Friday, April 30, 2021

Boswell And Transportation Board Chair Involved In Decision To Overrule Engineers On Oconee Connector Access For Shopping Center

***Engineer Advice Unambiguous***

Jamie Boswell received a copy of the letter sent Maxie Price by a senior Georgia Department of Transportation official clearing the way for a full access commercial median break on the Oconee Connector before Price did.

Price had written to Georgia Transportation Commissioner Russell McMurry on March 17 asking McMurry to confirm that a full access commercial median break would be included in the design of the new interchange at SR 316 and the Oconee Connector.

Boswell is a member of the Georgia Transportation Board and also owner of Boswell Properties, which is listing the 47 acres at the corner of Mars Hill Road and the Oconee Connector that Price wants to rezone for a large shopping center.

Rudy Bowen, chairman of the Transportation Board, passed to Meg Pirkle, chief GDOT engineer who reports directly to McMurry, “information” about Price’s request for a median cut and said he was looking into the request for Price.

The documents passed to Pirkle had both Bowen’s and Boswell’s names written on the top.

Engineers responded to Pirkle by saying the median break would not meet state standards for redesign of the intersection, but Pirkle overruled them and granted Price’s request nonetheless in a letter dated April. 6.

These new details of Boswell’s and now Bowen’s involvement in the decision to grant Price’s request for access to his property came to light as a result of the release by the Georgia Department of Transportation of a trove of documents in response to open records requests.

Requests Filed

Andrew Marshall, an attorney who lives in Oconee County, filed an open records request with GDOT on April 15 asking for communication regarding Pirkle’s April 6 letter to Price informing him that GDOT would provide a full access commercial media break on the Oconee Connector.

Bowen GDOT Picture

I did not know of Marshall’s request, but I filed a request on April 16 asking for communication among the various parties referenced in that letter.

Marshall received a response to his open records request on Wednesday.

I received my response on Thursday.

The responses included many of the same documents, but there were documents that Marshall received that I did not and documents that I received that Marshall did not.

I talked with Marshall about his request on Thursday, and he shared with me the documents he received.

I am including documents he did not receive in this post.

GDOT has informed me that it is doing additional searches in response to my April 16 request.

Boswell’s Email With Pirkle

Boswell sent Pirkle an email message at 12:29 p.m. on April 5 saying: Meg the address the letter regarding median break in Oconee County should be sent to is: Deffered Tax LLC, c/o Maxie Price, 1261 Hammond Creek Trail, Watkinsville, GA 30677.”

Email Chain

The address is for a residence in Old Waverly subdivision off Rocky Branch Road.

Price's company is Deferred Tax. Pirkle corrected the error in her letter.

Pirkle, who as Chief Engineer at GDOT reports directly to McMurry, wrote back to Boswell at 12:30 p.m. saying: “Thanks–it will go out this week!”

“Any way you could send me an electronic copy when it is ready,” Boswell wrote back at 4:17 p.m. that day.

“Of course!” Pirkle replied at 8:22 a.m. on April 6.

At 8:30 a.m. on April 7, Pirkle wrote to Boswell again.

“Your copy of letter to Maxie Price regarding the driveway and median break on the Oconee Connector,” Pirkle said.

“Jamie – we’ll send a paper copy to Mr. Price. If you have his email address I’ll be glad to send it to him via email,” she continued.

Boswell provided Pirkle a gmail address at 10:02 a.m.

Pirkle sent Price an email with the letter attached at 11:25 a.m. on April 7.

Bowen’s Involvement

Bowen, chairman of the 14-member Transportation Board, is from Suwanee in Gwinnett County and represents the Seventh Congressional District.

He is a retired businessman and former developer.

Pirkle sent an email to Andrew Hoenig, design-build program manager at the Office of Innovative Delivery , among others, on Feb. 12. Innovative Delivery is designing the SR 316 and Oconee Connector interchange.

Pirkle said that “Chairman Bowen brought me the attached information regarding an access break promised by Commissioner (Wayne) Shackelford in 1997.”

“Mr. Bowen says the property owner is being told that we won’t honor this commitment, so he’s looking into it for the property owner,” she wrote.

“Just looking through it I can see how it’s possible that we can’t honor it if it’s in the middle of the interchange, but I don’t know,” she continued.

“How does it fit within the current concept?” she asked.

The eight-page document attached, which contains correspondence from 1997 between a legal office in Perry, south of Warner Robins, and Shackelford, has “Rudy & Jamie” hand-written in blue ink at the top.

Hoenig’s Response

Hoenig responded not to Pirkle, but to Kelvin Mullins, who is he head of District 1 Field Services.

GDOT has seven districts, and Oconee County is in District 1. (The GDOT Board has 14 Districts, reflecting the 14 Congressional Districts in the state, and Oconee County is in the 10th Congressional District.)

“In response to the request from Meg, we looked into the Oconee Connector access break request we received,” he wrote in an email on Feb. 24.

Hoenig said that GDOT contractor CHA “has put together a good layout showing potential ramp locations,” he wrote.

“(T)he bottom line is: the driveway opening could meet L/A requirements, but would be substandard for a median opening. It would require a variance to provide an opening,” he wrote.

L/A refers to Limit Of Access in a diagram attached to the email.

“There is some history about this being access for a fire state, but it’s no longer operating as a fire station which could factor into the Chief’s decision,” Hoenig wrote.

“Wanted to present this to District before sending up to her,” he wrote. “Let us know if you’d like to discuss."

CHA Response

Hoenig also sent the request from Pirkle to Umit Seyhan, senior project manager at CHA, an engineering consulting and construction management firm operating in the U.S. and Canada.

Plan For Interchange (Click To Enlarge)

GDOT “has been converting all the intersection along SR 316 into interchange to make SR 316 the full access controlled state road,” Seyhan wrote.

The GDOT Design Policy Manual requires the access control for a distance of 600 foot in urban areas and 1,000 foot in rural areas along the intersecting route, which is Oconee Connector,” Seyhan wrote.

The design is not complete, Seyhan continued, but the proposed driveway cut for the shopping center on the Connector “is barely within the minimum required access control distance.”

Based on the GDOT Design Policy Manual (DPM), “the preferred minimum spacing between median openings are 1,000 foot in urban areas, and 1,320 foot in rural areas,” Seyhan continued.

“The proposed median opening for the future development would be about 425 feet,” the engineer continued. “This distance is much lower than the GDOT DPM required distance.”

Vote On Salary Increase

The last meeting of the Transportation Board was on April 15.

The meeting, chaired by Bowen, was 1:48:12 in length.

At 1:47:18 Bowen said:

“Under new business, I have one item I would like to present under new business. I have a public announcement that the Board will consider changing the commissioner’s salary to $450,000 per year at its regularly scheduled meeting in May.”

Bowen then asked for a motion to adjourn and ended the meeting.

When the Board meets on May 20, Boswell will not be the only real estate agent voting on that salary increase from its current $350,000.

Three other Board members list their occupations as real estate.

Board members are appointed by a caucus of the General Assembly in secret sessions.

Boswell’s five-year term expires in 2023.

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners meets at 6 p.m. on Tuesday to make a decision on Price's rezone request for the proposed shopping center.

Full Intersection View (Click To Enlarge)


Jeff Dantre said...

Lee, thank you for covering this story in great detail. It is a great example of what journalism used to be.

Lee Becker said...

I ask that you sign your name unless your real name is part of your Google ID.

B Haumschild said...

Are there no measures in place or an ethics commission to regulate public officials like Jamie Boswell? This seems like a clear cut ethics violation.

- Stefanie Haumschild