Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Traffic Engineer Says County Should Not Allow Full Access Intersection On Oconee Connector For Proposed Shopping Center

***Also Recommends Roundabout On Mars Hill Road***

Based on current guidelines from the Georgia Department of Transportation and the National Cooperative Highway Research Program, a full access intersection from the Oconee Connector should not be allowed for the proposed shopping center at the Connector and Mars Hill Road.

The intersection of the Oconee Connector and SR 316 already has crash rates and injury crash rates significantly higher than the statewide average.

As a result, a full-access intersection would work against the county’s desire to maintain long-term safe and efficient traffic operation on the Oconee Connector.

A roundabout is needed at the proposed full-access entrance to the shopping center off Mars Hill Road.

These are the conclusions of the traffic engineer that the Oconee County Planning and Code Enforcement Department asked to review plans for the proposed shopping center that is to include a Publix grocery store.

The county commissioned the study after an attorney for property owner Maxie Price through his Deferred Tax LLC sent a letter to the Board of Commissioners on Nov. 28 saying it would be unconstitutional for the county to not allow a full access intersection on the Oconee Connector.

Attorney David Ellison also said the county cannot force Deferred Tax to build a roundabout at its proposed entrance off Mars Hill Road.

After the county received that letter, it postponed until 6 p.m. on Feb. 7 its scheduled public hearing and decision on Deferred Tax’s request for a rezone for the shopping center.

Rezone Request

Deferred Tax owns three properties summing to just less than 47 acres between the Connector, Mars Hill Road, Virgil Langford Road, and SR 316.

Smeeton Map Showing GDOT Design
And Location Of Proposed Access

Deferred Tax is proposing a commercial subdivision of 11 lots on 33.6 acres of that land. Included is to be a 9.4-acre-lot for a Publix grocery store and attached shops.

The 13.2 acre parcel that is zoned residential is not included in the current proposal.

Deferred Tax had submitted a proposal in October of 2020 asking that all three parcels be zoned B-2, or Highway Business District.

That proposal was turned down by the Board of Commissioners in May of 2021.

The Planning Commission recommended denial of the current rezone request at its meeting on Nov. 14 of last year.

Access Requested

The Narrative submitted by Price for the new rezone states that “The primary access point to the development will be located at the proposed full commercial access median break on the Oconee Connector.”

At present, there is no access to the Deferred Tax Property from the Oconee Connector.

The proposal also shows three separate commercial access drives on Mars Hill Road, one opposite the existing Old Mars Hill Road, another approximately opposite the existing Hollow Creek Lane, and a third to the west of Hollow Creek Lane.

The Oconee County Planning staff has recommend as a condition that the entrance on the Oconee Connector be restricted to right-in right-out, and that a southbound dedicated right turn lane into the development be installed.

The staff also recommended that a roundabout be installed at Hollow Creek Lane. This will be the only full entrance to the shopping center.

Two other entrances, one east and one west of that roundabout, are to allow only right-in and right-out traffic, according to the staff recommendation.

The staff recommended as a condition that “For the entirety of the project’s frontage along Mars Hill Road, Mars Hill Road shall be upgraded to County street design standards for arterial roads.”

Engineering Report

The county sent Ellison’s Nov. 28 letter as well as a second letter he sent on Jan. 5, 2023, to Pat Smeeton, Assistant Vice President of TranSystems, a traffic engineering and construction firm with offices in Atlanta and more than 50 other cities throughout the country.

TranSystems is a contract consultant to the county’s Planning and Code Enforcement Department.

The second letter from Ellison also contained a traffic analysis by Abdul K. Amer, a licensed professional engineer.

Most of Smeeton’s report focuses on the proposed Oconee Connector entrance.

Ellison, in his Nov. 28 letter, argues that the county made a commitment in 1997 for a median break where Deferred Tax wants to locate the main entrance to the shopping center.

Smeeton wrote that, based the letters between the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) and the then property owner “it appears that the request by the property owner, and commitment by GDOT, for a full access intersection and median opening” were based on a minimum spacing of 660 feet.

This minimum distance was to be between the SR 316 and the “proposed property access point as well as between the proposed property access point and the Mars Hill Road/Oconee Connector intersection.

“The distance of 660’ was based on GDOT intersection and median break spacing requirements at the time,” Smeeton wrote.

Price acquired the properties in 2006.

Distances Calculated

At present, the spacing between the SR 316 and the proposed property access point on the Connector is approximately 1,010 feet, and the spacing between the proposed property access point and the Mars Hill Road/Oconee Connector intersection is approximately 660 feet, Smeeton said.

Street View Of Existing Median Break (Behind No Turn Sign)
Proposed Access Is To Left Of That Break 1/28/2023

“When the 1997 commitment was made, there was no planned or programmed project to convert the intersection of SR 316 at Oconee Connector to a grade separated interchange,” Smeeton said in his report.

GDOT is currently in the preliminary engineering phase for construction of a grade separated interchange to replace the current at-grade intersection, with a current projected let date of Sept. 15, 2024.

Based on the GDOT plans, Smeeton said, the spacing between the proposed access point for the development and the SR 316 eastbound off-ramp at Oconee Connector intersection is expected to be approximately 600 feet, compared with the current 1,010 feet.

According to Smeeton. GDOT has adopted 1,000 feet as the preferred minimum spacing between median openings in urban areas.

The National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP), Smeeton wrote, recommends that direct property access should be denied or limited along higher-class roadways, such as the Oconee Connector.

If access is provided within 1,000 feet of the intersection, it should be complemented with a raised median “that will further restrict driveway access from opposing traffic,” Smeeton quoted the NCHRP as saying.

Crash Analysis

The Oconee Connector is “an important arterial roadway facility providing mobility and connectivity for Oconee County residents and area commuters,” Smeeton wrote.

Analysis of GDOT data shows, Smeeton said, “that this segment of Oconee Connector has crash rates and injury crash rates significantly higher than the statewide average for similar facilities.”

“As detailed in the guidelines and research above, the addition of a full access, site driveway intersection so close to the SR 316 at Oconee Connector interchange ramp intersections would negatively affect safety and operations on the Oconee Connector, which, as demonstrated here, already experiences high crash and injury crash rates.”

“The traffic study provided by the applicant recommends a traffic signal be installed at the proposed access point on Oconee Connector,” Smeeton’s report continues.

“Although requested, an MUTCD traffic signal warrant analysis was not provided for this location,” he wrote. MUTCD stands for the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices.

“If a traffic signal is not warranted, an unsignalized, full access intersection along this section of the Oconee Connector (20,000+ vehicles per day) would result in an extremely unsafe intersection,” Smeeton said.

Three Conclusions

Smeeton ended his comments on the proposed access to the shopping center from the Connector with three conclusions.

Signs On Mars Hills Road 1/28/2023

“Based on the current GDOT guidelines, the guidance from the NCHRP publications, the crash history for Oconee Connector, and the desire to maintain long-term safe and efficient traffic operation on the Oconee Connector, Oconee County staff feel that it is in the best interest of the County and County commuters that a full access intersection not be provided on Oconee Connector,” he wrote.

“The SR 316 at Oconee Connector intersection is the most heavily trafficked intersection in Oconee County and quite possibly in NE Georgia outside of the metro-Atlanta area,” he continued.

“Furthermore, the Oconee Connector serves as a primary access point for traffic entering and exiting the County,” he wrote. “As such, maintaining safe and efficient operation and mobility on this roadway is critical to Oconee County commuters as well as residents traveling to and from retail destinations in the area.”

“Additionally, even though GDOT committed to providing an access point on Oconee Connector for this property, the Oconee Connector is not currently a state route or maintained by GDOT,” Smeeton concluded.

“As a County roadway, GDOT has no jurisdiction regarding access along this County owned and maintained roadway,” he said.

Mars Hill Road Access

Smeeton offered three conclusions regarding the Mars Hill Road access.

The applicant’s traffic study shows that the “southbound approach at this location would operate at LOS F in the future condition,” he wrote. LOS stands for Level Of Service.

“Therefore, their own study shows that an unsignalized intersection would be unable to safely and efficiently accommodate traffic demands at this intersection,” he wrote.

Smeeton said that GDOT recommends roundabouts to “reduce crashes that may result in serious injuries or fatalities by 78 to 82 percent compared to conventional intersections controlled by traffic lights or stop signs.”

“Since this site is expected to generate 17,000 vehicle trips per day, Oconee County staff feels that the recommendation for a roundabout is needed to safely and efficiently accommodate traffic demands at this important intersection,” he wrote.

Connector, Mars Hill Road, Daniells Bridge Road

Smeeton also commented on the impact of the proposed shopping center on the already congested intersection of the Oconee Connector, Mars Hill Road, and Daniells Bridge Road.

“This site traffic will place significant additional demands on the Oconee Connector at Mars Hill/Daniels Bridge Road intersection,” Smeeton wrote.

Smeeton wrote that, “Contingent on traffic analysis results, a second eastbound left-turn lane with extended storage may be required."

“Contingent on traffic analysis results, a second northbound left-turn lane may be required along with a second, westbound receiving lane on Mars Hill Road,” he said.

Jan. 5 Letter

In his letter of Nov. 28, Deferred Tax attorney Ellison argued that the current zoning classification for the Deferred Tax property is unconstitutional, that any interference with Price’s right to access the median break would be unconstitutional, and that the proposed roundabout violates Georgia law.

In the Jan. 5 letter, Ellison said “I send this correspondence to object to the proposed traffic control conditions as violating due process.”

He included an affidavit from engineer Amer that he said “confirms that traffic control devices proposed by the County are insubstantially related to public health, safety, morality, or general welfare of the County.”

“It is my understanding that GDOT and Oconee County have made written commitments to allow a full access driveway and a median opening along the Property’s entrance on the Oconee Connector,” Amer wrote in that affidavit.

“It appears that Deferred Tax, LLC has submitted a site plan that would allow for access to the Oconee Connector in a manner consistent with this agreement,” he continued.

“I recommend that this full access be signalized in order to ensure safe intersection and satisfactory traffic flow,” he said.

“I do not believe that the Planning Staff’s recommendation of a roundabout at the Hollow Creek Lane can be justified by the traffic data or site conditions,” Amer wrote.

A slightly shortened, print version of this story will appear in the Feb. 2 edition of The Oconee Enterprise.

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