Watkinsville Mayor Bob Smith suggested delaying a decision on the development plan for the Wisteria Ridge apartment complex on 75 North Main Street at the Watkinsville Mayor and Council meeting last week.
The Mayor votes only in the case of a tie, and Council approved the plan in a 3 to 1 vote.
Mayor Smith strongly opposed the site development plan submitted by Oconee State Bank for its new headquarters at 41 North Main Street.
Council approved the plan 3 to 0, with Council Member Brian Brodrick recusing himself from the discussion and vote. (Council Member Christine Tucker was absent from the meeting.)
Council voted 4 to 0 to approve such a letter.
Mayor Smith argued against approval of a contract to recodify and restructure city code, questioning the amount of money to be spent.
Council voted 4 to 0 to approve the contract.
The Mayor asked Council to undertake a forensic audit of the city’s financial records and rezoning documents.
No one on Council expressed any interest in such an audit.
Council did unanimously approve, at the mayor’s request, appointment of Jonathan Kirkpatrick to the Oconee County Planning Commission.
Even without a vote, the Mayor controls the agenda once the meeting starts, and Mayor Smith, in his third meeting in that role, demonstrated that power by holding the group for his Mayor’s Report near the end of the nearly four-hour-long meeting.
“I’ve put these off, but I’ve got to say these comments,” Smith said in beginning his Mayor’s Report. “I know the hour is late, but I’ve got to do this.”
Smith said he had given Council members two books on “new urban design, old urban design” that he wants them to read.
“I would hope this would be the guiding principles for this Council to go forward for Watkinsville,” Smith said.
“We’re at a tipping point in Watkinsville,” he said. “We’ve got to take some deep breadths and look at some of the future now. We’re moving very fast on a lot of things, as you’ve seen tonight. We can’t wait, but we’ve got to be more deliberative.”
“I’ll be announcing soon some decisions I’m making to smooth forward to a true deliberative political body,” Smith continued, “and I’ll be asking the Council to help with assisting me as the Mayor relating to legal advice, engineering, planning design help.”
Smith he wants the Council to give him “a personal assistant, as the mayor has no one at this City Hall that answers directly to him.”
“This week I’ll be going to the Georgia Department of Transportation and be meeting with the Commissioner, Russell McMurry, an old friend, to discuss ideas for relieving traffic gridlock in this town and finding a way to slow down the traffic,” Smith said as he continued his report.
“The gridlock comes primarily, is truck traffic,” Smith said, “and we’ll find a way to have a bypass around Watkinsville and keep the trucks on (U.S.) 441 and find a way to get Highway (SR) 15 called a truck bypass.”
“And I’ll be in conversation with the Governor about a pretty unique prototype for slowing traffic down in Watkinsville,” Smith said. “And I’m excited about that.
“I’m just pulling together some numbers now and meet with him and all about state and federal highways and how restrictive they are to do what I’m looking at doing,” Smith said.
“And once I get the green light from the governor then I’ll come to the Council and police chief and others to work on improving it and making it work,” Smith continued.
“But we have got to slow this traffic down in Watkinsville,” Smith said. “It is absolutely certain that we do that.”
“There’s a way to do it,” Smith said. “And its going to take some hard work doing that. I have a plan. And I’ll bring it forward hopefully in the next week after I talk with the governor.”
The Feb. 19 meeting ran smoothly until Abe Abouhamdan from ABE Consulting came before the Council seeking a demolition permit for his client, Edward McDuffie, for a property at 140 Colham Ferry Road.
Abouhamdan said he had found a way to preserve an old house on the parcel by moving it off the property, which is being developed as a subdivision.
Smith and Abouhamdan got into a tense exchange about another old home on another property.
In the end, Council voted 3-1 to approve the demolition permit, with Council Member Brian Brodrick voting against the approval.
Two more zoning issues followed.
Ken Beall from Beall and Company submitted the site development plans for Wisteria Ridge, an apartment complex with 89 units that has been under review by the city for about 20 years.
Beall said the main issue has been sewer capacity for the project and that, now that the county has granted 100,000 gallons per day of capacity to the city, the project should be able to move forward.
Chad Keller, who said he plans to purchase the 12.8 acres from Will-o-War LLC and complete the development, said some of the needed capacity would be provided by the county as part of an initial sewer capacity purchase and would not come from the 100,000 gallons per day allocation.
(Justin Kirouac, Oconee County Administrator, told me in an email message on Feb. 21 that the total project requirement is 23,140 gallons per day (89 units times 260 gallons) and that 2,314 gallons are covered by the original agreement, meaning that 20,826 will need to come from the 100,000 allocated to the city.)
Smith said he was concerned about how this project would affect the ability of the city to move forward with other projects because of its demand for sewer capacity and said “we need to go back to the county and negotiate a better sewer agreement.”
He suggested Council delay the project to make sure a second access could be provided through the adjoining property owned by the Board of Education or the county.
Council Member Dan Matthews cast the sole negative vote. Matthews has opposed the project because the complex will be gated.
Oconee State Bank
Justin Greer of W&A Engineering, representing Oconee State Bank, presented the site development plan for the new bank headquarters at the intersection of Experiment Station Road and North Main Street, on undeveloped property just north of the current bank office.
Most of the discussion focused on the plans for a sidewalk at that intersection. As submitted the sidewalk on Experiment Station Road would stop at stairs to the bank headquarters rather than continue around to Main Street.
Greer said it is impossible to safely build the sidewalk through to and along Main Street without taking out a large tree on the lot and that the stairs would connect to sidewalks on the bank property and then to Main Street.
Smith opposed the plan for the sidewalk, criticized the storm water plans submitted by the bank, and said the overall land use plan was inappropriate.
“I’m real concerned for Watkinsville if we let this go like this,” Smith said.
Brodrick, who serves on the Board of Oconee State Bank, did not participate in the discussion or vote.
The City and ESP (Extra Special People) have been in discussions since February of last year regarding changes to Harris Shoals Park. Included were construction of a Miracle League Field that could be used by people in wheel chairs, a splash pad and lounge area, new bathrooms, and expanded parking.
|Mark Campbell, Dickerson, Lee Black 2/19/2020|
City Manager Sharon Dickerson told the Mayor and Council at the meeting last week that ESP “ran into some financial issues and they scaled back their plan and removed the splash pad completely from their plans.”
“Their plan right now focuses on basically upgrading the existing elements that are currently at the park, ballfield, the restrooms, and the playground,” Dickerson said. ESP would like to have a new Letter of Intent from the city to go forward with discussions, she said.
Smith opened the question up for input from the audience, and eight people spoke, some in favor and some opposed to continuing discussion with ESP.
Following that input, Smith said “I’m concerned about a Letter of Intent.”
“Here, we’re just saying we’re going to just write a blank check,” Smith said. He also voiced opposition to the plans submitted by ESP.
“ESP is an asset that a lot of communities would give their left arm to have a piece of that in their town,” Brodrick said in response to Smith. “I think it certainly is a positive for us to make a concrete commitment via the LOI.”
City Manager Dickerson asked the Mayor and Council to approve a proposal with Municode of Tallahasee to recodify the city’s code. She said the cost would be $15,600.
Dickerson said the city code has expanded to 550 pages over the years and is not integrated, with new code changes often just tagged onto the end of the old code. Inconsistencies exist, she said, making “it really onerous for anyone to search the code.”
“How much is this going to cost?” Smith asked when Dickerson finished her presentation. Dickerson repeated the figure of $15,600.
“I hear what you all are saying, but boy we’re just growing and growing and growing,” Smith said. “I’m overwhelmed with all of these new regulations and all of these things that are coming down the pike. I’m trying to figure out where we go with all of this.”
“How much is this going to cost other than the $15,000,” Smith asked. “There’s got to be more to this.”
Dickerson said, if Council wants to put the code online, Municode would charge an annual hosting fee of $645 per year. Additional changes to code would cost $20 per page, she said.
Council Member Marci Campbell told Smith this “is something we have talked about for at least a year.”
“This is one of the things that I’m bringing forward,” Smith said in introducing the possibility of a forensic audit. It was the last business item on the agenda before the Mayor’s Report. “And I’m going to ask for some money, too,” he added.
“A forensic audit is something that looks at a certain segment of something, and it drills down and it gets to the bottom of things,” Smith said. “And the two areas that I want to look at is all the money, the banking.
“And the second thing is I want to look at all the zoning, planning and variances over the last 10 to 12 years,” Smith said. “And see if everything’s good for Watkinsville.”
“Forensic gets on deep. It finds out what is doing what with the money, and I would ask for the Council’s favorable consideration in starting this process.”
A more traditional definition of a forensic audit is an examination and evaluation of financial records to derive evidence that can be used in a court of law or legal proceeding.
Council Member Campbell asked Smith for an estimate of cost, and Smith said “You can get some at $250 an hour and generally they want a $7 to $10,000 retainer. But I think it necessary that we do something like this.”
“What do you think we’re going to gain by going through the process, Mr. Mayor?” Council Member Brodrick asked.
“To look at the history of banking and planning, zoning, variances in this town over the last several years,” Smith said. “We might gain a lot. We may not gain anything. But we’ll gain one thing. We’ll learning something and maybe do something better the next time.”
“I don’t see any benefit on going back and looking at, spending those kinds of funds, and looking at past histories when we’ve had audits,” Brodrick said. “We’ve certainly had our financial audits completed, and those audits are publicly available and they do detailed bank accounts, banking relationships. The city is in a fine, strong financial position.
“And then in terms of zoning and planning, I don’t, I’ve never even heard of an audit of zoning and planning,” Brodrick said. “I’m not even sure how you’d begin or what would even be the output of that.”
“A forensic audit can be done on anything,” Smith said.
“You talk about the audits done every year. That’s one set of books,” Smith said. “This is drilling down to see where that money is spent. Let’s say you spent $10,000 on this property, on this proposal. And it balances out. But did they get the money’s worth out of that? Or who was this $10,000? Where was it spent? A detailed drill down.”
“It’s just a discussion right now,” Smith said when he got no support from the Council. “Put it on the table.”
The video below is of the entire meeting of the Watkinsville Mayor and Council on Feb. 19. I counted 57 people in the audience as the meeting began.
The council took a short break after 2 hours, and I edited out that dead time.
Council began discussion of three zoning issues at 29:03 in the video.
Discussion of the ESP proposal begins at 2:31:34 in the video.
Discussion of the Municode proposal is at 3:18:03 in the video.
Discussion of a forensic audit begins at 3:27:09 in the video.
Smith made his mayor’s report at 3:33:09 in the video.
NOTE: An earlier version of this post used the wrong first name for Chad Keller. I apologize for the error.