Doug Dickens, president of Dickens Farms Inc., told the Georgia Department of Transportation that it should assess his 102 acres on Mars Hill Road not as agricultural land, as it is zoned, but as the site of the large residential and commercial development he said he plans for the property.
The state ultimately accepted his argument, giving him a partial median cut that was not part of the original design and paying him $32,000 for 0.312 acres of permanent easement and 0.501 of construction easement.
Dickens agreed to give the $32,000 back to the state to pay for construction of the partial median cut and to give the state a small, unspecified additional easement when the state said it needed that additional easement for the partial median cut.
Dickens suggested to GDOT Negotiator Matt A. Johnson during the process that he had the support of the county commissioners and particularly of BOC Chairman Melvin Davis, and nothing in the Negotiation Record indicates that Johnson doubted that assertion.
Though Dickens accepted the state’s $32,000 and the state’s plans for a partial median cut, he now is asking for a change in the design to allow for a full median cut.
The Board of Commissioners has agreed to spend $5,000 to make the case to the state for that full median cut on top of the $5,000 already obligated for design work already completed for the full median cut.
The Administrative Settlement Analysis, a document of the Georgia Department of Transportation that I obtained through an open records request, said the state’s “vulnerability” in its negotiations with Dickens “mostly lies in two main areas.”
First, according to the analysis, Dickens would have to redraw an “existing MPD site plan as approved by Oconee County.” MPD stands for Master Plan Development.
Second, John Simshauser, the appraiser for GDOT, had used three sales for properties ranging in size from 18.4 acres to 42.9 acres in assessing the value of Dickens’ 102 acres. He calculated a value $0.50 per square foot.
The settlement analysis document said that should be increased to $0.75 per square foot based on the variability in the values.
These new calculations plus an estimate of costs for the MPD changes brought the fair market value of the easements to $50,125, rather than the initial $11,800.
”Accept Counter Offer”
“A jury of Mr. Dickens peers may be sympathetic to Mr. Dickens,” the analysis stated. The cost of condemnation action would be more than $7,500, the document stated.
Since Dickens was agreeing to settle for the $32,000, the recommendation of the analysis was that “it would be in the Department’s best interest to accept this counter offer.”
The document was signed on Nov. 13, 2013, by Cheryl H. Brewer, GDOT’s approved negotiator, and Sandy Weinel in the Oconee County Public Works Department. (Weinel is now in the Planning Department.)
Ruthie Jones, state local government right of way coordinator, signed off on the agreement on Nov. 26, 2013, and sent it to Rhonda Barnett, state right of way acquisition manager on that date.
Barnett seems to have signed it on Dec. 2, 2013. (The signature is unclear, but the title State Acquisition Manager is circled, and that is Barnett’s title.)
Jones sent the approved counter offer to Kim Byers, district local government coordinator, on Dec. 3, 2013.
Dickens signed the Right of Way Deed for the easements on March 14, 2014.
Attached as an exhibit to the deed was a plat of the property showing the partial median cut.
|Approved Partial Median Cut|
CLICK TO ENLARGE
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.”
A left turn median break is a partial median break, since left-turns in are allowed, but left turns out are not.
The Addendum states that “Dickens has agreed to pay $32,000.00 toward the costs of the Improvements.”
Full Median Break
At the Board of Commissioners meeting on July 5, the commissioners agreed to spend the additional $5,000 to make the case with the state that the partial median break should be made into a full median break.
Commissioner Jim Luke said he felt the commissioners had agreed to do this for Dickens, though there is no record of such an agreement or of a vote of the commissioners.
Emil Beshara, county Public Works director, said 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.
Construction of the roadway as currently approved by the state–the partial median cut–will begin in about 40 days, Beshara said, and it will cost the county even more money if it rebuilds the road after concrete is poured.
Beshara also told the Commission on July 5 that there is no guarantee the state will approve the design change. It has rejected the change in the past.
In her transmittal letter to Right of Way Manager Barnett on Nov. 26, Local Government Right of Way Coordinator Jones added a note, marked with three asterisks, and in bold letters.
“The Counter offer submitted is mostly on the redrawing of a approved development plan for property owner. Approval by County of the MPD plan is not included in supporting documents.”
According to county tax records, the Dickens property is not zoned MPD, but rather is zoned AR-1 and A-1. AR-1 is an Agricultural Residential 1 Acre district. A-1 is an Agricultural district.
The Administrative Settlement analysis says Dickens “currently has an approved MPD plan” but then uses the future tense to say “The rezone will be from A-1 to R-1 & B-1.”
The county’s Unified Development Code defines an MPD as “An area of land for which an overall development plan has been prepared.”
An MPD allows for “greater design flexibility in locating buildings and in combining residential and commercial land uses and dwelling and structure types making it possible to achieve certain economics in construction as well as the preservation of green space and the inclusion of amenities.”
MPD is a separate development category and is shown on the zoning maps as such.
For example, Meadow Springs subdivision, which abuts the Dickens AR-1 and A-1 property, is shown on the zoning map as R-1-MPD.
Estimated Cost From Beall
Included in the file for the Dickens property in the Oconee County Public Works Department is a letter from Ken Beall, president of Beall & Company, dated Oct. 15, 2013.
Beall said he would charge Dickens $28,000 to perform “planning, zoning and related professional services” to prepare Dickens’ 102 acres for R-1 and B-1 Zoning for a mixed use development.
That $28,000 figure is termed “Estimate for redrawn plans” in the Administrative Settlement Analysis.
Also included in the file is a Sept. 12, 2005, letter from Gary Dodd, then Oconee County Utility Department Director, and Mike Leonas, then Oconee County Public Works Director.
The sewer letter was in support of Dickens’ claim that his property is in line for development.
In that letter, sent to Williams and Associates, another land planning firm, Dodd and Leonas said that Dickens would be placed on a list of requests for sewer capacity at Calls Creek Water Reclamation Facility when that plant is upgraded to 1 million gallons per day.
On March 1 of this year, the county changed its sewer policy.
First priority for sewer is given to residential projects already zoned and granted development approval.
Second priority would be for properties zoned but not granted development approval.
Third priority would be for “owners and developers who have priviously documented their proposed developments, including wastewater flow projections.”
Dickens would seem to fall in that third category.
The county has not yet upgraded its Calls Creek plant to 1 million gallons per day.
According to documents used by the state in assessing the value of Dickens property, the property was granted a conservation easement in 1992 for the purposes of reducing property taxes.
That conservation easement was rolled over in 2002.
The state record calculated that in that 20-year period Dickens saved $79,301 in property taxes.
According to the county tax files, that easement is in effect at present.
Breach of an easement before the 10-year expiration results in a penalty.
The state calculated the penalty had the easement been breached before the end of 2011 at $130,070.
Check Sent In
County Attorney Daniel Haygood told me earlier this week that the $32,000 Dickens was to receive from the state for his easements never went to him.
Instead, that money was held by Haygood.
Haygood said he sent that money to GDOT on Sept. 16, 2014.
He gave me a copy of the check.
Distance Between Breaks
The original plans for Mars Hill Road, amended and approved on March 9, 2012, did not include a median break at Dickens’ property.
Beshara told me when I visited his office to go through the files on July 7 that the state desires to have 1,320 feet between median breaks for a roadway with a 45 miles per hour speed limit, which is the limit to be set for Mars Hill Road when it is completed.
|Original Design Without Median Cut|
CLICK TO ENLARGE
An approved break already is at Dooley Boulevard, only about 660 feet north of the Dickens property.
The state accepted the 660-feet gap–considered to be the minimum–in the plans approved on Jan. 27, 2014, as part of the settlement with Dickens, Beshara said.
The state wants all median breaks to allow for a U-turn by a semi-truck, Beshara said, and that will be possible for traffic heading south on Mars Hill Road at the approved median break.
Dickens was asked to surrender some additional small amount of easement to make that possible, and he agreed, according to the negotiation record.
Without the median break, which was requested by Dickens, that additional easement would not have been required.
Beshara said, even if a full median cut is allowed, no U-turn will be possible for traffic heading north on Mars Hill Road.
There simply is no way to obtain the additional easement needed for such a U-turn from the Athens Area Humane Society Adoption Center and Spay and Neuter Clinic without taking the entire property, Beshara said.
The clinic is across Mars Hill Road from that of Dickens.