Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis is asking his fellow Board members on Tuesday night to spend up to $115,000 to create a connection between Old Mars Hill Road and the new Mars Hill Road now under reconstruction.
The change will benefit a landowner who asked Davis to alter the road design, according to email messages among county officials.
The possibility of modifying Georgia Department of Transportation plans for the $30 million Mars Hill Road widening project was raised before September of 2014, but Tuesday night’s meeting will be the first public discussion of the project.
Davis chaired a meeting on Aug. 13 about the implications of the widened Mars Hill Road for residential areas along the roadway, but neither he nor county consultant Bill Ross mentioned the proposed changes to Old Mars Hill Road.
County Commissioners John Daniell and Mark Saxon also attended that meeting, but neither made any comments.
Old Mars Hill Road was created about 15 years ago when the county built the Oconee Connector, linking Mars Hill Road and Daniells Bridge Road to SR 316.
Both Mars Hill Road and Daniells Bridge Road where reconfigured at that time to intersect opposite each other with the Connector. Mars Hill Road then turns right toward Watkinsville, while Daniells Bridge Road terminates.
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The reopening of a connection between Old Mars Hill Road and the new Mars Hill Road will benefit at least three property owners, but records only mention the benefit to Perry Aycock, who owns four properties totalling 9.2 acres that front on Old Mars Hill Road exclusively.
According to email exchanges involving county Public Works Director Emil Beshara and county Administrative Officer Jeff Benko, Davis discussed the reconnection of Mars Hill Road with Aycock and then pushed the county to propose the change to the Georgia Department of Transportation.
Davis Records Thin
I filed an open records request on last Monday evening, Aug. 17, asking for all correspondence involving Davis, Benko and Beshara regarding the reconnection of Old Mars Hill Road and the news Mars Hill Road.
Davis either does not use or does not keep email messages, and the search of his system by his administrative assistant, Kathy Hayes, produced only one message. (Hayes stated that it took her a half hour to conduct that search, and the county billed me $5.18 for it as a result.)
In that email, dated Aug. 3, 2015, Davis thanked Benko for informing him about negotiations regarding the reopening of Old Mars Hill Road.
“We have been talking about this possibility for a long time,” Davis wrote.
In response to an email message I sent to Public Works Director Beshara on the morning of Aug. 17, Beshara told me that the county was “in the process of seeking an amendment to the GDOT project” that would reconnect Old Mars Hill Road to the new roadway under construction.
“The plans have not been officially changed yet pending BOC funding,” Beshara’s email response continued.
Beshara subsequently sent me an addendum indicating that the county would not need any additional right of way since the “work would occur within the old alignment of Mars Hill.”
“Chairman Davis requested that I pursue the plan change,” Beshara wrote in response to my question regarding who was requesting the alteration.
On Friday afternoon County Clerk Jane Greathouse included the funding for the changes in the GDOT plans on the agenda for Tuesday night’s meeting, which begins at 7 p.m. in the Courthouse in Watkinsville.
Greathouse also released the agenda for the Sept. 1 meeting, which includes the $115,000 in funding on the consent agenda, indicating that Davis thinks he has the two votes he needs to get the money approved initially on Tuesday night. Davis votes in the case of a tie on the four-member Commission.
The agenda page on the web site for Tuesday includes a very detailed map by engineering firm Moreland Altobelli of the revised intersection.
The map was dated May 5, 2015.
Details Of Change
In the materials I received as a result of my open records search was a less detailed, and clearer map, shown below. That map was dated May 28, 2015.
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The map shows the new roadway lining up opposite Barber Creek Drive.
Hollow Creek Lane, which currently is an extension of Old Mars Hill Road, is shown intersecting Old Mars Hill Road at a right angle in the new configuration.
The map also shows a median cut at the new Mars Hill Road intersection with Old Mars Hill Road, meaning traffic will be able to cross between the reconnected Old Mars Hill Road and Barber Creek Drive, across the new Mars Hill Road.
Beshara sent an email message to Benko on Sept. 4, 2014, indicating he had met with Aycock “per Melvin’s request, regarding right of way discussions involving the construction of the new Mars Hill Road.”
“Mr. Aycock wanted to talk to me about a road that he said he had talked to Melvin about,” Beshara continued.
That road was an extension of Old Mars Hill Road to reconnect to the new Mars Hill Road opposite Barber Creek Road, Beshara wrote.
“It would be a short road (less than 200' long), and would be a convenience to the residents of that neighborhood,” Beshara wrote.
“It would also probably let Mr. Aycock more easily market his 4 tracts of land for commercial purposes,” the email message continues.
The documents I received from Beshara as a result of the open records request included an email message from Davis to Benko on Feb. 13, 2015. That message was not picked up in my requests for documents from Davis.
“Perry Aycock came to see me today,” Davis wrote. “He again is inquiring regarding the right in and right out from old Mars Hill Road onto Mars Hill Road across from Barber Creek Road,” Davis wrote.
|Mars Hill Road Looking East|
QuikTrip On Left
Davis said that “A few months ago, Emil was to check” with Moreland Altobelli or the contractor regarding modification to the plans.
Davis asked Benko to “check on this.”
That same day, Beshara wrote to Benko indicating that “I have not found anybody at DOT who sounded very excited about it. If scope creep is going to be allowed, the request probably should come from Melvin directly to Brent Cook or somebody in Atlanta. He might have more success.”
Brent Cook is GDOT district engineer.
Others Who Benefit
While none of the correspondence I received mentioned anyone other than Aycock as a beneficiary of the proposed reconnection of Old Mars Hill Road with the new Mars Hill Road, others would gain from the change as well.
Most prominent of those is the owner of 3.6 acres that lies in the triangle between Mars Hill Road and Old Mars Hill Road.
That property belongs to A. Paul Keller and JJMB LLC, but it is listed by Boswell Properties.
Boswell Properties is owned by Jamie Boswell, an Athens real estate broker.
Since early 2013, Boswell has served as District 10 representative to the 14-member State Transportation Board, which oversees road projects, including the widening of Mars Hill Road and the Oconee Connector.
Billy and Nellie Hale own 3.1 acres on Mars Hill Road just west of the existing Old Mars Hill Road, and that property might gain some benefit from the reconnection of Old Mars Hill Road and the new roadway under construction.
Thomas Little and Michael Thornton own two properties totaling 2.9 acres on the new Mars Hill Road just south of the proposed reconnection of Old Mars Hill Road.
In the policy map that Ross uncovered for the public at the meeting on Aug. 13, these properties, as well as the four owned by Aycock, have been designated as appropriate for “Future Development Opportunity.”
All of these properties are currently zoned only for residential and agricultural use.
Neither Ross nor Davis mentioned this change in land use or its connection to the possible reopening of Old Mars Hill Road at that Aug. 13 meeting.
The properties to the west of the Aycock, Hale, and Little and Thornton properties currently are residential and would be affected by the anticipated commercial development.