The Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) is considering changes to its plans for the McNutt Creek Road intersection with SR 316, switching from a flyover to a full access multi-grade intersection.
At the same time, GDOT is re-evaluating, in response to citizen input, its proposed intersection designs for Dials Mill Road and Dials Mill Extension with SR 316.
The planned flyover of Julian Drive of SR 316 also is being reassessed.
Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chair John Daniell made these announcements last week at his State of the County address organized by the Oconee Chamber of Commerce and held at the Civic Center.
Daniell told the group that construction of the bundle of intersections at Jimmy Daniell Road, Virgil Langford Road, and the Oconee Connector is expected to start next year, with work first on the flyover of Virgil Langford Road.
The disruption resulting from the construction is going to be “terrible,” Daniell said.
Daniell also said the estimated cost of a new sewage plant on the Middle Oconee River is $100 million, and the county is continuing its ban on residential sewage permits to protect the capacity of the now-expanding Calls Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant.
Daniell said residential building permits have been down the last two years, and he expects them to increase slightly in the coming years. The county relies too heavily on property tax revenue from homeowners, he said, and the goal is to increase commercial development to offset that.
Daniell’s 38-minute-long review of the State of the County was wide ranging, with transportation a prominent part. The meeting was on March 14.
|Daniell Reassured Audience They Will See A Traffic Signal|
At Union Church And Hog Mountain Road
Daniell said GDOT consultants currently are doing right-of-way investigation for the widening of U.S. 441 in the south of the county.
“Right now, they say it is still planned out,” he said. “There will be four lanes basically from the Florida line to the North Carolina line, and two lanes through the middle of Bishop.”
That line produced a lot of laughter in the room.
“We will be working, trying to help that out,” Daniell responded.
Daniell turned next to the proposed truck bypass for SR 15 south of Watkinsville and said a feasibility study “is going on right now looking at different possibilities for routing traffic outside of the city of Watkinsville for that truck traffic.”
Installation of a traffic signal on Hog Mountain Road at Union Church Road is being held up because “the parts have not arrived,” Daniell said.
“We have a contractor on standby ready to install it as soon as it shows up,” Daniell said. “One day you will see it.”
Most of Daniell’s comments on road projects were minor updates of projects underway, but he had information not previously announced involving the intersections on SR 316.
At present, GDOT has proposed a full access, multi-grade intersection of SR 316 at Dials Mill Road and a flyover of Dials Mill Extension of the state route.
“That intersection is currently under reevaluation based on comments received from the residents,” Daniell said.
“Construction is shown as FY25 and that's not likely to be that quickly since they've gone back to do this re-evaluation,” he said.
McNutt Creek Road originally was scheduled to have a flyover with no access to SR 316, Daniell said.
“That creates some issues for Bogart,” Daniell said, “as well as our Fire Station Number 7 is located there as well.” The fire station is on McNutt Creek Road just north of the SR 316 intersection.
Department of Driver Services
Another reason for a re-evaluation of the intersections, Daniell said, is that the Oconee County Industrial Development Authority has donated 13 acres on McNutt Creek Road south of SR 316 to the state Department of Driver Services (DDS).
Daniell said Driver Services had received money from Gov. Brian Kemp to build a new building, and “when they went to looking for property they figured out quite right quickly they couldn't build a building and purchase property, so they came to us asking for some help.”
“We felt it was a good idea to go ahead and partner with the state on that,” Daniell said. “So DDS is in the process of getting ready to close on that and then they'll start construction of the Driver Services building on that location.”
“In addition we have $1.8 million in the (state) budget right now to move the State Patrol Post from Athens to this location,” Daniell said. “So the two State agencies will be relocating to this property.”
“With that, DOT has gone back to reevaluate that intersection as well,” Daniell said, “and right now DOT is currently investigating putting a full interchange at McNutt Creek, which will be a big deal for Bogart and for our fire station.”
Other SR 316 Intersections
Daniell said that Julian Drive was scheduled to fly over SR 316, but “is now showing as to-be-determined.”
There is "no description of what kind of intersection is going to be there or when that will occur,” he said, referring to GDOT documents.
“And then Jimmy Daniell, Virgil Langford, and Oconee Connector are showing construction in FY24,” Daniell said. “All three of those projects have been bundled together.”
“So the goal is to do Virgil Langford first, and then we can't quite figure out which one they're going to do next, whether it is Jimmy Daniell or the Connector,” he said.
Daniell said the construction is expected to start in the next 12 month and is scheduled to go to 2027.
“Most likely it's going to be longer than that,” Daniell added.
“It is going to be,” Daniell said, and he paused, “terrible.”
“So just go ahead and start planning your routes around that area if you want to stay away from it when it starts,” he said. “That would be great, if you didn't even drive through there until it's done, and then you can say what a great job that was.”
“If you go through it every day, it's going to be challenging,” Daniell said. “But the end result is going to be very positive.”
“Also 316, where it hits the 10 Loop, there's a project scheduled there,” Daniell said.
“It's very long term, but they're going to rework that whole interchange,” he added.
“So I don't know that any of us will be attending these meetings when that happens,” he added.
Parks And Trails
Daniell reviewed plans for the county’s parks and encouraged those present to attend the Town Hall Meeting at 6 p.m. tonight (3/21/23), where citizens will get a chance to review new master plans for the county’s parks.
Also on the agenda for tonight is a new Trail Master Plan for the county. The meeting is at the Civic Center on Hog Mountain Road west of Butler’s Crossing.
At the meeting on March 14, Daniell said, with money already budgeted, “we'll be moving forward with producing the Hog Mountain Trail, which runs from basically Butler's Crossing down to Wellbrook Road.”
The multi-use trail is currently in the design phase, Daniell said.
“Once that (the design) is completed, we do have some General Funds money set aside to create that trail, so hopefully you can see some activity on that in the next 18 months.”
Daniell began his presentation with a review of the county’s budget, pointing out that “roughly 40 of that (budgeted spending) goes to keeping people and property safe.”
|From Slide Show|
“As you can see, our number one expenditure is for the Sheriff’s Office, and then Public Works, followed by Parks and Recreation,” he said.
More than half of the county’s revenue comes from property taxes, and 60 percent of that is coming from residential properties, Daniell said.
“One of our goals is to get that back to 50 percent,” Daniell said, of the residential to commercial ratio.
“One of the things we're working on this year is a homestead exemption change,” Daniell told the group.
“Right now you can you have $2,000 homestead exemption,” he said. “We're looking to increase that to $5,000.”
“In addition, we have three different senior exemptions that you can go get. A lot of people don't even know these are available and if you do know they're available, you have to go to the Tax Commissioner, fill out a lot of paperwork, and try to get the exemption that way.”
“What we’re proposing to do is phase out for these application-based homestead exemptions and go to an automatic property assessment freeze at age 65.”
“We're asking that at age 75 you get an additional $10,000 homestead exemption that will be applied automatically,” he said.
For these changes to take place, Daniell said, a bill has to be approved by both the state House, where it is to be introduced, and then the Senate.
Voters then would have to approve 10 changes in the county law–in referenda in the spring of 2024–for the effects to take place in January of 2025.
Oconee County’s representatives in the House, Marcus Wiedower and Houston Gaines introduced the bills on Monday, and they were assigned to the Intragovernmental Coordination Committee. As of Tuesday, the 37th day of the 40 day legislative session, the local legislation had not yet been scheduled for debate. (This paragraph was updated at 2 p.m. on 3/22/2023.)
Daniell told the group the county is in the process of increasing its Calls Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant from 1.5 million gallons per day to 3 million gallons per day, at a cost about $25 million.
No additional space is available at the existing site, on the northeast side of Watkinsville, so the county will have to move to land it has purchased on the Middle Oconee River for future expansion, Daniell said.
“To go into that next phase on the Middle Oconee in today's dollars,” Daniell said. “It's probably going to be around $100 million to do that.”
“So we're being very very cautious with our sewer capacity,” he said. “Right now we're not awarding any residential outside of the incorporated areas,” he said.
Daniell told the group that the county issued 191 residential building permits last year, up from 185 the year before that.
|From Slide Show|
“The sweet spot is 200 to 250,” he said. “That gives us enough growth that the school system can adapt as well as we can adapt too to the infrastructure that’s needed.”
In 2006, the county issued 450 residential building permits, the chart Daniell presented showed, but that number dropped to less than 100 from 2009 to 2011 and climbed to just more than 350 in 2015.
The county has two huge, formerly dormant subdivisions that are coming back to life, Westland on U.S. 78 and Parkside between Hog Mountain Road and Mars Hill Road.
Both need sewer capacity, which is not yet available to them, and, as part of a sewer legal settlement, the county agreed to issue not more than 75 building permits to each per year.
New Administrative Building
Daniell told the group that the county had been talking about the need for a new administrative building for more than 20 years.
“I am very proud this Board of Commissioners came up with a site and then agreement on building the administrative building,” he said.
The county expects to move administrative offices in July to a 44,000-square-foot building under construction where North Main Street meets U.S. 441 bypass just north of Watkinsville.
The space will allow for future expansion, Daniell said, and the existing Courthouse “will be dedicated to judicial functions.”
The county will be declaring as surplus and selling the Government Annex on SR 15 in the south of Watkinsville.
With the Oconee County Library moving from its Experiment Station Road location to Wire Park, the county also will declare the library building as surplus and put it up for sale, he said.
Dials Mill Road Interchange
Daniell didn’t elaborate on his comment that GDOT was reconsidering its decision on the Dials Mill Road and Dials Mill Extension intersections because of “comments received from the residents.”
Through an open records request, I received on Feb. 28, 2023, an email that Bridget Thomas, a GDOT Project Manager, sent to Sharon Thelen on Jan. 31, 2023.
Thelen is President of the Dials Mill Plantation Property Owners Association and has been an outspoken advocate for that subdivision, which is located on Dials Mill Road at SR 316.
“The initial concept developed for this project included closing off access to Dials Mill Extension from SR 316 and diverting traffic to a full access interchange with entrance and exit ramps at SR 316 and Dials Mill Rd.,” Thomas wrote.
“Due to concerns expressed by the general public and emphasized by Oconee County, the Department is reevaluating these intersections to determine the preferred (and optimal) interchange location that will still improve connectivity, accommodate expected growth in traffic volumes, and enhance traffic operations in the area,” she continued.
Thomas wrote that “We anticipate completing this evaluation and submitting a final decision on the interchange location within the next 60 days.”
I emailed Daniell after receiving that email from GDOT and asked him if he had any update.
"We had a virtual meeting in August of 2022 to review initial concepts and discuss concerns with each,” he wrote on March 8. “GDOT communicated they would reevaluate the project. I don’t find any communications on the project since the August meeting.”
Relocating DDS, State Patrol
In an interview with WGAU Radio Host Tim Bryant on Tuesday morning (3/21/2023), Oconee County Rep. Wiedower said the Fiscal Year 2024 Budget still being debated in the state Senate contains new money for the movement of the State Patrol to Oconee County.
“Last year we were able to get $4 million in the budget that is to relocate the DDS off of 29 up there in Athens and give them a new facility out on 316,” Wiedower told Bryant.
Both the DDS and State Patrol Post currently are located at 1505 US-29 on the northeast side of Athens-Clarke County.
“This year we were able to add to that to also put Georgia State Patrol a new post out there,” he added.
“If you’ve been out to DDS lately,” he said. “It’s a rough building. It’s been there a long time. So looking forward to getting them out there in a new facility to help better serve our community.”
Wiedower said it is his understanding that the Senate will take up the state budget “possibly as late as Monday,” which is Day 39 of the 40 day session, “so we’re going to be cutting it close.
The video below is on the county YouTube Channel.
Daniell began his discussion of road projects throughout the county beginning at 14:27 in the video.
He turned to SR 316 at 15:40.
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