The Oconee County Board of Commissioners postponed action last night on a slate of candidates for a ranking committee for the county’s farmland protection program even though, at least according to Chairman Melvin Davis, the Commissioners had agreed upon the slate before the meeting took place.
The Commissioners also approved a timetable putting another Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax on the ballot in June or July of next summer, and they agreed to take steps to reduce the size of one of its citizen committees because of difficulty getting enough members to show up to make a quorum.
In addition, the Commissioners approved new beer and wine licenses for a Mexican restaurant and for what is being called a “gastropub” that will feature seafood items.
The BOC decided not to deal with proposed changes in its Unified Development Code restricting where chickens and roosters can be kept in residential areas.
One Committee For Another
The five-person farmland ranking committee is intended to take over evaluation responsibility from an existing citizen committee that initiated the county farmland protection program in 1998 and has run the program successfully since.
Under the leadership of the existing citizen group, Oconee Partnership for Farmland Protection, the county has spent a little more than $0.5 million of it own money to place permanent easements valued at about $3.5 million on 485 acres of farmland in the county.
The federal and state governments paid much of the rest.
Citizens formed that committee on their own, and the BOC does not appoint members.
Slate Released Monday
Chairman Davis sent an email message to the four voting commissioners just after noon on Thursday saying “contact has been made” with five individuals “who have agreed to serve on the Farmland Preservation Recommendation Committee.”
Each Commissioner had recommended a member, according to the email message. The message was on the county web site early Monday morning.
Davis had selected Henry Hibbs as his choice. Hibbs was designated as committee chair and to be given a three-year term.
Commissioner Jim Luke had recommended Mac Hayes, also to get a three-year term, according to Davis’ email.
Commissioner Mark Saxon recommended Sam Mitchell, and Commissioner Margaret Hale recommended Bob Isaac, according to the email message. Each would get a two-year term.
Commissioner John Daniell recommended Keith Odom, who would get a one-year term.
Hibbs Former Extension Agent
Hibbs is retired as extension agent for Oconee County, which paid part of his salary for that job.
He also has been a member of the Oconee Partnership for Farmland Protection, which formed in 1998 to work to protect farmland in the county. Two people involved in that group told me Hibbs was one of the least active members, missing most of the meetings.
Hayes is a retired farmer, while Mitchell is a farmer whose property was selected by the Partnership and by the Commissioners for protection under the program. He joined the Partnership after the conservation easement was placed on his land.
Isaac is a former associate dean of the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. Odom is a farmer.
Davis, in his email, said Commissioners could make their suggestions at the meeting last night and the list could go on the consent agenda for final approval at the meeting on Aug. 6.
Davis Called For Nominations
At the meeting last night, Davis reminded each of the Commissioners he had contacted them and asked “your thoughts on who you might recommend.”
He paused, but none of the Commissioners responded to the cue.
Davis next asked for “public comments regarding this process,” and Sarah Bell spoke, urging the Board to put Russ Page on the committee.
Page was a leading member of the Oconee Partnership for Farmland Protection and the one who successfully advocated before the BOC for inclusion of farmland protection in the listed projects to be put before voters for approval in the March 2009 SPLOST referendum.
Page spoke next and said that “without the other work that has been done prior to the selection of the farm, there won’t be a program at all.” He asked not to be included on the selection committee.
Davis said to Page, “Knowing you, your interest is there. You’re going to encourage the application process to proceed as it always has.”
Daniell said he wants the committee to take applications, not “necessarily go out and seek them.” He said it was “just another review process to go through–put check marks in the box.”
Daniell said his goal was to open up the process so other groups could make nominations. He said he felt the BOC-appointed committee was necessary because public funds are being spent.
At present, the BOC makes the final decision on which farms are selected, and any group already can bring nominations before it.
Commissioner Saxon, who spoke next, called the new group “a ranking committee,” but he said it wasn’t going to be doing ranking. It was just going to collect data.
Davis again pushed the Commissioners to voice the names, but Luke objected, saying he needed more time “to get my arms around this thing.” In the end, no names were mentioned.
Davis, Not Daniell
Although Commissioner Daniell has been the one who was most critical of the farmland protection program, Davis has been most aggressive in assembling a committee to replace the Oconee Partnership for Farmland Protection.
That group has screened farms and recommended them to the BOC for funding.
The county has used SPLOST funds as its part of the costs for easements on the last two of the seven parcels that have been part of the project.
At last night’s meeting, the Commissioners gave initial approval to a schedule for action on the next SPLOST. That timeline calls for county departments and committees to prepare their lists of projects from September to December of this year.
Citizens will get a chance to offer their recommendations in January and February.
The BOC will vote to put the issue on the ballot in March of next year, according to the timeline.
The issue will be on the ballot either on June 3 or July 15, depending on how the state resolves issues on its voting calendar.
The current SPLOST, which adds 1 penny in tax to each $1 spent in the county, does not expire until October of 2015. The new SPLOST will be at the same rate.
Davis told the BOC last night it is important to have the issue on the ballot early in case voters turn it down. With an early vote, the BOC can go back and ask again before the current tax lapses, he said.
The procedures the BOC is following with the screening committee for the farmland program are at odds with those the group uses for other committees. The norm is for the county to advertise and then interview applicants at Commission meetings.
The county had advertised two openings on the Cultural Affairs and Tourism Committee and was prepared to interview applicants at last night’s meeting, but no one applied until yesterday. The Board interviewed yesterday's applicant, Tommy Malcom.
The BOC created the Citizen Advisory Committee on Land Use and Transportation Planning with 10 members in 2000, increased the size of the Committee to 12 members in 2002, and increased it again to 14 members in 2009.
Committee Chairman Abe Abouhamdan asked that the membership be reduced to 12 members through attrition because of attendance problems. The BOC said it would consider reducing it even further, perhaps back to 10 members, when it takes the issue up again next week.
Beer And Wine
The Commissioners approved a beer and wine license for La Cabana de Don Juan in the shopping Center with Bell’s Food Store in Butler’s Crossing.
The restaurant will replace the existing Tlaloc El Mexicano Restaurant in the strip mall.
Submitted diagrams show a large dining area seating 100 customers.
The Commissioners also approved a beer and wine license for Catch Twenty 2, to replace the closed Choo Choo restaurant on Parkway Boulevard off Epps Bridge Parkway at the Clarke County/Oconee County line.
Submitted documents show a large bar area and booths. Capacity of the restaurant is listed at 80.
The BOC put both licenses on the consent agenda for formal approval without discussion at the Aug. 6 meeting.
Daniell Not Ready
Commissioner Daniell told B.R. White, director of the Planning Department, that he wasn’t ready to discuss proposed changes in the county’s code that included a specification of where chickens can be kept in residential areas.
The proposal specifies that chickens can be kept only on residential lots of larger than one acre and roosters can be kept only on lots of three acres or larger.
The “keeping of fowl” has to be “conducted in a manner that does not disturb the use or enjoyment of adjacent properties,” according to the draft White was prepared to bring before the Board for discussions.
“I’m not prepared to move along with this at this time,” Daniell said. He said he wanted to talk with White and other Commissioners before taking action. The BOC voted to table the discussion for 60 days.
The full video of the section of the BOC meeting dealing with farmland protection is available on the Oconee County Observations Vimeo site.
This entire issue with the Farmland committee is ridiculous. Forming the committee in secret is awful. The current people do a great job. The commissioners should be grateful for them, not trying to pry this away from them, unless Commissioner Davis really does not want farmland protection and this is his way of burying it. Glad the rest of the commission balked at least for now.
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