Friday, April 02, 2021

Oconee County Commission Chair Gave Time Line, Details Of SR 316 Transformation At Town Hall Meeting

***Malcom Bridge Road And Other Road Projects Discussed***

Between 2024 and 2027, the Georgia Department of Transportation will construct full interchanges with flyovers on SR 316 at the Oconee Connector and at Jimmy Daniell Road as well as a flyover of Virgil Langford Road without on and off ramps.

These projects will be “bundled,” Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chair John Daniell told in-person and remote participants in a Town Hall meeting last week.

They are part of a improvements to the Atlanta-to-Athens highway that include flyovers scheduled for 2026 of McNutt Creek Drive, for 2027 of Mars Hill Road, and for 2028 of Julian Drive.

In addition, the interchanges of Dials Mill Road and Dials Mill Extension, possibly with some combination of a flyover and a full interchange, are scheduled for 2024 and 2025, Daniells said, though details are not worked out at present.

Daniells and fellow commissioners Amrey Harden, Chuck Horton, and Mark Saxon responded to 20 questions posed by seven citizens during the hour-long session at the Civic Center on Hog Mountain Road. The session was live-streamed as well.

The range of questions was wide, but many dealt with road projects, such as the widening of Experiment Station Road and of U.S. 441 from the county line to Watkinsville, and improvements to Hog Mountain Road from Rocky Branch Road to U.S. 441 east of Butler’s Crossing.

Many of the road projects had been discussed earlier in the day by county Public Works Director Jody Woodall at a meeting of regional transportation planners, who also gave details of the construction on Malcom Bridge Road at the school intersections that will take place this summer.

SR 316

The Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) had released general plans in December for improvements to SR 316 through Gwinnett, Barrow and Oconee counties, but Daniell said at the March 24 Town Hall meeting that he had just been given confirmation of plans and dates for the intersections.

Hood Addresses Board, Daniell In Center

Work will start soonest on the “bundle” at Jimmy Daniell Road, Virgil Langford Road, and the Oconee Connector, he said.

“So there's going to be a lot of activity in that section of the 316,” he said. ‘It's going to be kind of tough, when they're working on different sections there as well, getting through,” he added.

That work is scheduled to begin in 2024, he said, which also is the time work is scheduled to begin at Dials Mill Road and Dials Mill Extension.

“They haven't quite figured out how that's going to be configured,” Daniell said.

It could be a flyover and interchange, he said, but “they might be able to do something a little different.”

The two road are close to each other and join just south of SR 316.

“So we got a lot of activity on the 316,” Daniell said.

First Question Asked

Daniell provided the details about the improvements to SR 316 while he was waiting for the first question from the audience.

When Jeff Hood came forward, he stayed on the theme, asking for an update on the widening of Experiment Station Road from Butler’s Crossing to the U.S. 441 bypass.

Daniell said construction crews should be “mobilizing anytime in the next 30 to 60 days.”

“I think there's one last permit they're waiting on from EPD on one of the crossings there,” he said, referring to the state Environmental Protection Division.

Daniell estimated “that’s going to be probably a two year process.”

Dominance Of Hood

The audience was small, with only five citizens who were not county employees in-person, and 14 persons online.

Hood, said that he was playing the role of journalist, posed 13 of the 20 questions asked. And he put a detailed summary of the questions and answers on his Facebook page

In addition to asking about roads, Hood asked about the murder of Elijah Wood at the RaceTrac on U.S. 441, possible changes to the Western Judicial Circuit, zoning, possible future stores coming to the county, the schoolhouse at Heritage Park, and the new sheriff.

Others posed questions about zoning, voter registration lists, and road projects.

Malcom Bridge Road

Daniell wasn’t asked about the road improvements to Malcom Bridge Road during the town hall meeting on the 24th, and he didn’t refer to them in his comments. Improvements to that road had been the centerpiece of the Town Hall Meeting in June of last year.

Malcom Bridge Road Plans (Click To Enlarge)

Woodall, speaking earlier that day at the Technical Coordinating Committee of MACORTS, the area’s federally mandated metropolitan planning organization, listed the project as one of those underway in his county report.

Woodall told the group that the project is out for bids, which are scheduled to be opened on April 6. He said he expects to take his recommendation to the Board on April 27 for approval.

Woodall referred to the work as a “u-turn project” because the design will create a u-turn lane for traffic traveling southeast on Malcom Bridge Road past the parent entrance to Malcom Bridge Middle School.

Traffic in the u-turn lane will be able to turn northwest and utilize the existing right turn lane into the Middle School. That lane will be extended slightly.

“The middle school will have a single right lane into the parent entrance,” Woodall told me in an email message on March 25, “and we will construct as much stacking left turn space as possible on Malcom Bridge Road.”

Woodall said the project is “anticipated to start after school gets out and be completed by July 31, 2021.”

The county’s plans to build a second roundabout at that entrance were blocked by the Board of Education, which refused to grant right of way for the project.

Epps Bridge Parkway

Both Daniell and Woodall also mentioned improvements to the exit ramp from SR 10 Loop at Epps Bridge Parkway, and Woodall was before the Board of Commissioners at its meeting on Tuesday night for approval of bids for that project.

Epps Bridge Parkway Design (Click To Enlarge)

The county will construct a continuous right-turn lane at the exit and also expand the left-turn lane holding basin for the intersection of Epps Bridge Parkway and the Oconee Connector, just east of the exit.

The Board of Commissioners gave initial approval of a low bid by Pittman Construction, with offices in Jefferson, of $382,335 for the work.

“We have approximately three accidents a week there,” Daniell said at the Town Hall Meeting, “and almost 40 percent of them accident injuries.”

Hog Mountain Road: Butler’s Crossing To U.S. 441

Construction is expected to start in the next month or so on a two-foot shoulder widening of Hog Mountain Road from Butler’s Crossing to U.S. 441, Daniell told those attending the Town Hall Meeting.

Woodall told the MACORTS (Madison Athens Clarke Oconee Regional Transportation Study) meeting that he had expected an April 5 beginning for the work, but it has been pushed back to April 12.

The road will be resurfaced as the lanes are widened, he said.

“We anticipate a lot of traffic cutting through there” when the construction begins on Experiment Station Road, Daniell said, “so we're trying to get that road ready for that additional traffic.”

Hog Mountain Road: Rocky Branch To Butler’s Crossing

Daniell said that construction of a roundabout is scheduled at the intersection of Hog Mountain Road (SR 53) and Rocky Branch Road/Snows Mill Road .

Another roundabout is planned at Malcom Bridge Road/Ray’s Church Road and Hog Mountain Road, he said.

“Engineering is underway” in both cases he said.

The county also is working with the Georgia Department of Transportation on improvements to the intersection of Hog Mountain Road and Union Church Road, Daniell said.

“We're getting very close and maybe have some kind of agreement before the Board (of Commissioners) within 30 days hopefully to move forward with that.”

U.S. 441 And Bishop Bypass

In response to another questions from Hood, Daniell said the four-laning of U.S. 441 is expected to begin in 2017 in the southern part of the county. (Daniell said he wasn’t sure of the date at the meeting, but he confirmed 2027 subsequently in an email.)

“I'm not sure all the engineering's been completed,” he said, but there are plans right now they will take it four lanes up to the city limits” of Bishop.

At present, the road will be two lanes through Bishop and then become four lanes north of Bishop, running to the existing Watkinsville Bypass.

“We do have a lot of time to go back to the drawing board and try to figure out what to do in Bishop,” Daniell said.

“I was involved in meetings with the mayor of Bishop, the DOT (Department of Transportation) commissioner, our state reps and state senator at the time,” he said.

“We thought we had a a plan that everybody could support,” he continued. “Turned out, you know, several months later we found out that wasn't the case.

“So in the next two or three years we'll probably all sit back down,” he said. “We'll all sit down and try to come up with a solution that gets traffic moving.”

GDOT dropped plans for a two-lane bypass of Bishop because of opposition from a number of parties, including the University of Georgia, which has its equestrian facility along the proposed route.

Judicial Watch

Victoria Cruz, who was attending the meeting remotely, said “I am in receipt of a newsletter from Judicial Watch which had some election reporting and they specifically said that there were problems with voter roll inflation in several counties in Georgia.

“And we were number four on the list,” she said. “I just wonder how we might be addressing that issue. It says that we are at 111 registration. That means more than the actual number of eligible voters in our county. Is that possible?”

“No ma'am,” Daniell said, “I'm not sure what they're using for their population numbers.”

“We just completed the Census,” Daniell said, “So we'll have an accurate count of the number of citizens.”

“We have had a huge number of open records requests, some related to that, over the last 24 months,” he said, “and talking to the Board of Elections they feel like we have a very accurate voter list and very active voters in Oconee County.

“So I think that's more of a data issue than an actual true problem in Oconee County,” Daniell said.

Nature Of Discrepancy

Judicial Watch uses data from the Secretary of State Office on registration and then calculates citizen voter age population from the annual American Community Survey conducted by U.S. Census Bureau.

It then averages the voter age population data across five years and compares that number with the number of registered voters.

In the most recent report, Judicial Watch calculated the Citizen Voting Age Population for Oconee County as 26,047 and the registration as 28,973, which produces the 111.23 percent figure.

Going into the March 16 election in Oconee County, Jennifer Stone, assistant director of Elections and Registration, told me the county had a total of 31,965 registered voters, with 30,558 active and 1,407 inactive.

At the end of the March 16 election, the number of active voters was reduced to 30,516.

In its most recent estimates, U.S. Census Bureau projected the population of Oconee County in 2019 to be 40,280 and estimated the population of those 18 years old and older to be 29,686, or about 1,000 less than the number of registered voters.

But it states that estimates is based on projections from sample data, with sample error that is likely to be very high for the county breakdowns. It flags the age estimates with a “caution” icon.

The state of Georgia has a higher estimate of the county’s population than the Census Bureau. The state population number is 41,737.

With that figure, and the still rough estimate that 26.3 percent are under 18, the population of 18 years old and older would be 30,760, or just larger than the number of registered voters.

Proposed Shopping Center

Both Ian Taylor and Hood asked Daniell about the proposed shopping center with a Publix at the intersection of Mars Hill Road and the Oconee Connector.

Daniell told Taylor that the state will turn over responsibility for the Oconee Connector at some point in the future but where a state route intersections a county road, the state retains some jurisdiction.

So part of the Connector where it intersects with SR 316 will be “a joint ownership or control situation,” Daniell said.

Hood asked for an update on the rezone request, which has been delayed at the request of the developer.

Daniell said there is “really not a whole lot we can say. That's an active zoning case that'll be coming before us so any comments we might make would be inappropriate at this time.

“We'll just have to wait and see what they bring to the Planning Commission and then to the Commission and, just like any case, we'll take a look at it.”

The rezone request now is scheduled to be before the Planning Commission on April 19 and the Board of Commissioners on May 4.


Pamela Hall, speaking remotely, asked a more general question about zoning, though it was clear she was speaking about the decision to move the Stone Store to a new location abutting residential properties.

“How can we as citizens in this county be assured that the comprehensive plan is going to be attended to and followed and so that our property can be protected?” she asked.

“It is very concerning when a rezone is allowed to happen that places an entire neighborhood at public health risks. So I'd like to hear the Board's comments on how they intend to protect our residential properties when sometimes decisions seem to be made in direct conflict with that comprehensive plan.”

“I think I have always tried in zoning matters, you know, one, do my homework and try as best as I can to follow what I think the guidelines that people in the county have put forth in the comp plan,” Commissioner Chuck Horton, who voted against the rezone, said.

“I take it very serious,” he added.

“You know, zoning issues are our biggest, most challenging thing I think we face as commissioners,” Daniell said. Daniell broke a two–to-two tie in favor of the rezone for the Stone Store.

“You are trying to balance the property rights of two different area constituents,” Daniell said.

“It comes down to the people that you elect, and, at the end of the day, if you feel like we're not following the comp plan, that's really your only recourse.”

Commissioner Mark Saxon, who also voted in favor of the rezone, did not respond, nor did Commissioner Amrey Harden, who voted against the rezone.

Commissioner Mark Thomas, who also voted in favor, did not attend the Town Hall meeting.

School Board

Hood complimented Oconee County Schools for holding in-person instruction and said, “in general I mean what praise do you guys have for not only our School Board but the administration that's just making it happen?”

“I think the superintendent mentioned...that they have seen a big influx of folks trying to come into the county because some of the surrounding counties were not having in-person school,” Daniell said.

“So it's definitely important to have the kids in school,” he added.

“Sometimes it gets lost the support that we have given the school system,” Commissioner Horton said, pointing out the more than $100,000 in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funds the county had transferred to the schools.

“It's a blessing for our kids to be able to be in school,” Commissioner Mark Saxon said. “We've kept our kids active, and I’m very proud that we have done that.”

“The School Board and the school systems has had their hands full,” Commissioner Harden said. “But one thing we have to remember...we have some great professionals who've done a wonderful job and are dedicated.”

Odds And Ends

Hood asked about the future of the School House moved to Heritage Park.

“Well, there's never been a clear vision on that,” Daniell said. “We're hoping that the tourism visitors bureau will be able to help in that in the future.”

“With our new sheriff it's been excellent,” Daniell said in response to another question from Hood. “We all know James (Hale) from a long time back and everything's going great. We have a good line of communication.”

Daniell also told Hood communication with the county’s representatives in the General Assembly also is good.

“We see bills come up we just try to communicate to them how that might impact us and that type of thing,” he said.

Daniell told Rick Garrett, who asked about the status of plans for Bishop Farms Parkway extension, that “we had to put that on the shelf” because of cost estimates, but we'll come back to it at a later date and see if construction prices go down.”

Daniell told Hood that he has “received a lot of comments and requests about” a possible split of the Western Judicial Circuit but that a lot of steps have to be taken before such a division between Oconee and Clarke counties would take place.

Odds And Ends II

Hood said it seemed to him that the shooting at RaceTrac that resulted in the death of Elijah James Wood was something that “couldn't happen in our backyard.”

“This is Oconee County,” Hood said. “Is there any insight or just thoughts about something we saw happen that I didn't think we would see occur here?”

“We're definitely here to support the Sheriff's Office in their investigations,” Daniell said. “Bad things do happen in Oconee County,” he added, “and that's why we support public safety in the Sheriff's Office like we do with funding and partnerships.”

Daniell told Hood that preliminary estimates are that Oconee County will receive about $7.8 million in federal stimulus funding that can be used for a variety of projects, including for broadband infrastructure.

Hood asked about retail businesses and manufacturing that might be coming to the county.

“I'm not aware of anything I can tell you,” Daniell said. “COSTCO, I mean, yeah, who knows how that's going to work out. They definitely have some interest in Oconee County.”

Odds And Ends III

Adam Hammond asked about plans for the county administrative building now that the Library Board has voted to move the Oconee County Library to Wire Park rather than join the county in the administrative building.

“Hopefully we'll be posting an RFP (request for proposals) for our architectural firm in the next couple weeks,” Daniell said “Really the only difference without the library is the size will be smaller."

The costs will be much less, Daniell said.

Since the money the county was going to get from the state for the library, even with the match by the county, “wasn't gonna cover their portion of the building by any means, so there will be some cost savings there.”

Tommy Malcom came to the meeting late and asked about transportation projects, most of which Daniell had discussed earlier in the meeting.

Daniell said the county hopes to be working with engineering students at the University of Georgia on the Hog Mountain Road corridor from Union Church Road to Butler’s Crossing.

“Hopefully one of them will take that as a senior project and look at it and come up with some ideas on what can happen to improve the traffic patterns there.”


The video below is recorded from the live stream of the Town Hall Meeting.

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