The Oconee County Board of Commissioners, unable to find a consensus, took no action last night on the two project framework agreements with the Georgia Department of Transportation for the widening of Daniells Bridge Road and for the Daniells Bridge Road extension and flyover of SR Loop 10.
Commission Chairman Melvin Davis pushed the four voting commissioners to give tentative approval to the projects, but none of the commissioners supported that decision.
That means that the three persons who spoke in favor of the agreements last night and the 10 who spoke against will have to come back again next week to try to make their cases before the commissioners. That meeting also will start at 7 p.m. in the Courthouse in Watkinsville,.
In other action, the commissioners heard from County Attorney Daniel Haygood that the county has gotten a favorable ruling in a lawsuit regarding a cell tower on McRees Mill Road, received a request from preservationist Russ Page for three projects in the county, and approved five restaurants licenses for alcohol by the drink.
The Daniells Bridge Road projects drew a large crowd, with some people opting to stay in the corridor outside the commission chambers rather than take the few remaining seats inside.
Phil Bettendorf, senior vice president of Athens First Bank and Trust, was the first to speak, and he said that the bank had opened its office at Old Epps Bridge Road and the Oconee Connector with the expectation the flyover of SR Loop 10 to Daniells Bridge Road would be built.
The extra traffic the flyover would generate is “critical” to the bank and other businesses in the area, he said.
Bettendorf lives at 1101 Briar Lakes Court, off Mars Hill Road, and he said the flyover of Daniells Bridge Road would “balance the traffic flow and be beneficial to the citizens.”
Tom Kittle, who lives at 2030 Daniells Bridge Road and whose property would be divided both by the extension of Daniells Bridge Road and the relocated Daniells Bridge Road itself, gave the commissioners a petition that he said contained the names of 338 people who support the flyover and widening of Daniells Bridge Road.
Kittle said he is in favor of the projects because he will be able to develop his land when they are completed.
“Yes, my land is involved and I will benefit,” Kittle said, “but tell me what development has ever been done that someone didn’t benefit.”
Kittle said the development would bring in additional sales tax revenues and benefit everyone in the county.
Former Nursery Property
Bill Ross, the owner of Evergreen Nursery on Dials Mill Road, also spoke in favor of the flyover and widening.
Ross owns 62 acres across from Home Depot that would be made more accessible with the flyover. The land had been a nursery until 10 years ago.
“This property has just been sitting there for all these years,” he said. “I’d have been perfectly happy if that part of the county years ago had not been developed and I was still out in the country and had my nursery on a two-lane Epps Bridge Road.”
That didn't happen, Ross said, and “I need to sell my property. So obviously I have something at stake here.”
Ross also lives near the flyover, 1071 Chestnut Glen, which is off Chestnut Hill Road. Chestnut Hill Road intersects Daniells Bridge Road near where the new Daniells Bridge Road is expected to connect to the Daniells Bridge Road extension.
The design work on the project has not been done, and there are different versions of how the roads will intersect.
Opponents Not Agree On Traffic
Most of the 10 people who spoke against the project commented on the traffic already on the road, but some said the traffic was a problem and others said it was not.
A 14th speaker, Bill Walinow, 1040 Springview Court, also in Birchmore Hills, complained about what he said was a lack of enforcement of the 45 miles per hour speed limit on the road. He didn’t say what his position was on the two road projects.
Bob Isaac, who has been a consistent critic of the flyover in particular, said the problem was that it is impossible to know what is being proposed because of the lack of details.
He said he is strongly opposed to the flyover if it has entrance and exit ramps from SR Loop 10, as at least one of the released plans does.
Isaac lives at 1370 Beverly Drive in Welbrook Farms subdivision, across Daniells Bridge Road from Birchmore Hills. Many of those who spoke also live in that subdivision, as do I. My street address is 1050 Scott Terrace.
I told the commissioners that the traffic counts for Daniells Bridge Road show that traffic has increased dramatically in the last five years, but the level of traffic today does not merit the widening of the road.
In May of 2014, according to data on the county’s Public Words Department pages on the county web site, the vehicle-per-day count near the Hog Mountain Road terminus of Daniells Bridge Road was 3,905.
Near the intersection of Daniells Bridge Road and the Oconee Connector, the count in May of 2014 was 8,571.
Public Works Director Emil Beshara told the county’s Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee that a two-lane road can handle 10,000 vehicles per day.
At the intersection with the Connector, Daniells Bridge Road is three lanes wide.
Following the comments by the citizens, Chairman Davis, who does not vote except in the case of a tie among the other four commissioners, began making the case for the four to approve the three PFAs.
Normally, Davis waits on the other commissioners to lead the discussion. Often Davis does not reveal his own position at all.
He argued that his primary concern was safety, and that was why he wanted to make improvements to Daniells Bridge Road.
He minimized the importance of the PFAs, saying the county would have control over the design, the timetable and the funding.
At the end of the discussion, Davis encouraged the commissioners to make a motion to put the items on the consent agenda for next week. Such an action would have meant the items would have been approved next week without further discussion.
None of the commissioners made a motion to take that action.
What PFAs Do
County Administrative Officer Jeff Benko introduced the two Daniells Bridge Road projects to those in the audience last night by going through the history from when the county first received the PFAs from the state in July until last night.
Benko said that the PFAs do not spell out the actual designs of the projects and give only rough estimates of the cost.
What the PFAs do, Benko said, is spell out the time frame.
If the BOC were to approve the two PFAs, design work on the two projects would begin quickly.
In May of this year, the state would approve the design work for both of the projects, according to the time line in the PFAs.
In September of 2016, the state would approve the environmental documents for the widening project, and in April of 2017 it would approve the environmental documents for the extension and flyover.
In January of 2017, the state would authorize funding for right of way purchase for the widening project, and in July of 2017 it would authorize right of way funding for the extension and flyover.
In January of 2018, the state would authorize construction funding for the widening, and in August of 2018 it would authorize construction funding for the extension and flyover.
The PFAs are explicit in saying that the time lines are fixed and can be modified only if the state decides to honor such a request from the county.
The PFA for the widening project lists the cost at $3.9 million, with the county paying $2.8 million of that.
The PFA for the extension and flyover lists the total cost of $4.9 million, with the county only paying $300,000. The federal government would pick up 75 percent of the cost.
Benko said the costs estimates were just that since no design work had been done.
Benko also admitted that the listing of design work for the widening at $57,703 and the listing of design work for the much more complicated flyover and extension at $56,308 was hard to justify.
Other County Expenses
County Finance Director Wes Geddings last week lumped together the county’s contribution to the expenses of the two projects with the expenses of two others–the widening of Jimmy Daniell Road and the construction of Parkway Boulevard extension near Kohl’s.
That total cost was $10 million.
At BOC planning meetings last week, Geddings had a long list of upcoming county expenses, including paying for the costs of bringing Caterpillar to the county, funding a new sewerage treatment plant, increasing funds for road maintenance, and creating facilities for a new Superior Court Judge.
He said the county should consider a property tax increase to fund those needs.
In my comments to the commissioners last night, I argued that the two Daniells Bridge Road projects were not a high priority, given the other county needs.
When Davis asked for citizen comment last night, he requested that those who wanted to speak be brief and withhold comments if they were going to be redundant with what others ahead of them had said.
When the last citizen had come forward, Davis paused and looked at the rear of the room, waiting for others to speak.
Earlier in the evening Frank Bishop, who lives in Atlanta and is developer of Epps Bridge Centre, had been present. The shopping mall might have improved accessibility if the flyover were built and Daniells Bridge Road were widened.
Jamie Boswell, the area representative to the state Transportation Board, also had been in the hallway outside the room. He lives in Athens-Clarke County.
Boswell is a commercial real estate agent, and he represents Ross and other landowners with properties that would be made more marketable if the flyover were built.
Neither Bishop nor Boswell came forward to talk when Davis paused and looked at the rear of the room in search of more speakers.
Cell Tower Suit
County Attorney Haygood announced to the commissioners at the beginning of the meeting last night that the federal district court had dismissed on technical grounds a suit filed by Verizon Wireless against the county.
Judge Clay D. Land ruled that the suit was not filed within the 30 day time period required.
Verizon filed suit after the BOC in August turned down its rezone request that would have allowed Verizon to lease 10,000 square feet from a 42-acre parcel on McRees Mill Road south of Barnett Shoals Road. The plan was to erect a monopole cell tower.
Haygood told the commissioners last night Verizon can appeal the ruling.
Haygood also said Verizon can come back to the county with the same rezone request in 12 months after the initial BOC decision.
Page, who is active in farmland preservation as well as historic preservation, told the commissioners last night he has three historic and scenic sites he wants to be considered for funding by money already collected from the 2009 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax.
Page has complained in the past that the money designated for this purpose was being collected but not spent, and Chairman Davis told him to come back with specific proposals.
Page identified the area of the county in the enclave east of the Oconee River as one that contains a wide range of important artifacts from Native American and European settler cultures.
He also listed the Elder Mill, near the covered Elder Bridge, as worthy of county investment.
Finally, he proposed the county develop a river walk along the Apalachee River.
The Board took no action on the proposals by Page.
Liquor By The Drink
County Clerk Jane Greathouse presented the Board with requests from five restaurants that they modify their existing beer and wine licenses to include a license to sell liquor by the drink. These were the first requests to come before the county since it passed a liquor by the drink ordinance at the first of the year.
The restaurants were Cheddar’s Casual Café, Dominick’s, La Cabana de Don Juan, Taqueria La Parrilla, and Taqueria Tsuname.
Cheddar’s and Taqueria Tsuname are in Epps Bridge Centre, while the other three restaurants in are in Butler’s Crossing or the shopping area just to the west of Butler’s Crossing.
Normally, the BOC puts liquor license requests on the consent agenda, but it approved the five requests last night without that delay.
Cheddar’s is to have its opening on Feb. 2, which would be after the next BOC meeting on Feb. 3.
I mistakenly indicated that Bettendorf lives in Birchmore Hills subdivision in an earlier version of this report. I apologize for the error.