Oconee County officials have agreed to allow Oconee Waste Transport to continue to operate, at least in the short term, at its site on SR 15 south of Watkinsville during hours that Magistrate Court Judge Eric W. Norris found last October to be in violation of the county zoning ordinance.
OWT had indicated that it intended to appeal Norris’ ruling, but the county joined with OWT in asking Norris three weeks after he issued his ruling to reconsider and vacate it.
|OWT Office South of Watkinsville|
Norris agreed to that request the same day it was made, pending notification by either the county or OWT that it should be re-entered.
County Attorney Daniel Haygood told me on Monday of last week that he had agreed to make the request of Norris because of the costs of an appeal, because nearby residents have stopped complaining, and because the county is revisiting the issues of operating hours for businesses.
County Cited OWT in July 2012
The Oconee County Code Enforcement Office cited Matt Elder, CEO of OWT, and OWT itself for violation of the rezone ordinance on July 11, 2012, following a complaint on April 9 by Angela Branton of 1110 Maple Circle.
Branton said that Elder was starting up trucks at 4:30 a.m. at the OWT site at 1750 Greensboro Highway, or SR 15.
The county claimed in the citation that Elder operated his business before 6 a.m. despite the specification in the ordinance zoning his property that the hours of operation should only be from 6 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. on weekdays and from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays.
The facility must be closed on Sundays, according to the ordinance, which was passed by the BOC at its meeting on Sept. 7, 2010.
Norris Issued Fine
Judge Norris wrote in his final order that Elder had testified that “before 6:00 am every morning during the week two (2) garbage truck are driven off-site to begin garbage collection” and that, “Depending on traffic conditions, Defendant’s trucks may not get back to the site before 6:30 pm.”
Elder’s attorney, Kathryn M. Zichert of Atlanta, argued that the condition of zoning did “not preclude the events which led to the citation being issued,” namely the starting and departure of the garbage trucks.
She argued that since the business offices did not open until 7:30 a.m. and closed at 5:30 p.m., OWT was not violating the rezone ordinance.
Norris found that starting and driving the trucks off the site were covered by the stipulated hours of operation in the rezone and that OWT was in violation of the ordinance.
Norris fined OWT $1,425 in his order of Oct. 4, 2012.
Attorneys File Motion To Save Money
Zichert had indicated at the end of the hearing that she intended to appeal to Superior Court of Oconee County.
On Oct. 29, 2012, Haygood and Zichert filed a motion in Superior Court asking Norris “to reconsider and vacate” the Oct. 4, 2012, order finding OWT and Elder guilty of the violation of the zoning ordinance.
|OWT Dumpster In Watkinsville|
“This motion is being pursued in an effort to give the parties sufficient time to work through their issues in a political forum, while saving them both the unnecessary expense in pursuing or defending a Certiorari Application in Superior Court,” according to the court document.
If the county and OWT do not “resolve their differences,” the document states, they will “advise the Court and the Court will decide upon the amount of an appropriate fine, if any, to impose against Defendants.”
Haygood Estimated Costs
Haygood told me when I talked to him on Monday that he estimated it would cost each side $15,000 to $20,000 to go forward with the appeal.
Haygood said the complaints from neighbors since the Magistrate Court decision last fall “had completely dropped to nothing.”
He also said that, since the county was discussing changes to its Uniform Development Code dealing with operating hours, that was a good time to determine the sentiment of the Board of Commissioners on the issue.
The BOC must approve any change in the UDC.
One Complaint Since Citation
B.R. White, director of the Planning Department and the Code Enforcement Office, told me on Friday afternoon that Code Enforcement had received only one complaint since the citation, but he said he was uable to provide details of that citation without access to the records of Code Enforcement Officer Matt Brock.
Brock, who wrote the original citation and has continued to handle the case, was out of the office on Friday.
White said he had not received “any official notification to change the operating hours in the UDC.” He said there had been some informal discussion of the topic and Haygood had mentioned it in conversation “at one time.”
Legal Costs In BOC Budget
County Administrative Officer Jeff Benko told me in an email message on Friday morning that all legal fees, including for Attorney Haygood’s services, are budgeted for and accounted for under the Board of Commissioners' budget function.
“We attempt to estimate potential legal costs annually,” Benko said.
In the current fiscal year, the county has $466,293 budgeted for the BOC, according to documents on the county web site.
I asked Benko just before noon on Friday for a breakdown of the 2013 and requested 2014 budgets to reflect the amount of the BOC budget that goes to legal fees separate from other expenses, but he had not responded by the end of the day.
Benko told me in an email message sent just after noon on Monday, April 15, that the approved budget for legal functions in fiscal year 2013 was $286,045 (out of the $466,293 budgeted for the BOC) and that the same amount has been requested for fiscal year 2014, which starts on July 1.
Residents Opposed Elder Rezone
Angela Branton of 1110 Maple Circle complained to Code Enforcement on April 9, 2012, resulting in the investigation that led to the July 11, 2012, citation.
Mike Branton, husband of Angela Branton, testified in court that he was awakened by trucks on the OWT property and that he could see from his bedroom window trucks driving off the OWT property before 6 a.m.
|OWT Site Before Rezone in 2010|
Branton and her neighbors had opposed the rezone of the Elder property for the OWT operations center in a public hearing before the BOC on Sept. 7, 2010.
The property had been zoned for agricultural use, and the residents of the small subdivision off Green Ferry Road said the use proposed by Elder under the Office Business Park code would adversely affect their quality of life.
Despite their protests, the BOC voted 3-1, with only then BOC member Chuck Horton opposing the spot rezone, which was contrary to the county’s Future Development Map.
Elder Prominent Figure
Elder, whose full name is Courtney M. Elder Jr., is a member of the Oconee County Industrial Development Authority, the most powerful committee in the county to which the BOC makes appointments.
Elder first was appointed by the commissioners on Oct. 12, 2010, or shortly after the rezone was approved.
Elder was reappointed to the IDA on Oct. 9, 2012, five days after Magistrate Court Judge Norris found Elder guilty of the violation of the zoning ordinance. That term expires Dec. 31, 2014.
Elder, according to the application he filled out for the reappointment, lives at 1040 Oliver Bridge Road.
BOC Chairman Melvin Davis lives at 1772 Oliver Bridge Road.
Garrett Request Related
Another rezone request the BOC is scheduled to consider on May 7 could have implications for the OWT Greensboro Highway operation.
Bernard A. Garrett of Roll Off Systems is asking the county to grant a special use permit for a Recycling and Materials Recovery Facility on agricultural land at 1441 Dials Mill Road in the northwestern part of the county.
A Materials Recovery Facility is a kind of transfer station, or place were solid waste is dumped and then shipped on to another site.
OWT sought to rezone the property on Greensboro Highway from Agricultural use to Industrial use in 2005 for a transfer station, but the BOC turned down the request.
Elder owns just less than 10 acres at the site, and he rezoned only a little more than six of those acres to OBP for the office and operations lot he now operates. The rezone does not allow for the transfer of trash on those six acres.
He can come back to the BOC and ask for a rezone of the remaining property for a transfer station at any time.
The Garrett request comes before the Planning Commission at 7 p.m. tomorrow night at the courthouse. The Planning Commission makes recommendations to the BOC.