Thursday, March 23, 2023

Oconee County Town Hall Meeting Bought Out Advocates For Wide Range Of Uses Of County Parks

***Horse Crowd Dominated***

One could score the Town Hall Meeting that the Oconee County Board of Commissioners held on Tuesday evening at the Civic Center this way:

Horses: 10 speakers

Sports Fields: 7 speakers

Pool: 5 speakers

Rails to Trails: 3 speakers

Pickleball and Oconee Parks Foundation: 2 speakers each

Tennis, Disc Golf, Indoor Multi-Use Facilities, and House Bill 189: 1 speaker each

But some of the citizens, when they stepped up to the microphone, pitched, struck, tossed–or whatever–more than one sport or facility in the hopes of impressing the five commissioners at the front of the room.

So a complete accounting would have to include a call for the return of Summer Day Camp and for a second entrance to Oconee Veterans Park as well as a question about the new plans for Oconee Crossing Shopping Center.

The speakers, who were asked to express their opinions about new Master Plans for the county’s parks as well as about a Trail Master Plan, wanted to make sure the facilities for their sports were included.

The lobbying and questioning lasted about 75 minutes and was good natured, with no one arguing against any of the other sports or facilities.

Commissioner Chuck Horton summed up his reaction at the end of the evening by telling the group that he supported all of the requests.

It is simply a matter of money, he said.

Speakers And Maps

As they entered the large hall at the Civic Center, citizens were encouraged to go immediately to the rear of the room where maps for each of the county parks as well as a map showing proposed multi-use plans were on display.

(The plans are HERE.)

Horton And Commissioner Mark Thomas

Oconee Parks and Recreation Department staff were available to answer questions, and visitors were encouraged to leave comments.

Board Chair John Daniell started the meeting by making a few introductory comments about the county’s plans to increase the homestead exemption for county property tax and to freeze property assessments when the owner turns 65.

Oconee County Representatives Marcus Wiedower and Houston Gaines had introduced 10 bills to accomplish these goals on Monday in Atlanta. (Those bills passed out of the House and were sent to the Senate on Thursday.)

Daniell told the approximate 150 persons gathered–almost certainly a record for a Town Hall meeting--that he needed their help.

Voters will have to approve in the spring of next year all 10 changes in the law to bring about the changes in the homestead exemptions and property assessments the Board of Commissioners has proposed.

Following his brief comments, Daniell invited persons to come forward to the microphone.

By the time Daniell ended the session, 33 people had accepted the invitation, with three of them appearing at the microphone twice.

First Question Asked

Jeff Hood was the first speaker, and he asked Daniell his opinion on House Bill 189, in the Senate at that time, which will increase the weight of trucks on the state’s–and county’s–roads.

Daniell said the latest version at that time limited the types of content that trucks could carry with increased weight from 80,000 to 88,000 pounds.

He also said the version being discussed would allow the increased weight for only a year. (No final vote in the Senate has been recorded as of this post.)

Daniell hedged a bit given the uncertainty about what the final bill will look like, “but we do think that would have an impact, turning trucks loose at 88,000 or 90,000 pounds for us,” he said.

It wasn’t until the 15th speaker came forward that another non-sport question or comment was offered.

Jessie Gladney said she was there to support those asking for improved horse facilities at Heritage Park, but she also wanted an update on plans for Oconee Crossing Shopping Center, which borders her subdivision.

Daniell told her that property owner Donald Hammett will be submitting an updated plan for the shopping center as part of a settlement with the county. A new public hearing will be held, he said, “and you’ll have an opportunity to come and speak.”

Hood’s and Gladney’s questions are comparable to ones asked at typical Town Hall Meetings, rarely attended by more than 30 to 50 people.

Sports Fields

The commissioners had designated the Tuesday Town Hall as focused on the park plans, and Philip Bernardi, who lives in Oconee County and is Executive Vice President and Chief Banking Officer at Oconee State Bank, was the fourth citizen to step forward to speak.

He told the commissioners that soccer, tackle football, flag football and other field sports have experienced large growth, but “not one new field (has been )built since 2018.”

“We have a new park coming online,” he said, “but it can’t get here fast enough.”

The reference was to the park planned for the Land Application System site on Rocky Branch Road, once that plant is decommissioned. That closing is several years down the road.

The master plan for that new park presented on Tuesday night shows two lacrosse fields, six soccer fields, an athletic field with a track, five multi-use fields, and one multi-use half field.

Bernardi also said getting into and out of Oconee Veterans Park is difficult, presenting a problem that needs to be addressed.

“Thank you for your support, and continued support,” he said to the commissioners. “The parks are important.”

Horse Request

Amanda McCoy, founder of Athens Area Horse Community, was the fifth speaker and the first to talk about horses.


“I noted that there is a bike event this week at Heritage Park,” she said. “I am so happy that they have a safe place to have a competition.”

“The things that we’re asking for in this initial push will make the facilities safe for us to also have competitions–us, horse people,” she said.

“We really need that warm-up arena,” she said, “in addition to getting the footing fixed in the covered (arena), and the fence.”

McCoy and others who keep and ride horses had made a similar pitch at the last Town Hall Meeting in November as well as before the January meeting of the county’s Recreation Advisory Committee.

McCoy asked other who support the improvements at Heritage Park to stand after she had spoken, setting a pattern for the evening, as speakers tried to make their case that their sport had strong support in the community.

McCoy’s Athens Area Horse Community is a business that seeks to grow the horse community within the Athens area, including Oconee County.

Rails To Trails

Brian Brodrick, Mayor of Watkinsville, followed McCoy and said, as a citizen, he wanted to “thank you all for the trail plan, the blue ways, the Hog Mountain Trail, all the rest of those ideas are over due, and (it is) really exciting to see that coming.”

“I think it is a really wise investment in public health and community building,” he added.

Brodrick said that “rails-to-trails is one of the highest priorities for us, and I keep hearing about it from our citizens.”

“I think it could be transformative from a public health standpoint, from a public safety standpoint, from a transportation standpoint, and an economic development standpoint.”

“I just wanted to give our full support to that speaking on behalf of the Mayor and Council,” he said.

A mostly unused rail line runs through the county from the Middle Oconee River between Simonton Bridge Road and Barnett Shoals Road to the Morgan County line in the south, passing through Watkinsville, Bishop, and Farmington. The line has not been designated as abandoned.

The Master Trails Plan shows a trail running the full distance of the rail line, with Watkinsville adding the section within the city limits.

It also shows water trails on the Apalachee and Middle Oconee rivers and a loop connecting Mars Hill Road, Daniells Bridge Road, Hog Mountain Road, and Rocky Branch Road/Malcom Bridge Road.


The seventh and eighth speakers were Kelly Price and Lindsay McLeroy, who said they represented the Oconee Swim League, which sponsors competitive swimming and other activities at pools around the county.

McLeroy And Price (L-R)

Price said the league, run by volunteers like herself, organizes swim meets for more than 700 children in the county and surrounding areas.

“We struggle every years,” Price said, “because our county is growing and we are at capacity. We are doing as much as we can do.”

“I think a county pool could benefit everybody recreationally,” Price said.

Price said she knew that a pool had been a part of county plans in 2004.

“Is it on the plan? Can we get it on the plan?” she asked. “We are asking for help. We need Oconee County Parks and Rec help.”

Commission Chair Daniell confirmed that a pool had been on an earlier master plan.

“Investment initially in the pool is huge,” he continued. “So it is not on there now. That’s why we are here. Make sure you go by and write that down, that you’re interested in putting that back on there.”

Pickleball, Tennis, Disc Golf, Indoor Facilities

The advocates for pickleball, tennis, disc golf, and indoor facilities all asked for more support for their sports.


“Pickleball is growing exponentially across the county, not only in our area,” one of the speakers said.

He thanked the county for adding courts at Herman C. Michael Park and for the plans to convert all of the outdoor courts at that park for pickleball in the future.

The advocate for tennis asked for a “tennis wall” somewhere in the county parks so people could use it for practice.

David Ellis told the Board that the disc golf course at Herman C. Michael Park is “is in dire need of maintenance.”

Kim Thomas called for bringing back the Summer Day Camp and for “multi-use indoor facilities for basketball and other types of programs."

Deborah Lucas, a member of the Bishop City Council, asked the county for help in building a “pocket park” in Bishop.

Lisa Davol, Director of Parks and Recreation for Oconee County, said on Thursday that the county has not offered any summer cay camp since 2019 but does offer summer sports camps through the summer.

Oconee Parks Foundation

Bernardi, in his comments, said he was a member of the Board of Directors of the Oconee Parks Foundation.


“It takes private money, public money, to make our parks great,” he said.

Jeanne Barsanti, another member of the Board of Directors, came to the podium about way through the evening and said the Oconee Parks Foundation has only been in existence as a 501c organization for a year. That status allows it to receive contributions that are tax deductible.

The purpose of the Foundation, she said, “is to help the Parks Department reach some of these project goals (discussed this evening) because the taxpayer can’t do it all.”

“We work very closely with the Parks Department,” she said. “So we are going to support the projects that they support.”

At present, she said, the Foundation is helping with improvements to the Heritage Park arena.

“There could be a lot more projects that people want,” she said. “You need to get organized and work with the Parks Department. But if you need help raising funds, that’s what we are there for.”

Horton’s Response

Horton, as the meeting was ending, gave a strong endorsement of the Foundation.

“If we can get money to that Foundation, we might be able to move a lot quicker,” he said.

Horton said he had written down all the things that people had asked for during the evening.

“We have been running behind for years,” he said. “The population gets us. The population gets us. I don’t think there is anybody up here who doesn’t want to see more facilities.”

“We’re trying every year to get more facilities,” he said. “But it all costs money.”


I recorded the video below from the side of the room, away from the crowd.

Included is a very short clip before the meeting began as people were viewing the materials at the rear of the room.

Bernardi began speaking at 9:44 in the video.

McCoy spoke at 12:02.

Brodrick made his comments at 13:52.

Price and McLeroy began their comments at 15:50 in the video.

Barsanti came to the microphone at 42:29.

Horton made his remarks at 1:15:23.

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