Sunday, September 16, 2012

Oconee County Magistrate Court Judge Finds Oconee Waste Transport Violated Zoning Ordinance

What Does Hours of Operation Mean?

Oconee County Magistrate Court Judge Eric Norris on Friday found Matt Elder in violation of a county zoning ordinance when Elder began operating his Oconee Waste Transport business before 6 a.m. on July 11 of this year.

Though Elder plead not guilty to the charge, he admitted operating his trucks on his lot before the allowed opening time. Elder’s attorney contended that since Oconee Waste Transport had not opened the business office, it was not in violation of the zoning restriction. Norris disagreed, saying “I think I have to find that if the business was conducted prior to 6 a.m. or after 6:30 p.m....there is a violation.”

Norris did not decide on Friday if he will grant the county’s request to fine Elder $1,000 for the violation. Norris asked attorneys for Elder and the county to submit to him suggestions on the next course of action.

Norris said, based on what Elder’s attorney, Kathryn M. Zichert, had told the court, he expects his decision to be appealed. Oconee County Superior Court has appellate jurisdiction over decisions of the Magistrate Court.

Zickert is a partner in the Atlanta law firm of Smith, Gambrell and Russell, which specializes in Zoning, Planning and Land Use law.

BOC Voted 3-1 on Rezone

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners voted 3-1 on Sept. 7, 2010, to set aside the Future Development Map it approved in March of 2008 and the rezone 6.2 acres at 1750 Greensboro Highway just south of Watkinsville so Elder could move his Oconee Waste Transport business from downtown Watkinsville.

Commissioner Chuck Horton cast the dissenting vote.

A number of the citizens from a small subdivision off Green Ferry Road and near the Elder property spoke against the rezone request, saying the rezone and business was not compatible with the rural and residential area.

To protect those citizens, the Oconee County Planning Department staff had recommended that hours of operation be restricted to 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays.

Elder wanted to be able to operate at 6 a.m. and until 6:30 p.m. on weekdays, and the Board of Commissioners accepted those extended hours when it approved the rezone.

Oconee Waste Transport also continues to operate at its Watkinsville site on Experiment Station Road.

Adjacent Property First to Testify

Michael Branton, whose property abuts that of Elder, testified on Friday that he often is awakened by the noise from trucks moving on the Oconee Waste Transport lot as well as by other noises of operation of the facility. He also said light from the trucks comes in his windows.

Oconee County Code Enforcment Officer Matt Brock, who had issued the citation against Elder following a complaint by Branton’s wife, Angela, said he observed trucks moving on the lot before 6 a.m. on July 11.

Zickert had called Brock to testify, and she also called Elder himself to testify.

Elder told the court that two trucks start up and leave the lot before 6 a.m. every day to serve area schools.

Elder, whose full name is Courtney M. Elder Jr., is a member of the Oconee County Industrial Development Authority. The Oconee County Board of Commissioners appointed him to that position on Oct. 12, 2010.

Negotiations Before Citation

Brock told the court that he had worked with Elder to try to get a resolution to complaints about the operation of Oconee Waste Transport and that Elder had made changes in how he operated the business as a result.

Elder and Brock said Oconee Waste Transport had moved the trucks he starts up before 6 a.m. to the front of the lot. Elder also said he loaded those trucks the evening before, minimized the lights on the trucks, and planted additional trees as a buffer with the residential lots.

Under examination by Zickert, Brock said he had not issued any other citations in the five years he had been a code enforcement officer for the county and issued the citation against Elder only after he was told by the Board of Commissioners to do so.

The court session lasted more than 90 minutes. Laurie Lunsford, who practices law in Oconee County, represented the county in Magistrate Court.

I was not able to attend, but citizen Sarah Bell did attend and, with permission of Judge Norris, made a video recording of the session. The clips used here are from that video.

The full testimony of Branton, Brock and Elder and a fuller clip of the decision of Judge Norris is on the Vimeo site of Oconee County Observations.

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