Oconee County is willing to modify its plans for the parent entrance to Malcom Bridge Middle School, but that will be possible only if citizens put pressure on the Board of Education to consider alternatives, Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chair John Daniell said last week.
Daniell said the proposed modified R-Cut design is good but not the best option, and the originally proposed roundabout, rejected by the Board of Education, is better.
Daniell also presented a series of possible alternative designs to manage traffic at the school entrance, but these would require the Board of Education to grant easements and to modify the roadway on its property.
“It is going to take parents and property owners along that corridor to encourage the Board of Education to take a different stance,” Daniell said, and he encouraged those who are unhappy with the proposed design to write and call School Board members to make their case.
Daniell was speaking at the Town Hall Meeting last Tuesday, where the featured topic was improvements to the Malcom Bridge Road corridor, including at the entrances to the school campuses.
The 10 citizens who showed up in person and the half dozen who were online did raise other questions, but the entrance to Malcom Bridge Middle School dominated the meeting.
Daniell and the three other commissioners present said, in response to a question, that there was no interest in defunding police in Oconee County.
Daniell also said the county had considered several sites inside Watkinsville for expansion of the library and for a new county administrative building–including sharing undeveloped land owned by Oconee County Schools–before settling on the selected site north of the city border.
Malcom Bridge Introduction
Daniell began the meeting with an overview of plans for Malcom Bridge Road.
“Our overall goal countywide is to increase safety and functionality of all of our roadways,” Daniell said, “and also to prepare for future demands on the roadways and also have engineered solutions to remove humans from the roadway.”
Daniell said that the first roundabout built by the county, at Malcom Bridge Road and Mars Hill Road, “has been very successful,” and he also praised the improvements to the intersection of Rocky Branch Road, Virgil Langford Road and Mars Hill Road.
Daniell said the county already has removed a Sheriff’s deputy from in front of Oconee County Middle school with the widening of Mars Hill Road. Daniell called this an an example of an “engineered solution” to the safety problem.
Daniell said that the goal of the proposed Malcom Bridge Road improvements–as well as those already underway--is to improve safety, improve traffic flow, and prepare for future demand.
The session was live-streamed, but it also was open to the public as long as no more than 50 people attended.
Daniell said the county is anticipating increased traffic on Malcom Bridge Road in the future and at the school in particular.
“It’s already a crowded school,” Daniell said, “and it will continue to grow.” He said estimates are for an addition of up to 60 children per year for three to five years.
Daniell said two subdivisions, one on Malcom Bridge Road and one on Rocky Branch Road, have 177 lots zoned for development on which construction has not yet started.
Three commercial and office developments already are zoned along the roadway, he said, in addition to the shopping center planned across from the Malcom Bridge Middle School entrance.
In September of 2018, the developers of that shopping center wanted to make changes from the plans approved in 2004, and that provided an opportunity, Daniell said, to address the traffic problems on the roadway.
“In September 2018, we started discussions on the roadway improvements with the Board of Education staff,” Daniell said.
“During the rezone process,” Daniell said, “the Sheriff’s Office voiced some concern about the safety of the deputy. There will be another exit from the property right in front of the schools which would increase the points of conflict.”
Daniell reviewed three plans for the parent entrance to Malcom Bridge Middle, starting with the current one, a modified R-Cut, which allows only a right turn into and out of the school.
Conflicts are reduced by the design, Daniell said, and the deputy is removed from the roadway.
“It will be safer conditions than it is there today,” he said.
|Current Plan (Click To Enlarge)|
Daniell called the second proposal “a better option,” but he said it would require the Board of Education to donate right of way and provide a construction easement.
|“Better” Plan (Click To Enlarge)|
The plan features two dedicated lanes turning into the school entrance.
Daniell then presented the drawings originally offered for a roundabout at the school entrance and called it “the best option.”
|“Best” Plan (Click To Enlarge)|
The Board of Education rejected the plan and refused to grant any right of way or easements to the county for modification of the entrance.
What Can Be Done
“We feel like that is the safest option,” Daniell said of the roundabout. “And the most efficient option for the intersection. The deputy is removed.
“Also there is no U-turn condition that we hear a lot of concerns about and will give you the greatest safety and efficiency for the intersection,” Daniell continued.
Originally the county thought it could go forward with a roundabout even without right of way from the Board of Education but that proved to be impossible, Daniell said, because the Board of Education would not modify roads on the campus to hold more vehicles.
Traffic would simply back up into the roundabout, Daniell said.
Daniell offered two options that involved changing the road patterns on the campus.
One involved creating a loop inside the school property, and the other used the bus entrance as a second exit for parents once they dropped off their children at the school.
Asks For Help
“Doing nothing is not an option,” Daniell said. “We’re open to any additional ideas that anybody might have for us. We’ll take a hard look at any ideas you’ve got.
“R-cuts are not our preferred option,” Daniell said. “But it’s kind of where we are right now based on the existing conditions.
“It’s going to take parent input to the Board of Education to get the better or best option,” Daniell said.
“And its not going to just be 20 or 30 people having that kind of communication,” Daniell continued.
“So we need your help to do any more than what the current proposal has out there,” he said.
Jeff Hood, 1031 Julian Court, off Julian Drive north of SR 316, was the first to respond, and he asked Daniell “What should the parents do if the folks who have seen this presentation like some of those proposals?”
“We have had discussions,” Daniell said. “That started back in September of 2018 during the rezone.”
“So really, it is just communicating with the Board of Education members and saying, ‘look we understand.’ You know their goal right now is to keep a deputy out there directing traffic, or somebody, whether its their own private contractor of whatever.”
“They like having somebody out there directing traffic,” Daniell continued. “We just feel that’s not efficient. Not safe. And it doesn’t address all of these other things that are going to be happening on that corridor very shortly.
“Even if you fix it for the 15 minutes in the morning and 15 in the afternoon for the 180 days a year,” Daniell said, “it doesn’t help the rest of the people who have to travel that roadway the rest of the time.
“We’re looking at a wider scope than what they have to deal with,” Daniell said.
Will and Casey McGough, 1040 Arizona Bend, off Julian Drive, also north of SR 316, asked a series of questions stretched across the nearly hour-long Town Hall meeting. They also submitted a question in advance and were linked to the meeting from their home.
Casey McGough asked what can be done to reach the Board of Education, and Daniell said “Basically, what it is going to take is communication from the citizens about what you want to see happen.
“We have our preference, but we’ve done all that we can do,” Daniell said.
|Will And Casey McGough|
“I don’t know any other way to put it,” Daniell said. “That’s really where we are, whether it’s giving us a little bit of right of way so can do two lanes or whether it’s go all out and do the best solution.
“I really appreciate all of your options. They’re great,” Will McGough said. “It gets cars out of the road. But you just said the Board of Education was not being cooperative. So first of all, why would you present a bunch of plans if they are uncooperative?”
“It is to kind of show you these are all options we’ve looked at and we’ve tried to sit down and come up with,” Daniell said.
“Everybody is kind of beating us up for coming up the R-Cut,” Daniell said. “That wasn’t our first choice.
“But, as I said before, doing nothing is not an option just based on everything that is happening right now,” he continued.
Daniell told the couple to “send emails. Their phone numbers are listed on the web site as well. I’m not sure they’re doing in person meetings yet. There are opportunities to speak at their meetings if you sign up in advance.”
The Board of Education does not allow citizen comment at its work session, which is scheduled the first Monday of the month.
It does allow citizen input at its regular session, scheduled the second Monday of the month. Those who register in advance are allowed five minutes, and those who have not registered are allowed to speak for three minutes.
Derrick Lemons, 1030 Colorado Bend, also off Julian Drive and North of SR 316, told the commissioners that “I’ve also met with a subsection of the Board of Education as well.
“They seem to be willing to come to the table and kind of talk about this,” he continued. He asked Daniell if he had had any recent conversations with the Board of Education about the options.
“We attempted to schedule a joint meeting at the end of May,” Daniell said. “Then COVID happened. So there’s a lot of things going on. That didn’t work out.”
Daniell said he and Board of Education Chair Tom Odom “are supposed to get together some time in July to try to figure out a meeting when both Boards come together. That probably will not occur until January.
"Our goal is to try to get this intersection completed over the next summer break just based on all of the things that are popping on the corridor,” Daniell said. Fall is the best time to bid projects, he added.
“We’ll meet tomorrow if everybody wants to get together,” Daniell said. “I think it is important to meet as a group, Board to Board, and have these conversations and have everybody there to kind of talk about. We’re open to that kind of meeting at any point and any time.”
Lemons said the second R-Cut proposed is better than the current plan, “but I think still the roundabout is a better option.”
Hood returned to the microphone and said “I just want to get your take on a world without cops.”
“What are your feelings on funding our Sheriff’s department and what’s going on in Clarke County,” Hood continued.
“As a former MP, I cannot image a world without law enforcement,” Commissioner Mark Saxon said. “As far as defunding the police, it hasn’t crossed my mind at all for Oconee County.”
“I don’t support defunding the police, either,” Commissioner Mark Thomas said. “I do feel like because the Sheriff is a Consstitutional Officer he has a right to set his own budget. And we can’t really dictate what his budget is.”
“Certainly there is a lot of stuff going on that shouldn’t be happening,” Thomas continued.
“We’re trying to all work together,” Thomas said. “So if there’s an issue, we’re going to all work on it together.”
“No plans from where I sit to reduce funding for law enforcement,” Daniell said. “We’re a huge supporter in Oconee County. You can see it from the citizens every day.”
“We’ve got a good partnership with the Sheriff’s Office and expect that to continue,” Daniell said.
Property At Courthouse
I had submitted a series of questions to Daniell in advance of the meeting, but he had not received the email.
Commissioner Saxon read my questions to Daniell at the meeting.
“Watkinsville Mayor Bob Smith told you at the recent meeting with mayors that he wants to keep the library and administrative buildings in downtown Watkinsville,” I wrote.
“You have never explained why the county did not purchase land around the Courthouse for the new administrative building and why it did not join with the Board of Education for use of land owned by the school system behind the existing library for expansion of the library,” my question continued.
“Did the county try to purchase land around the current Courthouse for expansion?” I asked. “If so, what was the outcome?”
“We did take a look at the land around the Courthouse on numerous occasions prior to me taking office as Chairman in 2017,” Daniell said. Daniell had served as a commissioner before being elected chair.
“We actually brought in an outside group that went around and looked at several pieces of property. We got some prices on that I believe,” Daniell said.
“There was never an offer to purchase based on some of the results from that hard look that was taken at that location,” Daniell said. “So there was no specific offer made for that property adjacent to the Courthouse.”
I also asked: “Did you approach the Board of Education about joint development of the 6.7 acres behind the library for library expansion and possibly a joint administrative building? If so, what was the outcome of those discussions?”
“Yes, we did,” Daniell responded. “We had several discussions about trying to do a joint building. How that would fund. What that would look like. It just never worked out any further than those discussions.”
Finally, I asked: “Mayor Smith also has mentioned plans for joint development of land on School Street at Third Avenue.
“Did you approach the Board of Education and the Cultural Arts Foundation about the possibility of jointly developing the area at the end of School Street and Third Avenue to include a county administrative building? If so, what was the outcome of those discussions?” I asked.
“We did take a hard look at that fairly recently,” Daniell said. “We did have conversations with OCAF. They were kind of in a management change at that point, changing the Board. That, also, did not work out.”
“In all three of those locations that you’re talking about,” Daniell said, “you really have issues with traffic.
“The stuff around the Courthouse creates a lot of traffic and that’s a very small road, Water Street, coming up there. It would have to be expanded in order to handle that,” Daniell said.
“Parking is going to be a huge issue. I know there’s mentions of a parking deck up there. That would cost over $3 million to build a parking deck to handle the amount of parking that’s going to be required to get everybody that close,” Daniell continued.
“The location we have picked out on 441, across from Fire Station 1, is really good access for all the citizens of the county,” Daniell said. “It’s a pretty easy drive up there.”
“We’ll have better access. We’ll have room to grow if ever becomes an option for folks in the future,” he said.
“Our goal by having the administrative building and the library under the same roof, we’re able to pool our resources and get a strong, nice building,” Daniell said.
“Also, we have enough property that at the time the county needs to expand square footage, the library needs to expand, there’s plenty of room on that property to go out with a separate building for the library,” Daniell said.
I did not attend the Town Hall meeting, but I watched the live streamed version.
Sarah Bell did attend, and she counted the 10 people other than staff present.
The video below was recorded by Bell.
Daniell gave his introduction of the Malcom Bridge Road improvements beginning at 1:08 in the video.
Hood asked about defunding police at 22:44.
Casey and Will McGough asked a variety of questions as the session progressed. The first was at 27:51 in the video.
Lemons began speaking at 32:32 in the video.
Commissioner Saxon read my questions at 54:16 in the video.
Commissioner Chuck Horton, who is recovering from a scheduled major medical procedure, did not attend the meeting.