Oconee County officials now say that the county does not have a written agreement to build a full median cut on Mars Hill Road to provide access to property owned by Dickens Farms Inc.
The officials also say that, prior to its meeting on Tuesday night, the Board of Commissioners had never voted to support that full median cut or to ask the Georgia Department of Transportation to modify its design for the road to include the full median cut.
The statement by County Clerk Jane Greathouse on Wednesday, copied to the commissioners and other officials, contrasts with what Commissioner Jim Luke said on Tuesday, when he stated that the commissioners had agreed to the full median cut and that he felt the county was obligated to Dickens and others to honor that agreement.
An examination of county document shows that what the county does have is a Final Title Certificate signed by Doug Dickens, president of Dickens Farms Inc.
As part of that document, Dickens accepted $32,000--more than twice the amount the state initially offered--as payment for easements he granted and to pay that same amount to the county in return for a partial median cut.
Even without a written agreement or a prior vote on the full median cut, the Board of Commissioners on Tuesday night voted to spend $5,000 for design work already completed for a full median cut and another $5,000 for a “design exception/design variance package” to make the case with the state for the full median cut.
County Public Works Director Emil Beshara told the Board and the public at that meeting that the county will have to spend an additional $23,000 in construction costs if GDOT allows the full median cut on the roadway now under construction.
What is now clear is that the final plans approved by GDOT on March 19, 2012, for the section of roadway in front of Dickens property did not include a median break.
Dickens had made it clear from the beginning of negotiations over right of way for the roadway at his property that he wanted a full median cut.
|Davis, Luke, Beshara 7/5/2016|
After lengthy negotiations, Dickens signed a right of way deed on March 14, 2014, conveying to the Georgia Department of Transportation 0.312 acres as part of the Final Title Certificate. The document also conveyed construction easements on 0.501 acres.
Attached to that right of way deed as Exhibit B was a map showing a partial median cut, allowing left-in turns across the media for southbound traffic on Mars Hill Road but prohibiting left-turn out from Dickens’ property onto Mars Hill Road.
Attached also was an Addendum To Agreement, signed separately by Dickens on March 14, 2014, stating that “In connection with the negotiations for acquisition of the ROW Property GDOT, through the County, agreed to make certain improvements to the access to the Property including: a left turn median break, a deceleration lane and a U-turn bay.”
The Addendum states that “Dickens has agreed to pay $32,000.00 toward the costs of the Improvements.”
The negotiation record for the 102-acre Dickens Farm Inc. property at 1790 Mars Hill Road shows that Dickens told representatives of GDOT when initially contacted about the needed easements late in 2011 that he was concerned about access to his property.
Dickens, a prominent Oconee County land owner and developer, said he planned to develop the property as a master plan development and already has invested “thousands of dollars” on the property.
In a telephone conversation on Nov. 17, 2011, according to that record of GDOT negotiator Matt A. Johnson, Dickens said that he wanted a median cut to allow access to his property.
Dickens also said, according to that record, that he had been in touch in Emil Beshara, county Public Works director, and “the commissioners” regarding his desire for the median cut.
According to the record, Dickens was told on Dec. 21, 2011, that the state would not include a median break because it would “violate the design policy manual” of GDOT.
Partial Break Approved
On July 12, 2012, Dickens was told that the state had approved a median break provided he paid $22,775 at the time of closing.
Dickens told GDOT on Aug. 10, 2012, that he was unhappy that GDOT allowed a median cut that was not a full cut.
According to negotiator Johnson, Dickens said he had contacted Beshara, Dan Wilson in the Public Works Department, and BOC Chairman Melvin Davis about his dissatisfaction.
Johnson said he met with Dickens, his two sons, Beshara and M.J. Sheehan and Jeff Joyner of GDOT on Aug. 10, 2012.
On Feb. 12, 2013, Dickens told Johnson, according to the record, that Beshara told Dickens that Chairman Davis was talking with GDOT about Dickens’ concerns.
On Feb. 19, 2013, Dickens told Johnson that he had told Beshara and Chairman Davis that he would donate right of way and easements and the cost for the media if he was given a full median cut.
On Dec. 12, 2013, according to the negotiation record, GDOT reported that a settlement had been reached with Dickens for a “right only median break and de-cel lane.”
On March 11, 2014, according to the record, GDOT was “notified by Oconee Co. closing attorney that parcel acquisition has been closed.”
According to the Final Title Certificate, the state initially assessed the right of way and construction easements for Dickens property at $13,300 but reduced the offer early in the negotiations to $12,100.
In the end, the state paid Dickens $32,000 for the right of way and construction easements.
When GDOT told Dickens on Feb. 17, 2014, that it would need a small amount of additional right of way to allow U-turns at the median for traffic moving south on Mars Hill Road, Dickens agreed to donate the additional acreage.
The donation was on the condition that “GDOT approves all design exceptions as negotiated with owner,” according to the record.
Dickens signed the agreement with the partial median cut less than a month later.
I obtained a copy of the negotiation record and the right of way deed on Thursday when I visited the office of Public Works Director Beshara in the Government Annex Building on SR 15 south of downtown Watkinsville.
Beshara invited me to review the complete file of the Dickens negotiations in response to an open records request I filed on Tuesday evening following the Board of Commissioners meeting.
County Clerk Greathouse, who is the county Open Records officer, also sent me a copy of these documents on Friday.
In my open records request on Tuesday evening, I stated:
“I wish to have all documents related to the agreement with Doug Dickens and Dickens Farms Incorporated for a median cut on Mars Hill Road opposite 1781 Mars Hill Road. Included should be ‘votes’ by the commissioners on the agreement, regardless of how those ‘votes’ were taken. Also included should be any agreements on easements that are in any way related to the median cut.”
Clerk Greathouse wrote late on Wednesday saying that “Oconee County does not possess records responsive to your below Open Records Request regarding ‘an agreement’ with Doug Dickens and Dickens Farms Incorporated for a median cut on Mars Hill Road opposite 1781 Mars Hill Road.”
I wrote back to Greathouse late on Wednesday evening, saying I was confused by her response.
I transcribed what Commissioner Jim Luke said at the meeting on Tuesday night.
Here is that transcription:
“When there was right of way negotiations, and they were bogged down, my recollection, strong recollection is that we agreed to do this interchange in this fashion, this full interchange, median cut, right turn, as we are asking DOT to do now. I cannot speak for any other commissioners, but I thought we owe and still think we owe that to those three people that. There was some property donated in return for that median cut. And people expected it. At least I thought it should be. I’m going to support. I hate being held at gun point a little bit on these changes. But I am going to support whatever it does whatever it takes to make right a promise we made when people were giving right of way and donating, whether they were donating or others were selling, but nonetheless I’d like to support going forward.”
Clarification Of Request
Commissioners Davis, Mark Saxon and William “Bubber” Wilkes heard Luke’s explanation at the BOC meeting on Tuesday.
None disputed what he said or offered any corrections or additions.
In a telephone conversation on Tuesday, Luke had told me that he did not remember how or when the commissioners agreed to support Dickens’ request for a full median cut, but he said he was confident that such agreement had been reached.
I asked Greathouse in that email late on Wednesday night for “documentation of the agreement” and “documentation” of the vote by the commissioners.
Urgency Of Action
Public Works Director Beshara told the commissioners before their vote on Tuesday that they needed to take action immediately if they wanted to have any chance of being successful with the “design exception/design variance package.”
And he said success was far from certain, given that GDOT had rejected the full median cut repeatedly in the past.
Beshara told me on Thursday that the actual construction of media cut as on the map agreed to by Dickens will start in 45 days.
After construction begins and concrete is poured, the costs of changing the media to a full cut will go much higher, Beshara said.