Russ Page, a tireless advocate for farmland and historic site preservation, last (Tuesday) night delivered on his promise in January to present the Oconee County Board of Commissioners a proposal for a county History Museum and preservation of historical sites on the Oconee River.
Page, representing a group of land owners, historians and archaeologists, and the Athens Land Trust, asked that the Board set aside $300,000 in Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax revenue for the purchase of land for the museum.
Voters approved $250,000 in the 2015 SPLOST for “Historic and Scenic Facilities” and $1.1 million in 2009 SPLOST for “Recreation, Historic and Scenic Facilities.” As of the last accounting period, all of the 2015 revenue and $406,543 of the 2009 monies were unspent.
The Board offered no response to the proposal, which Page presented during the citizen comment section at the beginning of the meeting.
In other action last night, the Board gave tentative approval to a Strategic Plan for the county and tentative approval for a third alcohol license for a business in the Falls of Oconee commercial complex on old Macon Highway across from the Athens Ridge student housing complex.
The Board also interviewed Fran Davis, currently working as technical administrative assistant in the Elections and Registration Office. Davis is seeking appointment as chair of the Board of Elections and Registration, which oversees the Elections and Registration Office.
Page told the commissioners at the Town Hall meeting on Jan. 23 that he would be before them shortly with a formal proposal for the museum.
|Contains Documents Supporting Proposal|
Page spoke only briefly during the time set aside for citizen comment at the beginning of the meeting, but he provided the Board with the outline of the group’s proposal
Centerpiece of that plan is an Oconee County History Museum that would focus on land on both sides of the Oconee River south of Barnett Shoals Road.
The proposal calls for preservation and display of what it calls “the highly significant history of the early development in Oconee County and the United States” in that area.
Page gave the commissioners at half-inch thick document called Oconee’s Hidden Treasurers that contains studies and writings about the area.
The proposal and documents represent the work of Page as well as: Lisa O'Steen, an archaeologist; historians Celestea Sharp, Pamela Brown, Carolyn Clark, and Stevn Scurry; land owners Grady Thrasher, David Wenner, Ann Elizabeth Shildwachter, and Bonnie and Harold Jones; and Heather Benham and Nancy Stangle from the Athens Land Trust.
Included in the documentation is evidence from the area along the river of Paleoindian and Early Archaic artifacts, a walled town occupied between the 11th and 12th Century, and 16th Century native farming communities.
At one point, the river became the boundary between the European settlers and the Native American communities, and the proposal would include a fort on the eastern side of the river called Fort Matthew.
A town of Barnett Shoals developed in the 1800s, centered around a mill. At one point it contained 43 houses, a church, a cemetery, store, school and numerous mill building, according to the proposal.
A descendant of the dam created for the mill exists today in the form of a hydroelectric power plant, which still operates.
A feature of that dam is that it contains a tunneled walkway from one side of the river to the other, allowing for pedestrian access to historic sites on both sides of the river.
The proposal put before the Board by Page and his group said the museum would have a “major economic benefit” for the county.
“A museum would draw tourists as well as local residents interested in the history and prehistory of the Southeastern United States,” the proposal states.
“This is a unique area historically and naturally,” according to the proposal, “and its rural isolation and lack of 20th Century development are truly unique in Piedmont Georgia.”
The area would attract cyclists, walkers, canoeists, naturalists and “anyone who enjoys the beauty of the unspoiled outdoors,” the documents given to the Commission argues.
The proposal is that the county purchase the land and easements with $300,000 in SPLOST funds and build the museum itself at some point in the future.
Page has been advocating for preservation of this area of the county for many years, and the Oconee County Recreational Affairs Committee endorsed the proposal in October of 2015.
The following month, the Board of Commissioners decided to begin discussions with the owners of two key pieces of property needed to create the recreational greenspace.
Nothing more has been said publicly about those discussions.
Page, 1080 Victoria Crossing, outside Watkinsville, has long been involved in preservation in the county. He was one of the organizers of the county's farmland protection program, one of the founders of the Farmer’s Market, and has been involved in numerous efforts to preserve the area around Elder Bridge.
Page also was the advocate for including Historical Preservation in the 2009 and 2015 SPLOSTs.
The Board of Commissioners ultimately produced the list of uses of the two SPLOST referenda, which voters overwhelmingly approved.
Justin Kirouac, county administrator, presented the Board a final version of the Strategic Plan for the county he had outlined in at a planning session in early January.
The plan lists four Strategic Goals for the county.
1. Smart Government: Provide services with efficiency, effectiveness, citizen engagement and transparency.
2. Smart Growth: Growth that fits the vision of Oconee County.
3. Smart Infrastructure: Develop infrastructure improvements that meet the county’s needs now and in the future.
4. Quality of Life: Cultivate Oconee County’s excellent quality of life .
The Board put the Strategic Plan on the consent agenda for next week’s meeting, meaning it will be approved without future discussion unless a commissioner asks that it be taken off the consent agenda for additional discussion.
Olive Basket License
The Board also put on the consent agenda approval of an alcohol license for the Olive Basket, located in the Falls of Oconee small restaurant and retail complex, officially at 8851 Macon Highway.
The applicant is Charles E. Hay of Jefferson, who is proposing to add package beer and wine sold by the bottle to his inventory, which now includes mostly olive oils and vinegars.
The county already has granted alcohol licenses to a convenience store in the complex called Tree House Restaurant and to The Falls Restaurant, which overlooks an old mill dam and falls on McNutt Creek.
A fast food restaurant is proposed for the opposite side of Macon Highway, where a warehouse/office building is under construction.
Behind that building is Athens Ridge, which caters to students from the University of Georgia and the University of North Georgia Oconee County campus.
Board Of Elections And Registration
Two people applied for appointment as chair of the Board of Elections and Registration, but only Davis showed up at the meeting last night.
Pat Hayes, currently the director of the Elections and Registration Office and chair of the Board of Elections and Registration, will retire on Friday (March 2).
The county advertised for the opening on the Board of Commissioners-appointed Board of Elections and Registration. The chair of the Board of Elections and Registration becomes the head of the Elections and Registration Office.
The Board, in executive session last night, considered personnel matters and is expected to announce the decision on the Board of Elections and Registration chair at its meeting next week.
Kirouac told me in an email exchange today that discussions of compensation have not taken place yet “though they will soon.”
Davis, 1280 Julian Drive in the north of the county, has been working in the Elections and Registration Office in 2007.
Matthew Fletcher, 1321 White Oak Road, off U.S. 441 near where it crosses into Clarke County, was the only other applicant for the opening. He did not attend the meeting last night.
The video below is of the Commission meeting.
Page began his comments at 1:03 in the video.
Davis began her comments to the Board at 4:36 in the video.
County Clerk Kathy Hayes opened discussion of the Olive Basket alcohol application at 14:28 in the video.
County Administrator Kirouac began discussion of the Strategic Plan at 27:48 in the video.