental impact of motorized transportation.

The plan contains a proposed “Bicycle and Pedestrian Network” that includes SR 15 from Watkinsville to the Greene County line, US 441 from Clarke County to Morgan County, and Mars Hill Road.

The plan proposes that SR 15 have a paved shoulder in the future and that US 441 have a separate path for biking and walking. Mars Hill Road widening plans already include a bike lane.

The plan also lists greenways along the Apalachee, Middle Oconee and Oconee rivers and the Athens Line, the rail line running from Athens to Madison and now designated as a Regionally Important Resource by NEGRC.

The biking and walking plan is advisory. NEGRC has no enforcement authority.

The plan was created by NEGRC under a contract with the Georgia Department of Transportation that began in July of 2009.

A 32-member Regional Bicycle and Pedestrian Task Force worked on the plan.

It included Brian Brodrick, a member of the Watkinsville city council, Lisa Davol, deputy director of programs with the Oconee County Parks and Recreation Department, Tony Glenn, a biking activist and advocate in Oconee County, Wayne Provost, the long-range planner in the county, Sandy Thursby with the Public Works Department in the county, and Hannah Walters, another Oconee County citizen.

The Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee first discussed the plan at its Nov. 9 meeting following a presentation regarding the plan by Nina Kelly, a planner with NEGRC.

The presentation and discussion lasted for 75 minutes before the Committee decided to delay action until after the first of the year.

Kelly from NEGRC told me when I talked with her on May 5 that only five of the 12 counties in the NEGRC district have taken action on the plan.

They are Walton, Morgan, Jackson, Oglethorpe and Elbert.

Kelly confirmed on Friday that she had not received any response subsequently from Newton, Jasper, Greene, Athens/Clarke, Barrow or Madison.

The contract with GDOT expires on June 30, Kelly told me on May 5, and it will not be possible for her or other staff members to meet with BOC members regarding the bike and walking plan after that date.

Kelly said a county can pass a resolution regarding the plan at any point, and it can participate in discussions about the plan regardless of whether it takes action.

“After doing the plan, we set out with the goal to have it formally passed in some shape or form,” she said.

[I cleared that quote with her supervisor, Burke Walker, director of government services at NEGRC, as a favor to Kelly since she said she is not allowed to be quoted directly without that clearance.]

Kelly had referenced the June 30 date in her presentation to the Oconee County citizen advisory committee.

Abouhamdan, chair of the Oconee County Citizen Advisory Committee on Land Use and Transportation Planning, told me on Friday he could not remember if Provost or BOC Chairman Davis had asked that his Committee review the NEGRC plan.

In an email message Davis sent to commissioners John Daniell, Margaret Hale, Chuck Horton and Jim Luke on Oct. 1, 2010, he said NEGRC was requesting that the county “bring a resolution to the BOC for approval.”

I received the Davis email as a result of an open records request of Nov. 4, 2010.

Davis provided the commissioners with three resolutions, two drafted by the NEGRC and one by Provost. The first two included the words “endorsement” and “adoption.” Provost proposed “recognition.”

“I suggest the Board give strong consideration to supporting the “Recognition” resolution,” Davis wrote.

Davis said he expected the resolution be on the Oct. 26, 2010, agenda of the BOC.

The Committee spent its Feb. 8 meeting discussing the proper wording that it wanted the BOC to use in responding to the bike and walking plan.

By not taking up the resolution then or after the citizen committee opted for the “acknowledge” resolution, the BOC has avoided any additional public discussion of the biking and walking plan in the county.

At the Nov. 9, 2010, meeting the Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee also discussed another issue involving biking that had generated a lot of interest.

The Oconee County Cycling Organization had asked the county to post Share the Road signs on four county roadways, and that request also was sent to the citizen advisory committee for review.

All 11 members of the Committee at the Nov. 9 meeting agreed to recommend to the BOC that the signs be installed on the roadways if OCCO paid for them. The Committee has 14 members.

That matter also never came back to the BOC.

Rather Administrative Officer Theriault sent an email message to the five commissioners on Feb. 4 of this year asking them to “let me know your thoughts on how you wish to proceed” on the road signage.

Board members told Theriault to go forward with the signs without bringing the matter back to the Commission for discussion.