The county’s proposal to run a sewer pipe down Calls Creek through a string of residential neighborhoods has become a prominent issue in the May 24 Board of Commissioners election, since the Commission will have to make the final decision on whether to go forward with the project.
Behind this specific concern, however, is the larger issue of how the county–and the commissioners in particular–should handle growth.
A survey of Oconee County registered voters last fall showed that a large percentage is concerned with growth in the county and infrastructure issues now that the economy has recovered and commercial and residential development have rebounded.
The most important issue in the county is “to control growth and development so the county does not become another Atlanta sprawling suburb,” one of those interviewed in the scientific survey said.
Problems of growth were mentioned by 47.7 percent of those surveyed, and by 68.3 percent of those who mentioned a problem facing the county.
A year earlier, in a similar scientific survey of registered voters in the county, 29.3 percent said growth and infrastructure issues were the most important issue facing the county. And 42.9 percent of those mentioning a problem listed growth and infrastructure.
Calls Creek Reaction
More than 70 people showed up at a meeting late last month called by a group going by the name Friends of Barber Creek.
No one spoke in favor of the county’s plans to run a 24-inch sewer pipe along the Calls Creek corridor from the county’s sewer plant just outside Watkinsville to the Middle Oconee River.
Questions about the pipeline dominated a meeting a few days later by a group called Oconeewaters, a local organization of individuals involved in stream monitoring.
The sewer line is part of proposal by Oconee County Utility Department Director Wayne Haynie to expand sewage treatment capacity at the Calls Creek plant to meet demand for commercial, industrial and residential development in the county.
Question About Priorities
Lisa Douglas, who lives outside Bishop, articulated the general concern about the pace of and nature of growth in the county at the Oconeewaters meeting on March 28.
“I think we all understand to some degree the price of progress for growth in the county,” she said, “but we have already seen several examples of an ideology or philosophy, that’s showing up here too, that says, for the sake of future growth, we’re going to run over older neighborhoods.”
The full comment by Douglas is in the video clip below.
Douglas has been one of the leaders of a loosely organized group called Positively Oconee, which also has raised concerns about the plans to widen U.S. 441 in the south of the county and the potential route of a bypass of the city of Bishop. (I also have attended many of the meetings of Positively Oconee.)
The survey, which was conducted by graduate students in a class I taught last fall, did not ask about the U.S. 441 widening, which became controversial after that survey was fielded.
It did ask about the Mars Hill Road widening and found overwhelming support for the “decision to widen Mars Hill Road” to four lanes, with a median, sidewalks and bike lanes.
Of those 235 registered voters surveyed, 66.2 percent said they agreed with the decision to widen the road in that fashion, and only 20.5 percent expressed opposition. The remainder didn’t have an opinion.
The scientific survey was part of a class in social science research methods I teach each fall in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. The survey in 2014 was a part of the same class.
Respondents for the survey last year were selected by chance from the voter registration list for the county and contacted by telephone, email, mail, social media and in person.
The response rate was 22.6 percent. The sample matched known characteristics of the population.
The sample error was plus or minus 6.4 percent, meaning that the odds are 19 to 1 that between 41.3 and 54.1 percent of the registered voters in the county thought growth and infrastructure were the most important issue facing Oconee County.
While some of the respondents called for more development, they were the clear exception.
“Balancing growth and the quality of life” was mentioned as the most important issue by one of the respondents, and “keeping a handle on development” was mentioned by another.
BOC candidates Penny Mills (Post 1), and Sarah Bell (Post 4) attended the Friends of Calls Creek and Oconeewaters meetings, but neither took a stand on the Calls Creek pipeline issue.
Mills and Bell, as well as Mark Thomas, also running for Post 1, and Mark Saxon, incumbent Post 4 commissioner seeking reelection, have agreed to attend the Candidate Forum that Russ Page and I have organized for Thursday night.
That session starts at 6 p.m. and will be held at the Community Center in Veterans Park, 3500 Hog Mountain Road. Citizens will have a chance to pose questions directly to the candidates.
I have prepared a Primer on the mechanics of the BOC election, and it is HERE.
Candidates for the Board of Education, for Coroner, for Sheriff, and for the 46th Georgia Senate District also will attend the Thursday session.
The Chamber of Commerce is holding a Candidate Forum on April 25.