The purchase of needed rights of way for the widening of Mars Hill Road from SR 316 to Butler’s Crossing is progressing on schedule, and actual construction on the roadway is expected to be underway late next year or early in 2014.
Emil Beschara, Oconee County Public Works director, gave the Citizen Advisory Committee on Land Use and Transportation Planning a status report on land acquisition for the widening project at its meeting on Sept. 11. He told me his expectations regarding actual construction schedule in an email message he sent me on Sept. 14.
“We are currently scheduled to certify the right of way in May of 2013,” he wrote. “At that point we will have all required right of way and easements in hand either through acquisition or condemnation.
“GDOT will let the construction contract in September of 2013 if their schedule holds,” he added, referring to the Georgia Department of Transportation. “And you should see dirt moving within a couple months afterward,” he added.
Voters Rejected List
Phase 1, excluding right of way purchase, was budgeted at $25.8 million, with $6 million to come from the 1 percent Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax that voters rejected. Right of way costs already had been approved.
Phase 1 of the widening is from SR 316 to Butler’s Crossing.
Phase 2, from Hog Mountain Road to U.S. 441 Bypass, was projected to cost $14.6 million, with $5 million coming from T-SPLOST revenue.
Phase 3, from U.S. 441 Bypass to Business U.S. 441 in downtown Watkinsville, was budgeted at $9.3 million, with $5 million coming from T-SPLOST.
Oconee County is covering the $8.6 million ROW costs for Phase 1, though it will be reimbursed for that amount by the state.
New Lanes at Oconee Connector
Beshara took up most of the LUTPC meeting with his review of the Mars Hill project, but he began by telling the Committee that the state has agreed to create two southbound lanes as the Oconee Connector crosses SR 316. At present, only one lane crosses SR 316.
Beshara said he gets lots of complaints about congestion in this intersection, and “my hope” is that is that the change will be completed by the end of the year at the latest.
Closed On 55 of 125 Parcels
Beshara said that the county has closed on 55 of 125 parcels, and another 20 or so are in the process of closing.
He said in seven cases the negotiations have failed and he will bring these before the BOC for condemnation filing soon.
Many parcels are in active negotiation, he said.
Confusion On Process
Beshara said there is a lot of confusion on the part of landowners about how the process works.
The county buys the right of way for the property outright, but it also usually buys construction easements, which will be used during construction and then abandoned, he said. The county also compensates the property owner when it must destroy trees or other landscaping during construction.
Beshara said many property owners read that the county has $8.6 million for right of way and think they can get a large amount of money for their property.
“A class of folks expect to get most anything they want through condemnation action,” he said. “There is a certain percentage of people that want to go to condemnation.”
While the county will get reimbursed for the actual cost of purchase of the land by the state, the county has to cover all of the expenses of the condemnation proceedings.
“The people that are going to make money on this are the attorneys,” Beshara said. “Both the property owners' attorneys and the county’s attorneys.”
In some cases, property owners are not even responding to requests that they begin negotiating about the sale of the right of way, Beshara said.
“I feel bad for these folks, because some of them really don’t want the project to happen,” he said. “But there are many, many more that will benefit from it. And there are many people on that corridor that are anxious for it to go through.”