When given the opportunity to speak on Thursday night, Carole Ludwig, 1510 Old Farmington Road, outside Bishop, seized it quickly.
“Yea, I want to talk,” Ludwig told the more than 40 people assembled at the Oconee County Library in Watkinsville to discuss the proposed widening of U.S. 441 and construction of a bypass of Bishop.
Ludwig’s 51-acre farm is one of those selected for protection through the county and federal farmland protection program because of its fertile land and active use for farming.
Maps also show that Ludwig’s farm would be dissected if the Georgia Department of Transportation follows a route it identified as preferred during a private meeting with a few county officials in June.
Ludwig made it clear she intends to fight that outcome and said “We need to stay organized and informed and push what’s best for the town of Bishop, Oconee County and the environment."
The meeting on Thursday night was organized by a citizen group calling itself Positively Oconee.
Russ Page, long active in farmland and historic preservation in the county and an organizer for Positively Oconee, had just completed an overview of the potential impact of the widening project and bypass on the county when he asked for volunteers from the audience to speak.
Goodloe Yancey, one of the Positively Oconee organizers, had said at the launch of the session that the real purpose of the gathering was to allow people to exchange information.
Ludwig said she had an alternative map of the Bishop bypass based on “the favorite alignment” of the late Wayne Shackelford, former Georgia Department of Transportation Commissioner.
It shows “there is a good way” to build the bypass, Ludwig said.
Ludwig’s detailed comments are in the video clip below.
In Works Since 1980s
The proposed widening of U.S. 441 through the county originated in the 1980s, according to a project justification statement GDOT officials distributed for the June 16 meeting Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis organized.
According to the document, the widening had the “goal of spurring economic development in south Oconee County and the cities of Bishop and Watkinsville.”
Oconee County’s land use map at present calls for preserving the rural nature of the southern part of the county rather than developing it.
The current justification for the widening spelled out in the new GDOT document is to alleviate congestion and “to better accommodate current and future demand” due to the route’s inclusion in the Governor’s Road Improvement Program system and the state’s Freight Corridor Network.
The Thursday night meeting followed a meeting on Monday night at Oconee Veterans Park organized by the Madison Athens-Clarke Oconee Regional Transportation Study (MACORTS).
MACORTS, the federally-mandated regional transportation planning body for the urbanized area around Athens-Clarke County, held that meeting because it is in the process of removing the U.S. 441 project from its planning documents.
That step has been requested by GDOT, which now is saying it wants to fund the U.S. 441 project with state rather than a combination of state and federal funds.
Ludwig said on Thursday night she left the Monday meeting “thoroughly confused,” and many in the audience indicated they felt the same way.
GDOT: No Route Set
At the meeting on Monday night, Assistant GDOT Program Delivery Engineer Brad Saxon said repeatedly that no route for the bypass or the remainder of the project running to the Morgan County line has been determined.
At the meeting on June 16, however, Saxon and project Manager Eric Wilkinson “explained that the alignment is not set in stone, but we are trying to deliver the project as shown on the layouts shown,” according to minutes of the unpublicized meeting that I received through an open records request.
I was involved in organizing the meeting on behalf of Positively Oconee and gave an overview of the recent timeline of the project.
Many of those present Thursday night used the opportunity to share their experiences with GDOT.
Several landowners said, as they did at the MACORTS meeting, that surveyors had come onto their property without notice to put down stakes or do other work.
One farmer present, Jerry Thomas, whose family operates the only remaining peach orchard in Oconee County, lost property when the existing Watkinsville U.S. 441 bypass was built and will lose property again when the road is extended south of its current four-land.
“I’ve dealt with DOT before and it is not any fun,” Thomas said. “They come. They make and offer, and that’s it.”
Thomas, whose farm has been in the family for four generations, said it took about six years to get a settlement with GDOT.
Athens Land Trust
Heather Benham from the Athens Land Trust said the state will find it difficult to take land that currently is protected as part of the federal farmland protection program. The Athens Land Trust holds the easements on those properties on behalf of the federal government.
About $4 million, half from the federal government, has been spent to protect Oconee County farms through this program, she said.
State money is involved in some of the projects, and Oconee County citizens have contributed through the Special Purpose Local Option Sales tax program. The farmers put up money as well.
About half of that money is for farms that will be impacted by the favored route or starting point for planning the future layout of the highway.
If the protection of the easements is going to be extinguished, Benham said, the federal government has to do that.
“I know it is going to be a long and hopefully difficult process for GDOT,” she says in the video below. She also said local citizens might want to take action to see how their SPLOST spending can be protected.
Lisa Douglas welcomed the attendees to the meeting on Thursday on behalf of Positively Oconee. The group at present does not have designated leaders.
“I’m a part of this because I have a deep affection for Oconee County,” Douglas said. “I’m concerned for the quality of life of this county not just for today but for the future.”
She asked people to get involved with Positively Oconee and to write to their elected leaders about their concerns.
Positively Oconee can be reached through this email address: email@example.com.
No government official attended the meeting on Thursday night, though citizen Tammy Gilland, a member of the county’s Citizen Advisory Committee on Land Use and Transportation Planning, was present.
Gilland said she had been asked by Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Davis to serve on another citizen committee as a representative of the Land Use Committee and had agreed to do so.
GDOT representatives at the June 16 meeting that Davis organized requested that he assemble such a citizen committee.
“Davis advised that the committee be created and used early,” according to the minutes.
Thomas of Thomas Orchards as well as Walter Lee of Green Briar Tree Farm, 1540 Old Bishop Road, outside Bishop, another attendee of the meeting on Thursday night, both indicated they had joined that committee as well.
I had asked if any of those present at the Thursday night meeting had been appointed to the committee.
The full video of the meeting is below.