Oconee County officials are refusing to disclose who requested a median cut on the new Mars Hill Road at the Athens Area Humane Society Adoption Center and Spay and Neuter Clinic.
Public Works Director Emil Beshara said on Thursday that he could not indicate who asked that the Georgia Department of Transportation modify the design in the roadway because “I have not been specifically authorized to discuss” the request.
The median cut would provide access not only to the Human Society facility but also to property owned by Dickens Farm Inc., according to the existing design plans for the roadway.
Doug Dickens is president of Dickens Farms Inc. and has close ties to Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis.
Discussion of changes in the design are ongoing even at this late stage in the project, and payment of $5,000 for the design work already completed is part of a $44,550 change order with Moreland Altobelli Associates Inc. that the Board of Commissioners tentatively agreed to pay at its meeting on June 28.
The payment is on the consent agenda for Tuesday night’s meeting, meaning it will be approved without further discussion unless one of the commissioners asks that it be removed from the consent agenda.
Prodding By Luke
In response to questioning by Commissioner Jim Luke, Beshara told the commissioners at last Tuesday’s meeting that $10,000 in the Moreland Altobelli request was for design work to reconnect Old Mars Hill Road with Mars Hill Road.
That work was undertaken at the request of Chairman Davis without approval of the full Commission, and the commissioners ultimately rejected the project.
Beshara, in response to Luke, also mentioned that another $5,000 in the change order was for “consideration of a full break at the Humane Society,” but he did not elaborate.
Luke and the other commissioners did not ask for clarification of the $5,000.
I sent Beshara in an email message on the morning of June 30 asking him for details of the design modification and to indicate “Who requested that design change?” I also asked for the status of the request.
Beshara told me that the design change involves a “median break with full turn movement access from all directions (left and right in/left and right out).”
Beshara wrote: “I would prefer that you ask the other questions of someone higher up the chain of command as I have not been specifically authorized to discuss.”
|Humane Society Clinic|
Beshara copied Benko on his response.
I responded to Beshara, with a copy to Benko, saying “I am copying Jeff for an answer on who requested this.”
Benko did not respond, though he had responded just a day earlier when Beshara sent me a copy of his PowerPoint presentation from the Tuesday night meeting and copied Benko in the response.
In that case, Benko thanked Beshara for sending me the PowerPoint.
The Athens Area Humane Society Adoption Center and Spay and Neuter Clinic sits on 1.4 acres on the west side of Mars Hill Road, south of Dooley Boulevard, which is the entrance to the mothballed Parkside subdivision.
The clinic address is 1781 Mars Hill Road.
At present, the brightly painted, converted home has access to Mars Hill Road, but that access will be restricted because plans approved in 2012 do not include a break in the median.
Those plans also show that opposite the Human Society sits property owned by Dickens Farms Inc.
County tax maps show two parcels, totaling 103 acres, currently zoned residential and with access off Tarpey Lane.
|Existing Plans (CLICK TO ENLARGE)|
Humane Society, Top Right, Dickens Farms, Bottom Right
Chairman Davis took the unsual step in January of turning a work session of the Board of Commissioners over to Dickens and his family, and they made it clear that they were opposed to a proposed overlay district for Mars Hill Road.
The Board of Commissioners subsequently gutted the proposed ordinance and approved an overlay district that will have little impact on development along the Mars Hill Road corridor.
Dickens is a prominent land owner, cotton farmer, developer and Board Member at Oconee State Bank.
In 2002, Davis engineered the purchase of the land for what is now Veterans Park on Hog Mountain Road from Dickens at above-assessed value.
Old Mars Hill Road
Davis pressured Beshara and county Administrative Officer Jeff Benko last year to order the changes in the design of Mars Hill Road to reconnect Old Mars Hill Road to the new four-lane road.
Davis said he was acting in response to a request by the late Perry Aycock, who owned land on Old Mars Hill Road.
At least one other, more prominent land owner, Paul Keller and JJMB LLC, would have benefitted from the change. The partners own a lot at the corner of Mars Hill Road and Daniells Bridge Road that also has frontage on Old Mars Hill Road.
Beshara told the Board last August that a $30,720 change order just agreed upon with Moreland Altobelli may have had enough extra money in it to cover the work already done for the redesign of the proposed Old Mars Hill Road and Barber Creek Drive intersection.
Moreland Altobelli Associates subsequently billed the county for $9,991.60 to cover the design work for the possible reconnection of Old Mars Hill Road to Mars Hill Road .
That amount, plus the $5,000 for the Humane Society redesign, contribute $15,000 to the change order that is scheduled to be approved Tuesday night.
Beshara’s unwillingness to respond to questions about the Humane Society median cut follows a directive from Benko in April 2015 that county department heads not make statements to “the press” without clearing those statements in advance with him.
The directive was aimed at Beshara in particular, who had been quoted in The Oconee Enterprise making a critical comment about the Georgia General Assembly.
Beshara has been cautious in email exchanges with me since that time, always copying his replies to me to Benko.
Benko usually acknowledges those responses approvingly, as he did last week.
Rezone On Agenda
The Board of Commissioners also have a controversial rezone on the agenda for Tuesday night. The meeting starts at 7 p.m. at the Courthouse in Watkinsville.
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Stonebridge Partners LLC is seeking a rezone to allow it to put two fast food restaurants with drive throughs on just less than two acres west of Butler’s Crossing and near Oconee Elementary School and Oconee Middle School.
Land Planner Ken Beall, representing Stonebridge Partners, didn’t identify the restaurants, but representative drawings submitted with the application show a Bojangles chicken and biscuit store and a Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen store.
The Planning Commission voted 9-1 against the rezone, and Oconee County Sheriff Scott Berry also has written a letter in opposition to the rezone because of traffic concerns.