Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chair John Daniell said in advance that the Town Hall Meeting on Tuesday night was going to have a “special focus” on the Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax referendum on the ballot in November.
As a lead-in to the discussion of the tax, Daniell gave a rundown of road projects underway in the county and then transitioned to what the county will do with the sales revenue if voters approved the 1 percent additional sales tax.
Audience members certainly picked up on the word “transportation” in those introductory comments.
They raised concerns about speeding on Lavista Road, paving of dirt roads, the planned interchanges on SR 316 at Dials Mill Road and Dials Mill Extension, and congestion at the Hog Mountain Road intersection with U.S. 441.
They asked for additional details on the proposed tax and on the use of the money it will generate if passed.
They also asked why the Board of Commissioners didn’t always follow the recommendation of the county’s Planning Commission and questioned the use of bond sales to finance the planned administrative building.
The meeting ran 80 minutes, was attended by 21 people in-person with another seven connected remotely, and was testier at times than is usual at Town Hall meetings.
Rundown On Projects
Daniell said that design is complete on the widening of Experiment Station Road from Butler’s Crossing to the U.S. 441 bypass, the right of way is clear, and the contract has been awarded.
|Daniell (Center) At Beginning Of Meeting|
The state is waiting on some final permits, he said, “and we’re expecting that any day that will be turned lose.”
He also said the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) is reviewing concept plans for roundabouts on Hog Mountain Road (SR 53) at Snows Mill Road and at Rays Church Road, and construction is expected in January of 2024 on the former and October of 2024 on the latter.
GDOT has approved a signal design for Hog Mountain Road and Union Church Road, Daniell said, “so hopefully very soon we’ll have a red light at Union Church and 53. It’s been a very long time in the process.”
Each side of the roadways on Simonton Bridge Road and Rocky Branch Road will be expanded by two feet, Daniell said. The contract has been awarded and a decision is pending on when work will begin.
The intersection of U.S. 441 and Lavista Road also is being upgraded, with construction expected by the end of the year, Daniell said.
The four-laning of U.S. 441 from the county line to Bishop is expected to begin in 2025, Daniell said. “I’m not sure that is a hard date,” he added.
The SR 186 bridge at High Shoals will be replaced in 2024, Daniell said, and the bridge over Barber Creek on Clotfelter Road will be replaced in 2025.
SR 316 Update
Daniell said that construction of the full interchange of the Oconee Connector and SR 316, a flyover at Virgil Langford Road, and the full interchange at Jimmy Daniell Road will run from 2024 to 2027.
“They’ve already started developing concepts on those full interchanges,” he said.
Construction of flyovers is scheduled for Julian Drive in 2028, Mars Hill Road in 2027, and McNutt Creek in 2027, according to Daniell.
Dials Mill Road and Dials Mill Extension has a 2024 or 2025 time frame for construction, Daniell said.
“I just got off the phone a little while ago with someone from GDOT,” Daniell said.
“They are hoping to offer up to four options for the Dials Mill Road/Dials Mill Extension interchange,” he said.
Daniell said GDOT said it will “present the concepts in a public meeting and get input from the public.”
“We’ve had a lot of interest in that,” he said of the Dials Mill Road/Dials Mill Extension interchange with SR 316.
“In November,” Daniell said, “we’re going to have an opportunity for you to vote in a 1 percent Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax.”
The tax will generate from $37.9 million to 48.1 million for the county across the five years it runs, he said.
Each of the cities will get revenue on top of that, he said.
The county has four categories for spending of the TSPLOST revenue.
From $10.5 to $13.1 million will go to related services, that is to pay for transportation components of the existing budget now covered primarily by property tax revenue.
The county will budget from $3 million to $3.7 million for multi-use paths, from $4 million to $5 million for safety and intersection improvements, and from $20.4 to $26.2 million for paving, Daniell explained.
Property Tax Relief
“We’ve looked at what the state allows the TSPLOST money to be spent for,” Daniell said, “and we have identified up to 1 mill in current property tax that can be shifted over to the TSPLOST funding.
“So the recommendation, if the TSPLOST passes, will be to have a 1 mill reduction in property tax for FY 23, 24, 25 and 26,” he said.
That would be extended if the Board decides to continue the tax and voters approve that extension, he said.
The current county millage rate is 6.65 for unincorporated areas in the county and 7.59 for the incorporated areas of the county.
Daniell said the first multi-use path would be on Hog Mountain Road from Butler’s Crossing to Lake Wellbrook Road.
“The other path that’s been talked about over the years has been Daniells Bridge Road,” he said. That path would run from Hog Mountain Road to the Oconee Connector.
Another possibility is Union Church Road from Hog Mountain Road to SR 186, he said.
A long-range plan would be to connect Oconee County High School, Oconee Veterans Park, and the future park at the Land Application Site near North Oconee High School on Rocky Branch Road, Daniell said.
Daniell said the TSPLOST will not produce enough money for all of those paths.
“We’ll form a task force to look at them and have people rank what they think is the most important ones to get done,” he said.
Intersections And Paving
Daniell said the intersections currently identified as in need of safety improvement are Burr Harris Road at Hog Mountain Road, Colham Ferry Road at Astondale Road, and Union Church at New High Shoals Road.
Some of this money also could be used to widen roads in the county from 10 feet to 12 feet on each side, he said.
Paving would be the largest part of the TSPLOST spending.
“Based on our rankings right now, there’s 151.1 miles with a pavement condition score that would be considered poor condition,” Daniell said.
“If TSPLOST passes with the dollar amount we’ve got, we could do between 80 and 100 miles extra paving from what we would be able to do without TSPLOST,” he said.
“So we think this is a good project,” Daniell said. “That’s why we brought it before the citizens.”
“If you have any questions about TSPLOST or any of the transportation projects or anything related to roadways, we’ll be glad to take those now,” he said.
Daniell's opening comments had taken 11 minutes.
Andy Clifton from Lavista Road off U.S. 441 in the north of the county was the first to the microphone in the theater at the Civic Center on Hog Mountain Road after Daniell ended his introductory comments.
|Clifton To Mic|
He was still there 25 minutes later.
“I’m here today to address an issue I’ve been trying to resolve since 2018, nearly three years ago today,” he began, reading from his computer. “The issue is that of complete traffic law negligence and total disregard for posted speed limit signs and stop signs along Lavista Road.”
Lavita Road intersects U.S. 441 across from the main entrance to Presbyterian Village Athens and intersects with Spartan Lane, which also intersects with U.S. 441. Spartan Lane provides three of the four entrances to Athens Academy.
“Mr. Daniell, on Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018, at 10:42 a.m. I wrote you,” Clifton said. ‘I said, ‘Good Morning, Mr. Daniell, I am corresponding today to bring a rather unfortunate and yet consistent concern to you in the hopes that you can provide assistance and indeed serenity to the high rate of speed at which Lavista Road is traversed.”
Clifton said Daniell told him that the Public Works Department would look for possible solutions and also recommended that he contact the Sheriff’s Office to discuss enforcement of the speed limit.
Clifton on Sheriff’s Response
Clifton said he did contact what he called the Oconee County Police Department. (The county does not have a police department. The Sheriff is responsible for public safety in the county.)
“I am 100 percent certain that not one citation has ever been issued on this road,” Clifton said.
“In the over six years I’ve lived on Lavista Road,” Clifton said. “I personally can count less than eight Oconee County patrol vehicles and one Georgia State Patrol car ever along Lavista Road.”
“My wife’s a veterinarian. I’ve got five kids and now seven dogs we permanently foster,” Clifton said.
“Here I am almost three years to the day that I started down the road to have this traffic law issue remedied,” he continued. “We still can’t walk along Lavista, ride bikes, or walk animals.”
“So I am requesting speed bumps,” Clifton told the Board. “I am requesting a roundabout be engineered somewhere further down on Lavista from Knob Creek towards Spartan Lane.
“And I am requesting a consistent Oconee County police presence along Lavista that actually has radar detection guns and that can write tickets and issue citations and enforce the law,” he said.
Clifton then addressed his comments to Commissioner Chuck Horton, who is retired police chief from the University of Georgia.
“What I can’t do is tell the Sheriff what to do,” Horton said. “I can’t tell the Sheriff to go and put deputies on Lavista. I’ll tell you what. Tomorrow the Sheriff will know that you’ve said something to us tonight. But it’s up to him as to how he allocates his resources.”
Sheriff James Hale is an elected constitutional officer who does not answer to the elected Board of Commissioners. He only answers to the electorate.
“I speak for all of the residents on Lavista Road,” Clifton said. “I meet them. I talk to them. They won’t walk Lavista Road. They won’t walk, and exercise, and walk their dogs on Lavista Road.”
“I feel like over the years my concerns have fallen on blind eyes and deaf ears,” he said. I’m sick of talk. I would rather just appeal to you gentlemen and what we can do going forward.”
“I’m sick of complaining about it. I’m sick of calling,” he said. “So please help me.”
Commission Saxon said that the problem of speeding is one throughout the county.
“I don’t want to trivialize your problem,” Saxon said. “People are speeding across the county. We are having trouble fixing it. And so is Georgia.”
Commission Harden said he had been talking to a resident of Spartan Lane about the same problem. That person did not like the idea of speed bumps.
“The speed bumps that you talk about,” Harden said. “You say you represent all the neighbors. I want to make sure all the neighbors buy into that idea of some sort of traffic calming that we could do out there.”
“I’ve a six-year-old baseball game to get to,” Clifton said. “I appreciate your time,” he added. “Any help that you can provide, my family appreciates it.”
At that, Clifton left.
Daniell had asked those who came to the microphone to state their names, “for the record,” but not everyone did. Clifton, in fact, only used his first name in introducing himself.
|Billings Finishes Her Questions|
Former State Representative Chuck Williams did identify himself and said he lives on a dirt road in the south of the county. Williams wanted to know if TSPLOST money was going to be used for paving currently unpaved roads.
“What we’re finding now is most people will prefer not to have the roads paved if they are on dirt,” Daniell said.
The third speaker, who did not identify himself, said he was concerned about how much inflation had been built into the projections of what the TSPLOST can produce.
Daniell said revenue from TSPLOST will increase with inflation
Rebecca Billings, who is running for mayor of Watkinsville in the November election, wanted to know, among other things, if the study of the quality of roads in the county Daniell mentioned earlier includes roads in Watkinsville.
Daniell said the study of road quality does include Watkinsville and that TSPLOST revenue would be allocated to Watkinsville and the other cities in the county.
Dials Mill, Planning Commission
Sharon Thelen said four roads in Oconee County that cross SR 316 do not have a stop light: Julian Drive, McNutt Creek Road, Dials Mill Road, and Dials Mill Extension.
|Thelen And Magee Switch Places At Mic|
Thelen, president of the Dials Mill Plantation Property Owners Association, said based on Georgia Department of Transportation data, only McNutt Creek Road has had a fatal crash in the last 10 years, and it has had four.
“It puzzles me and I wonder if you might have any thoughts on why the Dials Mill area has been prioritized over McNutt Creek Road,” she said.
Daniell said he did not think the dates for the SR 316 project were fixed and might change as planning progresses. He also said he remembers serious accidents at Dials Mill and Dials Mill Extension “just this year.”
Dan Magee raised several concerns, including about the decision by the Board of Commissioners to rezone a small piece of property near the intersection of Hog Mountain Road and U.S. 441 for a drive-through restaurant after the Planning Commission recommended against the rezone.
“I’m surprised the Planning Commission said ‘heck no’ and you all approved it. No one made any comment or explanation of why you guys overturned the Planning Commission,” he said.
“This is a type of Gwinnett County type of move,” he said.
Chris Jones thanked the commissioners for their responsiveness to the concerns of those living near Dials Mill Road and SR 316.
“We just want to say thank you for good government for Oconee County,” he said.
Daniell then read questions submitted in writing by Gail Benko.
Benko wanted to know if the site for the new administrative building at the intersection of the U.S. 441 bypass and North Main Street (SR 15) will be cleared of existing trees.
Daniell said it will not and new trees will be planted as well.
Benko wanted to know why the Board decided to borrow money for the administrative building against Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax revenue rather than wait until the money was collected.
Daniell said there was a need to move quickly and that the bond rates were very favorable.
Planning Commission Again
Benko also asked about disagreements between the Planning Commission and the Board of Commissioners, leading to an animated response from Horton.
“We don’t always agree with the Planning Commission,” Horton said. “That’s just the way it is.”
“But at the end of the day, it’s the County Commission is the one that gets sued by the applicant, not the Planning Commission,” he continued.
“We can’t turn something down just because people don’t like it,” he said. “That is going to get us in court, and there’s a good chance we’d lose the case. And your tax dollars gone down the drain.
“These five folks spend a lot of time doing homework on what might be worked out,” he said, gesturing to include the other commissioners, “because there are property rights in this state.
“You can’t just say I don’t want it,” he said.
Horton said the Planning Commission was a “hearing board” and plays a role similar to a preliminary hearing in a judicial case where “you get to hear what the other side says.”
The Planning Commission is made up of citizens, most appointed by the Board of Commissioners, and it makes a recommendation to the Board of Commissioners. The county’s cities also have representatives on the Board.
I watched the Town Hall meeting remotely via the live stream on Zoom.
Philip Ashford attended the meeting and produced the video below.
While it was shot at a greater distance than was the Zoom recording, the audio is better.
Ashford also recorded the speakers, who were missed entirely by the camera used for the live stream.
Discussion of TSPLOST begins at 5:20 in the video.
Clifton began his comments at 11:33.
Williams began speaking at 35:48 in the video.
The final discussion of the planning commission, which lasted for 12 minutes, began at 1:07:40 in the video.