Sunday, January 26, 2020

Watkinsville Gives Up Seat On Oconee County Planning Commission On Initiative Of Former Mayor

***New Mayor May Reverse Action***

Watkinsville’s appointee to the Oconee County Planning Commission has informed the county that he will no longer be attending Planning Commission meetings after being told by former Mayor Dave Shearon that the city no longer wants a member on the Commission.

Shearon sent George Rodrigues, the city’s representative to the Planning Commission going back four mayors, a letter on Jan. 6 saying that the city has been handling its own zoning since 2008 and no longer benefits from representation on the county’s Planning Commission.

Shearon also said the financial cost of the appointment was factor in his decision. The city pays Rodrigues $75 per meeting, and the Planning Commission usually meets monthly.

Shearon sent his letter to Rodrigues after Mayor Bob Smith had arranged to be sworn in as mayor before Superior Court Judge Eric Norris on Jan. 1 but before City Attorney Joe Reitman Jr. had issued the Oath of Office to Smith before the Mayor and Council meeting on Jan. 8.

Mayor Smith is considering reversing Shearon’s decision, according to Watkinsville City Manager Sharyn E. Dickerson.

Rodrigues did not attend last week’s meeting of the Planning Commission.

Planning Commission Jurisdiction

The Oconee County Planning Commission “is a joint endeavor between Oconee County and the cities of Bishop, Bogart, North High Shoals and Watkinsville,” according to the county web site.

Herring Before Planning Commission 1/22/2020
Turman (Bogart), Second From Left
Strickland (North High Shoals), Sixth From Left
MacPherson (Bishop), Right

“The Commission reviews rezone and special use requests and forwards their recommendation to the appropriate elected body depending on jurisdiction,” the web site states.

For rezone requests in the unincorporated parts of the county, the Planning Commission sends its recommendations to the Board of Commissioners.

For rezones in the cities of Bishop, Bogart and North High Shoals, the Planning Commission sends its recommendations to the respective city councils.

The staff of the county’s Department of Planning and Code Enforcement assembles and reviews planning documents for rezones for the unincorporated parts of the county and for Bishop, Bogart and North High Shoals.

It applies the appropriate zoning standards for the county and for the three cities in assembling and reviewing those materials.

Watkinsville handles its own zoning and does not use the county’s planning staff, and rezone requests do not go before the Planning Commission for review.

Shearon’s Letter And Zoning

Shearon cited that history in his letter to Rodrigues.

“During my 2-year tenure I have been made aware of many seeming anomalies, some spanning the terms of several Mayors that require examination,” Shearon wrote.

“I had made mental note of your presence at two City Council Meetings, occurring at either the first or second meeting of each year, 2018 and 2019,” Shearon continued.

“It is my understanding that when Watkinsville approved changing its zoning regulations to form-based code in 2007 /2008, Oconee County ceased handling our planning items, since they prescribe to a land-use code. This is seemingly the genesis of this position."

Land-based zoning focuses more on the use of the land, while form-based zoning focuses more on the form of the buildings.

Shearon’s Letter And Cost

“During my 2-year Mayoral tenure I was unaware of any active operational services of information related to an OCPC liaison position,” the letter continues. OCPC refers to Oconee County Planning Commission. “And I only recently became aware of a financial cost to the City for this position.

“I have not come across substantiation of past documentation of consistent previous Mayors' utilization on this relationship,” Shearon wrote.

“I surveyed our long-term staff and the longest standing Council Members for their insights beyond 2008 and was unable to validate any recognition or utilization of this appointed position,” the letter continues.

“As part of some final accounting before leaving office, I find that the City no longer requires an appointee on the Oconee County Planning Commission,” Shearon wrote.

“I do want to personally thank you for your many years of civic dedication and service to City and County affairs,” Shearon wrote.

Planning Commission Member Compensation

The Planning Commision has 12 members, with eight of them appointed by the Board of Commissioners on staggered four-year terms.

County Administrator Justin Kirouac told me in an email message on Jan. 23 that the county pays its eight members $25 per meeting.

Diane Craft, city clerk of Bogart, told me in a telephone call on Jan. 24 that Bogart pays its representative, T.L. Turman, $75 per meeting.

Laura Wilson, town clerk for North High Shoals, told me in an email message on Jan. 23 that North High Shoals “does not compensate our representative to the Oconee County Planning Commission.” Steve Strickland is the town’s appointment to the Commission.

Bruce MacPherson, the town of Bishop’s representative to the Planning Commission, told me in a telephone call today (Saturday) that he receives $50 per meeting, but he donates it back to the city for maintenance of the city’s cemetery. (I could not reach Town Clerk Lacy Armstrong.)

Kirouac told me that the county also pays members of the Board of Tax Assessors $72.14 per meeting, members of the Board of Elections $61.69 per meeting, and members of the Board of Equalization $72.14 per meeting.

Citizens on all other county committees serve without compensation, Kirouac said.

Response To Shearon

Rodrigues sent an email to Guy Herring, director of Planning and Code Enforcement for the county, on Jan. 16, saying that “I have been informed by the outgoing mayor that Watkinsville no longer requires an appointment to the Oconee County Planning Commission.

“Thus, I will not attend future PC meetings on the City’s behalf,” the email continued.

Rodrigues copied Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chair John Daniell, Maria Caudill, Planning Commission chair, and Mayor Smith in that email.

Herring sent an email to Kirouac and County Attorney Daniel Haygood shortly after receiving the email from Rodrigues, saying “It appears George has resigned based on the letter he received from Watkinsville.”

“I didn't resign as such,” Rodrigues said in an email message to me on Jan. 22. ““There are absolutely no hard feelings on my part.

“The City now handles its own planning and code enforcement so I was occupying a Watkinsville ‘representative’ seat on the OCPC that was a legacy of when requests in the city went before the county planning commission,” Rodrigues wrote.

Rodrigues told me that he was appointed by Mayor Jim Luken, who served from 2003 to 2009. Luken was followed in office by Joe Walter, Charles Ivie, Connie Massey and Shearon.

The Watkinville City Charter states that Council appoints members to boards and commissions it creates but the mayor appoints members of the administration. The Planning Commission representative could be viewed as an extension of the administration.

Dickerson Email

“Mayor Dave did not see the value in keeping someone on the Planning Commission, since there was never any reporting by Mr. Rodrigues to the Mayor and Council,” City Manager Dickerson wrote to me via email on Jan. 22.

Caudill and Strickland 1/22/2020

“However, Mayor Smith is currently considering appointing someone and setting some parameters for them to report back to the Mayor and Council,” Dickerson continued.

Shearon’s letter has resulted in some reflection at the county as well.

I had written to Kirouac on Jan. 21, after I posted a report on the proposed multi-use Wire Park at the former Southwire property on Barnett Shoals Road.

Most of that property is in the city of Watkinsville, which has begun reviewing the proposal.

I asked Kirouac why the city of Watkinsville has a representative on the Planning Commission when city projects, such as Wire Park, will not be reviewed by the Planning Commission.

“The relationship has/is evolving and we recently learned that Watkinsville will no longer appoint someone to the PC,” Kirouac wrote. “At some point we will look to formalize the new direction.”

History Of Planning Commission

The Commission began meeting in the 1960s, when the county adopted its first zoning ordinances, according to the county web site.

County Clerk Kathy Hayes sent me on Jan. 21 ordinances controlling the Planning Commission back through 1982.

At that time, only Watkinsville and North High Shoals among the county’s cities had a representative on the Planning Commission, which had 10 members.

Bylaws adopted in 2006 added representatives of Bishop and Bogart to the Commission, consisting of 12 members.

Those are the bylaws that govern the current Planning Commission.

Wire Park Annexation

The developer of Wire Park, Duke Gibbs purchased the 66.6-acre Wire Park property from Southwire on Dec. 13 of last year, according to county tax records.

The purchase includes two parcels. The larger is 62.1 acres and is wholly inside the city of Watkinsville. The smaller is 4.5 acres and is outside the current city boundaries.

Gibbs said that he will ask the city to annex the 4.5 acres.

If the city does not annex those 4.5 acres, Gibbs would have to ask the county to rezone them from their current agricultural use classification.

County Planning and Code Enforcement Director Herring told me in an email message on Jan. 21that the normal procedure for such an annexation would start with the city.

“Typically the annexation process is designated by the municipality and follows a path of annexation application to the municipality, opportunity for County to comment/object, municipal action and zoning,” he wrote.

Sewer Capacity

The Wire Park project will require residential sewer service.

Watkinsville does not operate its own sewage treatment facility, relying instead on the county’s treatment plant.

At present, county policy is not to provide sewage service to new residential customers, whether they are in the city or elsewhere.

The Board of Commissioners, at its meeting on Tuesday night, is to consider allocating to Watkinsville 100,000 gallons per day of sewage treatment capacity.

If the Board approves, the city will be free to reallocate that 100,000 in capacity as it sees fit, including for residential use for Wire Park or other projects.

The Commission meeting begins at 6 p.m. at the Courthouse in Watkinsville.


Anonymous said...

What was Dave thinking making a unilateral decision without council input AFTER another mayor has been sworn in?!

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Lee Becker said...

The comment I removed contained no content.

Anonymous said...

MD's decision seems to make sense, but I also wonder about the timing. Personally, I'd have ceased to concern my
self with Town issues (barring emergency) once it was clear I would not be returning, and this looks like a really small situation with which to bother. Must be more to it than meets the eye. (But isn't there always?)

Brad Thomas said...

We are starting to see a consistent pattern here with the outgoing mayor and its not a good look. I also wouldn't be surprised if some current council members were behind the curtain as well. More confirmation that the voters made the right decision in November with Mayor Smith.

Anonymous said...

Behind the curtain is right. Where does Daniell and Oconee BOC factor in. This just didn’t happen. The “explanation letter” is filled with holes. If the incident had been investigated more with emails and telephone conversations between the Watkinsville Mayor, Watkinsville City Manager and Oconee County government a much different story would emerge. Muddy the waters with how much a citizen’s board member is paid steers the story away from the real wrong - Elected officials blatant disregard for laws, rules and government guidelines. It has become the norm. And the acceptance by the people will result n waking up one day to serious financial problems due to corrupt politicians.