Sunday, June 05, 2022

Oconee County Commission To Consider Making Newly Widened Mars Hill Road, Astondale Road, Truck Routes

***Public Asked To Give Feedback***

Oconee County Public Works Director Jody Woodall’s recommendation that trucks continue to be banned on Astondale Road and on Mars Hill Road between Butler’s Crossing and SR 316 ran into opposition from two members of the Board of Commissioners last month.

Commissioner Amrey Harden said he thinks Mars Hill Road and the section of the Oconee Connector from Daniells Bridge Road to SR 316 should be removed from the list of roads on which through truck traffic is prohibited in a revised Truck Traffic Ordinance.

Commissioner Mark Thomas agreed with Harden and also wants to remove Astondale Road from the Truck Traffic Ordinance Woodall had presented to the Board of Commissioners for approval.

Commission Chair John Daniell suggested the Commission seek more citizen input before making a final decision at the Board’s regular meeting on Tuesday night.

The county launched a survey on its web site on May 31, giving citizens a chance to vote on whether each of the three roads should allow through truck traffic.

At that same meeting last month, Daniell said the county will reduce its property tax rate this year enough that there will be no property tax increase, even with the increased assessments of property value due to market forces.

The Board also tentatively approved a contract to construct a multi-use path on Hog Mountain Road from Butler’s Crossing to U.S. 441.

And it agreed to build four new multi-use courts at Herman C. Michael Park on Hog Mountain Road, with two of the new courts dedicated to pickleball.

Need For New Ordinance

Oconee County Administrator Justin Kirouac had told the Board of Commissioners at its Feb. 22 Agenda Setting meeting that the county’s Through Truck Ordinance was in need of an update.

Woodall (Standing) Responds To Harden (Far Right)

That ordinance had been approved on March 5 of 2002, and Kirouac said since that time “there has been additional signage placed throughout the county.”

“What we need to do ultimately is update the resolution squaring away the ordinance itself with the signage that is properly set in the road,” Kirouac said.

“We’ve had conversations with the Sheriff’s Office as the enforcement wing of this,” Kirouac said, “and also with the courts and with our Public Works Department where the ordinance resides.”

Kirouac said he expected to bring back a revision at an upcoming meeting.

At the April 26 Agenda Setting meeting, Kirouac told the Board that the new ordinance was ready, but the first hearing and discussion of that ordinance would have to be postponed to May 24 because the county’s legal organ, The Oconee Enterprise, had not published the required legal notice.

New Ordinance Proposed

At the meeting on May 24, Oconee County Public Works Director Jody Woodall presented the Board with the revised Truck Traffic Ordinance.

The ordinance prohibits trucks from entering, traveling, or parking on a street in a residential subdivision in the county “except for the purpose of delivering goods to houses or points within such residential subdivision for short periods of time during daylight hours.”

The ordinance also states that “No truck or tractor trailer shall enter, travel or park on a street in a residential subdivision or park on a right-of-way in Oconee County for the purpose of an overnight stay by the driver or operator.”

The ordinance also states that “It shall be unlawful for any truck to travel certain County roads hereinafter listed unless the vehicle trip originates or ends on such road or is made for the purpose of making a delivery to a site on such road.”

The ordinance lists 47 roads on which truck traffic is to be prohibited.

Mars Hill Road appears twice, first from the Oconee Connector to U.S. 78 and then from Mars Hill Road to SR. 316.

The section of road from Daniells Bridge Road to SR 316 actually is the Oconee Connector, which is not listed separately.

The Ordinance states that “Any person violating this Ordinance shall be punished by a fine not to exceed One Thousand and No/100 Dollars ($1,000.00) or sixty (60) days imprisonment. Each day that the offense continues shall constitute a separate violation.”

Woodall and Daniell Explain

“This just really cleans up the ordinance to match what we have out there on the ground,” Woodall told the Board. He said inconsistencies had existed because of the old ordinance.

Woodall said he had discussed the ordinance with Sheriff James Hale and “Everybody seems to be in a good place with the roads that are listed.”

“There’s not been a ticket written on this ordinance in quite some time because of the inconsistencies Jody mentioned,” Board of Commissioners Chair John Daniell said.

“I talked to the Sheriff,” Daniell said. “He will enforce whatever road we put on there.”

Harden Questions Ordinance

Commissioner Amrey Harden noted that Mars Hill Road from Butler’s Crossing to the SR 316 (including the Oconee Connector) is on the list.

“What is the reason for us not allowing truck traffic on that?” Harden wanted to know.

“Truck traffic is one of your most detrimental things to the life of the roadway,” Woodall responded. “With SR 53, U.S. 441, those are truck routes. And the idea is to utilize the existing state routes more than the local county roads.”

“When we went to a four lane there, we did not anticipate that being a truck route?” Harden asked.

“Typically you did estimate a percentage of trucks, but if the Board agrees to post that as No Through Trucks, then it will be signed,” Woodall said.

“We’ll work with Georgia DOT to put a sign on 316,” he continued. “In my experience, not having those vehicles on there would increase the life span of the road.”

Harden Mentions Caterpillar

Daniell told Harden that Mars Hill Road had been listed as a No Through Truck route in the old ordinance as well.

Harden said that was before it was made into a four lane road and before Caterpillar opened its plant in Bogart.

“If you enforce it, you’ll have to hire a deputy full time,” Harden. He said he travels the road often and “There are trucks on there” at present.

Harden said he was in favor all of the other roads in the ordinance “but I want a conversation” about Mars Hill Road.

“I would love to see that the roads that are currently on the list to remain on the list in addition to the new roads,” Harden said, “but I would like for the other commissioners to have a little conversation about this--the four lane between Butler's Crossing and 316.”

Commissioner Chuck Horton responded by saying that since Mars Hill Road is a county road “Any repairs are going to be on our dime.”

Thomas Agrees With Harden

“In my opinion that ought to remain open as a truck route,” Commissioner Mark Thomas said of Mars Hill Road.

Roads Listed In Ordinance 
(Click To Enlarge)

Thomas said he had two reasons for wanting to put truck traffic on Mars Hill Road.

“One, SR 53 has got so many schools on it. And it just poses a danger, trucks going by those schools,” he said.

SR 53 is Hog Mountain Road. It is a state route and not under the control of the county. Truck traffic already is allowed on SR 53 and will be unaffected by the county’s ordinance.

“The other thing is,” Thomas said. “If you route the trucks around 441 then you put them going back by another school that then you go down the hill toward White Oak Drive.”

“That is also problematic,” Thomas said, “and so you know the trucks will come around the curve on 441, go down that steep hill, and that also could be problematic.”

“Maintenance-wise, I understand that,” Thomas said. “But it's going to be maintenance on any of these other routes--same type of thing--if we allow trucks on them, so you know we're not going to stop all trucks.”

“But I don't know that it'll be a major truck route,” he said, “but I do feel like from safety standpoint it should be open for trucks through the Mars Hill section.”

Astondale Road

Thomas said he also wants to remove Astondale Road from the list of roads for which through truck traffic is not allowed.

“You can look at Astondale Road as well,” he said. “You’ve got state routes on both ends of it. You do have a cross road that is a county intersection which is not on the list.”

Astondale Road connects SR 15 and U.S. 441. It intersects with Colham Ferry Road, which is not on the list of roads in the ordinance for which through truck traffic is banned.

“So in that case you’ve got really three roads that are not on the list and Astondale is,” Thomas said.

“So I just feel like that might help some of the traffic through Watkinsville as well,” Thomas said. “So I’d like to personally see Astondale come off as well.”

SR 15 and U.S. 441 are not on the list because they are state and federal roads and not under the control of the county.

Astondale Road intersects with U.S. 441 within the city limits of Bishop, meaning truck traffic along that route also passes through Bishop.

The Georgia Department of Transportation currently is doing what it calls a scoping study of a truck bypass connecting SR 15 and U.S. 441, but opposition already has been voiced to using Astondale Road for that purpose.

Daniell’s Response

“My only comment on Mars Hill is that is a residentially designed area through the Comp Plan and the Overlay,” Daniell said to Thomas and Harden.

His reference is to the county’s Comprehensive Plan and the zoning Overlay District approved by the Commission for the corridor.

“It is not really intended to be commercial,” he said. “So keep that in mind as we continue to discuss that.”

“Maybe we should update the ordinance and repost it and ask Diane to blast that out,” Daniell said, referring to Diane Baggett, Communication Manager for Oconee County.

“Maybe we can get some public comment on those over the next couple of weeks and make a final decision on those two after we do a little research on them,” Daniell said. “We’ll make a final call on Astondale and Mars Hill at our next meeting.”

Thomas said he wanted to add a prohibition against using engine breaks included in the ordinance for Astondale Road “and especially down in the residential area–Mars Hill.”

Commissioner Mark Saxon did not comment during the discussion.

Public Comment Sought

On May 31, the county placed on its web site an announcement about the ordinance.

“The Oconee County Board of Commissioners is considering revisions to the Truck Traffic Ordinance that prohibits through-truck traffic on certain roads,” the announcement states.

“As part of the review, the BOC would like additional feedback on the following roads that are considered for removal from the list:

Astondale Road from US 441 to SR 15 

Mars Hill Road from SR 53 to Daniells Bridge Road 

Oconee Connector from SR 316 to Daniells Bridge Road

“To provide feedback on the listed roads, please complete the Truck Traffic Ordinance Public Comment Form by Tuesday, June 7, at 4 p.m."


Melissa Braswell, county Finance Director, outlined the county’s $65.9 million budget at the front of the Agenda Setting meeting, which also served as the first public hearing on the budget.

Slide From Braswell's Budget Presentation

The budget represents an increase of 12.7 percent over the approved budget of $58.5 for the current fiscal year.

The budget actually is a decrease from the amended Fiscal Year 2022 expenditures of just less than $66 million.

Braswell did not mention the tax rate underlying the budget, but Commission Chair Daniell said after her presentation that the county will reduce its property tax millage rate to offset the impact of increased tax digest growth due to market forces.

Daniell said he is still working with Oconee County Tax Commissioner Jennifer Riddle to determine the final millage rate.

The budget is based on real growth in the tax digest for the year, Daniell said. “We feel very confident we will not have any tax increase here in Oconee County for the governing authority.”

The Board of Education sets its own millage rate, and has announced a millage rate decrease to 16.25 from the current 16.5

Budget Hearing

John Webb was the sole person speaking at the public hearing on the budget.

Webb asked if the budget reflected the expected opening of COSTCO in Epps Bridge Center.

Daniell said that opening date for COSTCO is not set, and the county is anticipating only limited impact in the coming fiscal year.

The next hearing on the proposed budget is before the regular meeting of the Commission on Tuesday night.

The Board is expected to approve the budget following that hearing.

Fee Schedule

Braswell did not go over the fee schedule associated with the budget, but that schedule is now available on the county web site.

The base residential water rate will increase 3.5 percent in Fiscal Year 2023 under the new budget.

The base residential sewer rate will increase by 4.8 percent.

Many youth sports fees also will increase.

For example, basketball will increase per person from $130 to $145. That includes a $35 fee the county charges to cover the fees imposed by the Board of Education for use of school facilities for county sports programs.

The cheerleading fees would increase from $200 to $205, with $5 of that paid to Oconee County Schools for use of its facilities, and the tackle football fees would go from $230 to $240, with $35 of that going to the schools.

Oconee County does not charge Oconee County Schools for use of county sports facilities.

Multi-Use Path

The Board tentatively approved a contract with Atlas Technical Consultants for $195,610 for design of a multi-use path along Hog Mountain Road from Butler’s Crossing to U.S. 441.

Multi-Use Path Along Hog Mountain Road
(Click To Enlarge)

Atlas, with offices in Duluth, was low among three bidders for the project.

“This is one of the projects we’ve been talking about for a while,” Daniell said. “We finally got the right scope.”

Daniell said Atlas is currently doing the design for the widening of Experiment Station Road from Butler’s Crossing to the U.S. 441 bypass and will be able to integrate the two projects.

The path will create a link between the commercial center at Butler’s Crossing and Presbyterian Village at U.S. 441.

The county also has plans for a similar path along Daniells Bridge Road that would connect with Mars Hill Road and Hog Mountain Road. Mars Hill Road has sidewalks and bike lanes on both sides of the road.

Pickelball Courts

Lisa Davol, Parks and Recreation Director, presented the Board with a $139,873 bid from Bayne Development Group 1551 Jennings Mill Road, for demolition of the two existing multi-use courts at Herman C. Michael Park on Hog Mountain Road.

The bid also calls for replacement of those courts with four new multi-use courts.

Two of the four courts will be dedicated for pickleball.

Daniell reported strong growth in demand for pickleball courts and said the goal is to have 12 outdoor pickleball courts at Herman C. Michael in the future, with eight of them lighted.

The Commission put the Bayne bid on the consent agenda for the meeting on Tuesday, along with the Atlas bid for the multi-use path on Hog Mountain Road.

Items on the consent agenda are approved as a group unless a commissioner asked that an item be removed for further discussion.

Cole Spring Road

At the beginning of the meeting, Kirouac said he has had discussions with the Georgia Department of Transportation about the future of the closed Cole Springs Road south of Hog Mountain Road in the west of the county.

Kirouac said the county has four options: close the road permanently; re-open the road as it is; re-open the road with alternations to change the angle of the intersection; redesign the intersection, possible by creating a roundabout at the intersection with Hog Mountain Road.

Daniell said he thinks the most likely outcome will be a roundabout, but that will depend on funding. Hog Mountain Road is a state highway.

If state funds are used, the change could take place in two years, Daniell said, but if federal funds are used, the time line is likely to be four years.

Daniell said he does not think closing the road permanently is the correct solution.


The video below is on the Oconee County YouTube site.

The meeting starts at 6:55 in the video with the budget hearing.

The agenda setting meeting starts at 32:50 in the video.

Discussion of the Through Truck Ordinance begins at 1:00:08 in the video.

Discussion of the Hog Mountain Road Multi-Use Path begins at 1:18:34.

Discussion of the courts at Herman C. Michael Park is at 1:20:30.

Note: The list of roads has been updated to correctly reflect the section of Mars Hill Road that Harden and Thomas want to remove from the list.


Jim Gaither said...

I hope Mark Thomas tells us more about the 'danger' to schools posed by trucks driving down 53 since offhand I can't think what threats they pose.

I also don't understand his concern about White Oak Drive. Traffic has been managing 'that steep hill' and the light there since the expanded 441 opened, and I haven't heard him object before.

Finally, if Thomas thinks it's a good idea to delist Astondale from a no-trucks ban, he's somehow missed years of agitated talk and multiple proposals about traffic concerns in Bishop. I volunteer him to be in charge of merging big rigs onto 441 and 15. A left turn in Bishop around 8AM would really be interesting. Bring your reflective gear, Mark.

Lee Becker said...

I only publish comments that include a real name. Someone who did not sign the comment pointed out that my circle in the list of roads was on the wrong section of Mars Hill Road. I appreciate the correction and fixed the error. I deleted the comment, however, because it was not signed.

Unknown said...

The truck ordinance says it is to promote the health, safety, and general welfare of the present and future inhabitants of unincorporated Oconee County. Removal of these roads from the truck ordinance does the opposite. Bless John Daniel for asking for public input before acting on this. I only wish they had given the public more time than from May 31 to June 7, especially at this time of year with many people on vacation. I do have a question. The policy on changes to ordinances says it requires 2 readings of the change. The best I can tell, the first reading must have been at the agenda setting session on May 24. Can a first reading be at an agenda setting meeting (does not have to be a regular meeting)?


Jeanne Barsanti

Unknown said...

Thank you, Lee, for all this background. I searched the official county web site and finding this information was difficult to impossible. I could find the survey form at least.

Jeanne Barsanti

Lee Becker said...

First readings are very often at agenda setting meetings. And the law often changes after that first reading.

Eric Somerville said...

I wonder whether Ms Davol or Mr Daniell have given any consideration to the meteoric rise in the popularity of disc golf at Herman C. Michael and how the proposed plans for four new multi-use courts (plus up to eight more in the future) will impact persons playing disc golf? I play disc golf at “The Herm” at least three times per week and have only very rarely seen the two existing multi-use courts occupied unless there has been a children’s class going on. By contrast, the disc golf course always has people playing, and the trend has been more and more people playing over the last two years. Will this expansion of the multi-use courts cause holes #15 & 18 to be moved? What about the sand volleyball court? That Vball court was a recent Eagle Scout project, by the way. Has the County conducted any creel surveys at Herman C. to gauge how existing park patrons use the park?
-Eric Somerville

Lee Becker said...

John Daniell said at the BOC meeting that the volleyball court would remain. The four courts will be on the site of the existing two courts and in the space closer to the indoor facility, he said.