The decision to grant Presbyterian Homes of Georgia sewage capacity for its proposed Continuing Care Retirement Community on Rocky Branch Road followed back-and-forth communication among Oconee County officials reflecting differences of opinion about how to handle sewage allocation for the project.
The project needed that sewage capacity allocation to begin the process of review that is now underway.
On Aug. 31, Chris Thomas, director of the Oconee County Utility Department, wrote to Smith Planning Group, representing PHG, indicating that “water and sewer capacity in the amount of 62,906 gallons per day is available” for the new location of a Presbyterian Village.
That decision was a reversal of his earlier position that no sewer capacity could be allocated to the project because of county policy restricting that capacity to industrial and commercial users.
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County Administrative Officer Alan Theriault and County Attorney Daniel Haygood initially agreed with that position, but all three later reversed course.
Records Show Complex Decision
Thomas had indicated to me when I talked with him by telephone on Sept. 27 that the decision to grant the sewage capacity had been a complex one that he did not make alone.
I learned some of the details of how the actual decision was made from email messages sent by county officials. I received those email messages on Friday in response to an open records request I filed late Monday evening.
The records show that on Aug. 16 Thomas wrote to Theriault indicating that he had received a request the day before from Edward Lane of Smith Planning Group, 1022 Twelve Oaks Place, near Butler’s Crossing, asking for sewer and water capacity for the PHG project on Rocky Branch Road.
Thomas told Theriault that he could not write a letter providing sewer capacity for the project because of the county policy restricting future sewage use for commercial and industrial use.
“As you are aware,” Thomas wrote Theriault, “we do not have any residential sewer capacity available at this time.”
Theriault responded immediately that “the only way that sewer would be available is if the property were rezoned OIP” by the Board of Commissioners. OIP refers to an Office-Institutional-Professional zoning classification.
Presbyterian Homes Seeking R-3 Rezone
The Presbyterian Homes of Georgia is asking the Board of Commissioners to grant it a rezone of the 96 acres on Rocky Branch Road from Residential-1 to Residential-3.
Thomas sent an email message to County Attorney Daniel Haygood on Aug. 23 asking for advice.
“From a dumb old Utility Director’s point of view this looks like they are requesting residential capacity in the front and middle and commercial/industrial capacity in the back. As you are aware, we do not have any residential capacity available so I am not sure that I can grant the request.”
Back in 2007, Thomas wrote, the county had granted PHG sewage capacity as a commercial operation for its proposal to build a facility similar to the one now being proposed. That facility was to be off Experiment Station Road just south of Butler’s Crossing.
“I am not sure if that holds for the new site,” Thomas wrote.
Theriault, who was copied on the message to Haygood, noted that the last request had been for a site zoned OIP.
Attorney Recommends BOC Consultation
Thomas wrote to Theriault on Aug. 24 indicating that he had received a voice mail message the night before from County Attorney Haygood indicating that “he didn’t feel that he nor I could/should make that determination (residential/institutional/oip capacity) but to seek consensus from the BOC.”
Thomas said “I could potentially issue a capacity letter stating that there is adequate commercial capacity available for their project, but no residential capacity at this time. That being the case, how do I proceed?”
Thomas raised another concern. He said others were asking about sewer capacity and he was concerned that all be treated in the same way.
There is no evidence from the records that the members of the Board of Commissioners were consulted.
Draft Letter Sent Aug. 30
On the morning of Aug. 30, Thomas sent Theriault and Haygood a draft letter that granted the sewage capacity.
That afternoon, he sent both of them a slightly revised letter. In the file of Theriault, a hand-written note indicates that “letter is reflective of the fact that Daniel subsequently realized that sewer use policy had been amended previously to allow for the use specified in Chris’s letter.”
The policy Thomas, Theriault and Haygood were referring to was passed by the BOC on Dec. 2, 2008, at the request of Thomas. It stated that future sewer capacity is “restricted to commercial usage.”
As part of its rezone request for the property outside Butler’s Crossing, PHG had submitted a letter from Thomas granting capacity that was written on Aug. 16, 2007. Thomas has told me that PHG did not pay the capacity fee in 2007 and had not reserved the water and sewer use.
PHG decided not to build the Continuing Care Retirement Community outside Butler’s Crossing after the slowdown in the housing market.
Documents Show Timeline
The documents released to me provide a timeline for the project and indicate that sewer capacity has been a concern from the beginning. The only other topic that comes close in terms of amount of discussion is helium balloons.
I asked that I be allowed to review and copy documents in the files from June 1, 2012, to Oct. 2, 2012, the date my request was received by the county.
On the morning of June 1, Thomas sent Theriault an email message reporting that landscape architect Bob Smith and local real estate agent Norm Grayson had visited him earlier in the week to talk about “a potential development” and the need for water and sewer service.
Later that day Theriault sent the members of the Board of Commissioners a memo in which he indicated that Thomas had been visited by Smith and Grayson.
“Their inquiries were sewer related and Chris made no commitment,” Theriault reported.
Davis Reports on Grayson Call
Not much seems to have happened involving county government until Aug. 4, when Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis sent a memo to the Board of Commissioners as well as Planning Commission Director B.R. White and Theriault.
Davis indicated that Grayson had called him the day before “to share that Presbyterian Homes was having a public meeting” two days later “to review future plans for the Presbyterian Home facility that was planned for Oconee County a few years ago.” The meeting was to be with area residents, Davis said.
“I understand that Norm has discussed with each of you the tentative thoughts regarding the location of this facility on Rocky Branch Road,” Davis wrote. “Norm wanted to share this information with us as a ‘heads up’.”
On Aug. 6, Davis sent another message to the commissioners and attached a note from Frank H. McElroy Jr., president and CEO of Presbyterian Homes of Georgia Inc. McElroy was thanking Davis for agreeing to meet with him on Aug. 8.
On Aug. 9 Davis wrote to the commissioners and told them he had met with McElroy. “It is my understanding they will be in touch with each of you to share the information discussed during our meeting.”
Invitation To See Balloons
On Sept. 13, Smith from Smith Planning Group wrote to the commissioners inviting them to visit the site of the proposed development to look at helium balloons.
PHG is asking for a variance from the county code that restricts the height of buildings. PHG wants to build two three-story buildings that exceed the height limitation.
“In order to respond to feedback concerning the height of the proposed buildings, we have erected two large helium balloons in the locations of the tallest buildings,” Smith wrote.
“Due to the proposed locations of the buildings on the site,” Smith said, “the balloons cannot be seen from the neighboring properties.”
Davis sent a note to White and to the commissioners suggesting they go look at the balloons, which Smith said would sink quickly.
“I am scheduled to be out of town,” Davis wrote, “and may not have the opportunity to observe.”
After a lot of back and forth, White said he and Commissioner Chuck Horton had observed the balloons.
Lots of Phone Calls
Another topic of the exchange had to do with citizen response.
“Just a heads up,” White wrote on Aug. 29 to Jeff Benko, appointed to replace Theriault last month as administrative officer, and to Theriault. “Our phones have been busy today fielding calls with questions and concerns about Presbyterian Homes.”
“Some of the comments are fueled by Presbyterian homes advertising the proposed site on their webpage,” White wrote.
Davis and the planning staff sent copies of letters from Chris Mobley and James Daniel, both residents of Rowan Oak, regarding the proposal. Mobley is against, and Daniel wrote in support.
“Listening to the comments and going on past experiences,” White wrote. “I expect a large turnout at both the PC and BoC meetings with numerous phone calls and letters to the Board prior to the hearings.”
The project currently is being reviewed by the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission. The project calls for total building space of 690,100 square feet, and all mixed used projects in the county involving 125,000 square feet or more are required to go before NEGRC for an assessment of regional impact.
The proposal is scheduled to be before the Oconee County Planning Commission on Nov. 19 and before the Oconee County Board of Commissioners on Dec. 4.