Only 2 hours and 14 minutes after learning that the Georgia Department of Transportation had turned down the county’s request for a full median break on Mars Hill Road to accommodate landowner Doug Dickens, Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis turned to “Plan B.”
Davis told the Commissioners that the county can build the median break when GDOT turns the highway back over to the county.
The county has known about “Plan B” for a long time. In fact it was mentioned in correspondence between Public Works Director Emil Beshara and the members of the Board of Commissioners as early as November of 2011.
But “Plan B” has three drawbacks.
First, the county is going to have to spend more than the $23,000 it expected to pay had GDOT allowed the median break before the widening of Mars Hill Road was completed.
Second, building the full median cut after the new road is open will be more disruptive and dangerous.
Third there is no guarantee the state is going to turn Mars Hill Road back over to the county when construction is completed.
G. Michelle Pate, senior design engineer in the Office of Design Policy and Support of GDOT, informed Beshara in an email message sent at 8:37 a.m. on Aug. 17 that the county’s variance request for a full median cut at the Dickens property on Mars Hill Road “has been denied.”
Dickens Drive On Right at Barrel
Humane Society Drive On Left
Pate sent the email to M.J. Sheehan, the lead design engineer for the Mars Hill project at Moreland Altobelli Associates Inc., and copied it to Beshara.
“GDOT feels the appropriate accommodation has been provided,” Pate wrote.
The county had requested that Moreland Altobelli make the case that the limited median cut approved by GDOT should be modified to a full median cut.
The county spent $5,000 making that argument on top of the $5,000 it had already spent on design work for the intersection.
GDOT originally had designed the road without any median cut at that location and modified those designs to accommodate Dickens during the negotiation phase over right of way for his property.
Beshara wrote to County Administrative Officer Jeff Benko at 8:40 a.m. on Aug. 17, saying “GDOT has denied the Dickens median break. This is their final decision.”
Beshara said “I will let Doug know.”
At 11:23 a.m. Benko forwarded the message from Beshara, which included the correspondence from Pate, to the commissioners, asking Davis if he would “like to inform Mr. Dickens” of the decision.
Davis wrote back at 1:37 p.m. on Aug. 17, saying “Emil has already informed Doug. I have had a conversation with Doug. Plan B when GDOT turns the road over to the County.”
I obtained the email correspondence via an open records request.
Dickens has been in discussion with the county for many years about his desire to have a full median cut at his property, which is across Mars Hill Road from the Athens Area Humane Society Spay and Neuter Clinic at 1871 Mars Hill Road.
Although the 102 acres Dickens owns currently are zoned for agriculture, he has indicated that he plans to divide the land into 275 residential lots and also have 28,000 square feet of retail space and 42,000 square feet of office space fronting on Mars Hill Road.
Dickens has said he would expect to have sewage capacity for the project, which would be developed as a master plan development, and that he needs a full median cut to make that project feasible.
Dickens received $32,000 from the state as compensation for the easements he granted for the widening of Mars Hill Road, and he turned that back to the state to pay for the partial median break approved by the state.
Dickens told the county he would not pay the $23,000 additional cost needed to construct the full median cut.
The Board of Commissioners agreed to pay that amount at its meeting on July 5.
Beshara told them it was better to do the work before the construction now underway is complete to save money and to avoid closing the road once it has been reopened.
Somewhere around 1999–neither Beshara nor County Attorney Daniel Haygood could come up with a precise date–Oconee County agreed to partner with the Georgia Department of Transportation to widen Mars Hill Road.
Dickens Property On Left
Humane Society In Distance, Right
According to Haygood, the county subsequently signed a contract with GDOT making Mars Hill Road a state route so that most of the funding for the project would be picked up by the state.
Since the state uses federal funds, that decision resulted in the four-lane road with bike lanes and sidewalks, rather than more limited improvements the county might have undertaken on its own.
After construction is completed–in this case, that is expected to be in May of 2018–the road “typically comes back to the county,” Haygood said.
It is “unlikely but not impossible” that the state could not return the route to the county, “if the state decided it needed to be added to the state highway system,” Haygood told me in an email message in December of last year.
Trucks On Road
The county historically has designed Mars Hill Road as a “No Through Truck Route,” according to Beshara, but the state cannot designate any of its roads as inaccessible to trucks.
|Truck At Mars Hill Road|
Daniells Bridge Road On Left
Trucks have been using Mars Hill Road even during the construction period.
“Truck traffic has picked up markedly since the project began,” Beshara told me in an email note late last year.
“When the road is eventually turned back over to the County, I expect that the Board will continue to keep it on the Not Through Truck list,” Beshara said.
Beshara, too, said that there is no “guarantee” that the state will turn the route over to the county when construction is complete, and that the “county has no authority to take a road from the state.”
“It would be highly unusual for the State to keep the road over the objection of the County,” Beshara said.
GDOT describes the project as part of regional transportation improvements in its news releases.
On Feb. 29, 2016, a news release by Teri Pope from GDOT said the widening project will improve “mobility locally in Watkinsville and for the region in to and out of Clarke County.”
The next phase of the widening project will be from Butler’s Crossing to U.S. 441 along Experiment Station Road.
As such, Mars Hill Road would be a four-lane shortcut from U.S. 441 to SR 316 and then to U.S. 78 and the Caterpillar plant. The road is designed for 45-miles-per-hour traffic.
“Plan B” assumes that the state will turn the route over to the county.
Beshara wrote to the commissioners back in November of 2011 saying that he had talked to Dickens about the median break.
“I told him that I believed that his best shot at a median break was going to be after the road was turned back over to Oconee County. At that point he would be dealing with the local elected officials, and that the BOC had far more latitude in such matters.”
Beshara said he also had a “discussion” with Dickens “about the potential that GDOT would not turn the road back to the County.”
Dickens and the county decided not to wait to find out what the state actually does when the road is completed.
Now "Plan B" is the only one open to them.