Sunday, July 16, 2023

Oconee County Agrees To Sell Library And Government Annex In Preparation For Move To New Administrative Building

***Citizens Voice Concern About Library Programming***

The Oconee County Library in Watkinsville featured prominently in the beginning and ending of the Board of Commissioners meeting on Tuesday.

Three citizens addressed the commissioners in the citizen comment section as the meeting got underway, raising concerns about the library and its programming, all referencing the packed-hall meeting of the Library Board of Trustees the day before.

Near the end of the meeting, the Board agreed to sell the current library building and property on Experiment Station Road for $1.6 million in anticipation of the opening of the new library at Wire Park on the opposite side of Watkinsville early next year.

In between, the Board approved zoning and a special use for a QuikTrip gas station and convenience store on the U.S. 441 Bypass at the intersection of that road and North Main Street (SR 15).

The special use will allow for inclusion of three diesel truck bays but will not include parking or amenities for truckers.

The Board also approved a variance request by a homeowner to install solar panels in what is technically a front yard but is actually at the rear of the residence, but it denied a variance for an already constructed golf cart shed that violates the required side-yard setback requirements.

The Board formally adopted a new millage rate that represents an 8.4 percent cut in property taxes for the vast majority of property owners in the county.

The Board also approved a new county park master plan as well as a first-ever trail system plan for the county.

Public Comment

At the beginning of each Board meeting, Commission Chair John Daniell invites citizens who wish to address the Board on a topic not on the agenda to step forward, and Grady Rikard quickly seized the opportunity on Tuesday.

Screen Shot: Rikard Addresses Board

“I live in Watkinsville,” he said, “I have three kids, one on the way, and a wife. My wife attends the library quite often here in Watkinsville, and I think we are both pretty upset about the agenda that seems to be pushed at the library.”

Rikard said he was “not looking to silence any voices” and he understands “the importance of alternative opinions on certain matters.”

“It seemed like this past month at the library,” he said, “you couldn't walk in without being hit in the side of the face with all sorts of books for kids that just didn't seem very age appropriate.”

Rikard said he had attended the packed meeting of the Library Board of Trustees the day before but “unfortunately I wasn't able to speak because there were quite a few people there.”

“The promotion of a certain agenda seemed very obvious from the staff,” Rikard said. “And I know a handful of moms, including my wife, that addressed the staff, and they're very kind but didn't seem to necessarily change anything.”

“I wanted to come and address the Board as a concerned citizen, a concerned dad, younger generation,” he said.

More Voices

Julie Mauck, who did speak at the Library Board meeting on Monday, said she agreed with Rikard.

“I made a comment yesterday, when I spoke,” she said about the Library Board meeting, “about the Marxist takeover of the American Library Association, and I got shouted down and laughed and abused over that. However I wanted to let you all know, we are also members of the American Library Association.”

“I just think that we need to reevaluate our membership and relationship with the Athens Regional Library Association,” she said. “There's very nefarious things going on there. A lot of people don't want to see it, but I can show it to you,” she said.

The American Library Association is a professional organization for librarians. The Georgia Library Association is an affiliate and, according to its web site, has more than 800 librarians, trustees, paraprofessionals, and friends as members.

The Athens Regional Library System (not Association) consists of 11 branch locations in five counties in Northeast Georgia. The Oconee County Library in Watkinsville and the Bogart Library are part of that system.

The Athens Regional Library System is part of the Georgia Public Library Service, the state administrative agency for the 60 library systems with 409 facilities in the State of Georgia. The Library Service is a unit of the University System of Georgia.

The 60 Library Systems are state and regional organizations.

Charles Baugh, who also attended the Library Board Meeting on Monday, followed Mauck to the podium on Tuesday and thanked Daniell for speaking about the library at the Town Hall Meeting in June “and indicating that somebody needs to take a look at the community standards.”

“In a controversial issue like this, it takes some intestinal fortitude where somebody in your position to do that,” Baugh said. “And I appreciate it.”

Daniell’s Response

When the three speakers had finished their comments, Daniell said that “the Board of Commissioners does provide funding for the library, but we're not involved in the day-to-day operations of the library with programming or book selection.”

“That's all done at the regional level or at the local library level,” he continued.

At the Town Hall Meeting in June, Daniell had expressed concern, in response to a question from a citizen, about an upcomng June 16 children’s program at the Watkinsville library that included a reading about RuPaul, a drag queen.

Daniell said at the June meeting that he had talked to Library Board Chair Mark Campbell about “a program where they review the programming for that particular library,” Daniell said.

At the meeting on Monday, the Library Board instigated that procedure, with Campbell emphasizing that “we are an advisory Board.”

Campbell said the Board does not have the power to dictate to the library staff that “This has to happen. That can’t happen.”

Daniell said at the Board of Commissioners meeting on Tuesday that he had not gotten a full report on the Monday meeting but “one of their things was to review the programming and make recommendations back to the library staff on what they thought was an appropriate program.”

“So hopefully that'll help alleviate some concerns that are out there,” he said on Tuesday.

Library Sale

Near end of the meeting, the Board voted to accept a bid from A&B Holdco LLC for $1,582,114 for the current Library Building on Experiment Station Road and a bid from Darron Britt of $1,857,000 for the Government Annex on SR 15 on the south of Watkinsville.

A&B Holdco, organized in May of this year by Victor Lang, with offices in Oconee County, was the high of four bidders for the Library. Britt, an Oconee resident, was the high of six bidders for the Annex.

County Administrator Justin Kirouac said the county currently is working on lease term documents that will extend occupancy of the library through March. The new library in Wire Park is expected to be ready for occupancy sometime after the first of the new year.

Kirouac said the main annex building will be vacated this month but the county will need to retain use of two others buildings, the facilities shop and the Water Resources Department field services building, as tenants.

The county will need to use those buildings until a permanent Field Services Building is constructed at the Land Application System site off Rocky Branch Road, which will be at least two years away, Kirouac said. The county will lease the two buildings for $8,000 per month.

Back in January, the Board of Commissioners had decided to sell the Library and the Annex in anticipation of the move at the end of this month to the new Administrative Building on North Main Street (SR 15) on the north side of Watkinsville.

In March of 2022, the Board of Commissioners voted to accept a bid of $376,250 for the Elections Office Building, 10 Court Street, on the south side of the Courthouse, and a bid of $355,000 for the Ward Building, on the opposite side of the Courthouse at 3 Third Street.

Britt was the higher of two bidders for the Elections Office, and VSC Properties LLLC was the highest of three bidders for the Ward Building. VSC Properties is organized by Virginia Wells of Oconee County.

New Facility

Daniell said at the beginning of the meeting on Tuesday that it would be the last held by the Board at the Courthouse.

The new Administrative Building, with the official address of 7635 Macon Highway, will be open to the public starting at 8 a.m. on Monday, July 24, Daniell said.

All county offices will be closed on Friday, July 21, for the final move, he said.

“We're boxing everything up, throwing a bunch of stuff away, and...the 21st will be the final moving day,” he said.

All county offices and the Tax Commissioner Office will be moving, Daniell said, and “the only things that will be remaining in the Courthouse are court related operations: Probate Court, Superior Court, Juvenile Court as well as Magistrate Court along with the Clerk of Court's Office.”

Daniell invited the public to a ribbon cutting for the new building at 4:30 p.m. on July 25 that will be followed by a tour of the new building and “then you're welcome to stay for another exciting meeting of the Board of Commissioners at 6 p.m.”

The county will continue to live stream meetings, Daniell said, but participation will no long be accepted remotely.

QuikTrip Rezone

Athens Attorney Eric Eberhardt, on behalf of QuikTrip, was asking the Board of Commissioners on Tuesday to rezone 6.3 acres on the U.S. 441 Bypass, across from the new administrative building, to B-2 (Highway Business) for a gas station and convenience store.

Rendition: Four Pumps But Three Bays For Large Trucks

QuikTrip also was seeking a special use approval to construct three diesel truck refueling bays at the rear of the convenience store. A fourth pump will sell diesel fuel, but not for large trucks.

As had been the case when Eberhardt presented the request to the Planning Commission last month, much of his presentation on Tuesday focused on those three diesel truck refueling bays.

Access to the proposed gas station and convenience store will be via a fourth side to the existing three-sided traffic signal at the intersection of U.S. 441 and SR 15 (North Main Street).

The 6.3 acre parcel will be carved from two larger parcels currently zoned AR (Agricultural Residential) that abut the University of Georgia Durham Horticulture Farm and a tract of the J. Phil Campbell Sr. Research Center.

Kerry Barwick and Ken Barwick, through Jacobs Properties LLLP, currently own the two properties, both of which have frontage on U.S. 441.

Eberhardt told the Board and the Planning Commission that he was representing both QuikTrip and Jacobs Properties LLLP and that the property to be rezoned is under contract with QuikTrip.

The Planning Commission recommended approval of the rezone and special use for the truck pumps.

Eberhardt: Not A Truck Stop

Eberhardt said the plan before the Board was for a rezone of the 6.3 acres, with 4.3 of those coming from a 22-acre tract that QuikTrip will purchase in its entirety from Jacobs Properties.

The remaining 2 acres will come from the larger 44.8-acre parcel and are needed to obtain access to the cut on U.S. 441 that will provide access to the QuikTrip, Eberhardt said. QuikTrip will not purchase that larger tract.

Eberhardt said QuikTrip was purchasing the full 22-acre parcel because the owner required that for the sale but “there are no plans for anything additional anytime soon for the remainder of that tract.”

Eberhardt said he wanted to address concerns expressed by residents of Summit Grove subdivision on the opposite side of U.S. 441 at the Planning Commission.

“This is not a truck stop,” he said. “This is not truck stop property. It will not be developed in that way. That's not what's happening here.”

Eberhardt said there will be no space for truck parking. While there will be a kitchen, he said, it will serve “to order food” only.

“There will be no indoor seating,” he said. “There will be no indoor tables. There are no showers or any other amenities that are associated with the travel center.”

“In fact the space that is being developed--the building that's being placed on this tract--is about 2,000 square feet smaller than what is utilized for a travel center the QT would develop,” he said.

Message Not Received

Mauck, who lives in Summit Grove, came to the podium as the first of four who spoke against the rezone and special use request. All four referred to the proposed QuikTrip as a truck stop.

Screen Shot: Tschepikow Addresses Board

“I understand it from the Planning Commission meeting and tonight that this will be a 24-hour truck stop,” Mauck said. She had spoke against the rezone at that meeting as well.

“QuikTrip will be buying all 22 acres,” she said. “Right now, they're only trying to rezone four to six acres for the truck stop, gas station, whatever you want to call it. But it will have truck bays. And that leaves 16 plus acres for them to expand onto at a later date.”

Marla Tschepikow, who also spoke against the QuikTrip request at the Planning Commission, told the Commissioners “I'm here tonight to voice concerns that I have specifically about the impact of this proposed rezoning on crime and safety in the area.”

“I know that QuikTrip is specifying that this is not technically a truck stop for various reasons, but they also, on their sketch, have indicated that there will be truck parking...where they would park to be able to go into the convenience store.”

Ginger Redwine said she also was concerned about safety because “sex and human trafficking and drug trafficking all goes back to truck stops.”

Eric Eley said “I would say that I believe it is entirely plausible that the truck stop would not add more traffic, but it will most certainly back that traffic up at the light.”

“I don't see how a gas station for truckers that pass through the community is of any value to the community,” he said. “It certainly doesn't help our immediate neighborhoods.”

Horton On Safety

Commissioner Chuck Horton responded to the citizen concern about safety once the public hearing had ended.

Screen Shot: Tarwater Addresses Board

“There's been no action by a local government or a state agency to shut down any store because of criminal activity being allowed to occur?” Horton asked Charlie Tarwater, Project Manager for QuikTrip, who accompanied Eberhardt at the meeting.

“That's correct, yes sir,” Tarwater responded.

“How many employees do you have working at night,” Horton then asked.

“I believe in a location like this it would be up to operations, but I would assume two to three,” Tarwater said.

Elijah Wood, 23, working alone at the nearby RaceTrac station at U.S. 441 and Hog Mountain Road, was shot and killed in an attempted robbery on March 19, 2021.

A federal grand jury returned a four-count indictment last year charging a former University of Georgia football player, Akhil Nasir Crumpton, with murder and other charges.

“If I approve, if I vote to approve,” Horton said later in the meeting. “I don't want to see one person in there. If there's two, then ones out moving around outside, I understand that, but preferably three.”

Harden, Saxon On Truck Stop

Commissioner Amrey Harden told Tarwater that “I understand the dilemma that you faced that the property owner would not sell just what you needed” and QuikTrip was required to purchase the entire 22-acre tract.

“But I think that you understand,” he continued. “I don't think we have any appetite (for)--as you call them a travel center or a truck center or whatever you call it.”

Tarwater told Harden that QuikTrip generally uses 10 to 12 acres for a truck stop, which also would have “double or even triple the fueling stations for trucks.”

“Okay,” Harden said, “so Mr. Tarwater, you take it back to the home office (in Tulsa, Okla.) that we really don’t have an appetite for that type of...”

“Well I understand that, and we have no plans for expansion,” Tarwater said.

“There's no appetite,” Harden said.

“I do understand that, yes,” Tarwater said.

“I will reiterate what you're saying,” Eberhardt said. “If you approve it (the request), this is it for QuikTrip in this location. There's not going to be any expansion.”

The Board unanimously approved the rezone and special use after Commissioner Saxon added the condition that QuikTrip had to clearly label with signs and markings on the roadway that no truck parking is allowed.

Solar Panels

Joe Irving, 1117 Knob Creek Drive, asked the county for a variance from the Oconee County Unified Development Code to place a ground-mounted solar energy system in the front yard of his property.

The 9.6 acre parcel has frontage both on Knob Creek Drive and Mason Mill Road, both of which intersect with Spartan Lane in the northeast of the county.

The county planning staff recommended approval of the request.

“This is a double frontage property,” Guy Herring, Director of Planning and Code Enforcement, told the Board on Tuesday evening.

The property originally was two separate lots, Herring said, and the existing home or structure faces Knob Creek

The Board approved the request unanimously.

Variance Request For Golf Cart Garage

Thomas and Theresa Haddock, 1520 Autumn Park, off Barber Creek Road in the Georgia Club, asked the Board on Tuesday for a Special Exception Variance to reduce the side building setback from 7.5 feet to 2.2 feet for a golf cart enclosure.

Golf Cart Shed At Center Of Dispute

The enclosure, which already exists, should have been set back 7.5 feet from the property line. It is only 2.2 feet from that line, meaning it violates the county Unified Development Code.

Several neighbors spoke in favor of granting the variance, but others did not.

Tommy Miller, president of the Georgia Club Home Owners Association, told the Board that “part of the process of moving into an existing home within the Georgia Club or buying a new home within the Georgia Club is the new owner must sign documents stating they understand and will abide by covenants and the bylaws as established and will abide by all rules set forth by the Board of Directors.”

Miller said the Haddocks did not seek approval of the Home Owners Association for the golf shed, and he asked the Board to deny the variance.

“What they said is true,” Haddock said, referring to Miller and the other opponents, when he was given a chance to speak again.

“My problem is I did not get approval from these folks,” Haddock said, again referring to Miller. “When I found out I needed to get approval, I went over there and applied for it. And then someone called the Planning Commission.”

Haddock clearly meant the Planning and Code Enforcement Department, which determined that Haddock did not have a building permit and could not get one because the shed was in violation of the county code.

“I don't know what else I can do,” Haddock said. “I don't want to have to tear this thing down. I've got-- you know--there's $20,000 here. It’s not an eyesore.”

“If you all give me some lenience here and approve this thing, I’ll get with the HOA and try to work out those problems with them,” he said.

“I made a mistake. I really did,” Haddock said. “I’ve never even thought about the setback.”

Discussion Of Request

Under questioning by Commissioner Horten, Haddock and Miller could not agree on what transpired when the HOA learned about the construction.

Haddock told Horton he never applied for a county building permit because “I didn’t know I needed one.”

The hearing and discussion took 30 minutes, and, in the end, Commissioners Horton and Harden voted to deny Haddock the variance.

Commissioner Saxon voted against the motion.

Commissioner Mark Thomas was not present at the meeting.

Millage Rate

On Tuesday, the commissioners officially set the new millage rate of 4.824 for the unincorporated parts of the county and 5.804 for the property in the county that is within the boundaries of one of the county’s four cities.

Screen Shot: Haddock Responds To Horton

For the owners of property in the unincorporated parts of the county, that millage rate represents an 8.4 percent cut in property taxes. For residents of the four cities, the cut in property taxes is 2.3 percent.

The millage rate of 4.824 reflects a larger cut than the 1 mill drop in property taxes the commissioner promised when voters approved the Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax last November.

The 5.804 millage rate for those voters who live in the legal boundaries of the county’s four cities will be exactly 1 mill lower than last year’s rate.

The millage rate is higher and the cut is lower for those living within the city boundaries--which do not correspond with postal addresses–because of the way the state distributes revenues from what amounts to a sales tax on insurance premiums paid by people who live within the county.

The Oconee County Board of Education is proposing to cut the millage rate for the county’s schools from 15.5 mills to 15.0 mills, which represents an increase in taxes of 9.53 percent because of growth in the county’s tax digest.

The required public hearings on the tax increase are set for 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. on July 24 and 5:30 p.m. on July 31. The Board is expected to vote to set the rate after the final hearing on July 31.

All three hearings will be in the Board of Education Board Room, 34 School Street, Watkinsville.

Park And Trail Plan

The Board on Tuesday also gave final approval to master plans for the county’s parks as well as for a new trail system for the county.

Included are plans for a new park at some point in the future at the current Land Applications System site on Rocky Branch Road and for a new park on the Middle Oconee River, also at some future date.

The Trail Plan has three components.

The top priority is a box-like trail in the north of the county. Total length would be 15.2 miles.

The plan labels this as and “Off-street path improving connectivity of populated areas to schools and local parks.”

Two projects are labeled as Priority Two.

The first of these is an “Off-street 12 foot wide paved trail following the Athens Line railroad.” Total length of this Rails To Trails project would be 11.4 miles.

The second Priority Two project is “Launch sites and designated segments of the Middle Oconee, Oconee, and Apalachee Rivers for recreational use such as kayaking, canoeing, or tubing.”

The total distance of these two water trails is 17.9 miles.


The video below is on the county’s YouTube Channel.

The meeting begins at 7:30 in the video.

Citizen comments begin at 8:53 in the video with Rikard.

Discussion of the QuikTrip rezone starts at 17:51 in the video.

The request by Irving for solar panels is at 1:28:22 in the video.

The request by Thomas and Theresa Haddock is at 1:34:03.

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