Thursday, January 04, 2024

Oconee County Commission Accepts Deannexation Of Property In North High Shoals, Despite Pleas From Citizens

***Commissioners Complain About New Law***

Oconee County commissioners on Tuesday night consented to the deannexation of 175.8 acres between Jefferson Road and the Apalachee River from the Town of North High Shoals.

The Board took the action in response to a petition to the Mayor and Council of the Town of North High Shoals from Tony Townley, General Partner of Townley Family Partnership LLLP, who owns the 175.8 acres and an adjoining 407.3 acres outside the Town limits.

The commissioners voted after hearing from 18 different speakers, including the outgoing and incoming mayors of North High Shoals and several of the Council members, asking them to turn down the resolution supporting the deannexation.

The commissioners made clear that they were not seeking to have the 175.8 acres removed from North High Shoals and added to the unincorporated parts of the county.

They stipulated in their vote that they were deferring to the decision of the Mayor and Council of North High Shoals on the petition from Townley.

Several commissioners were critical of the legislation passed by the General Assembly–with the full support of Oconee County’s legislators–that put them in the position of being forced to act on the petition from Townley.

The North High Shoals Council has scheduled a public hearing on the Townley petition for 6 p.m. on Jan. 22 in the Town Hall at 260 Hillsboro Road before it will act on the request.

Residents of North High Shoals filled the Commission Chamber on Tuesday night, where the commissioners also approved an intergovernmental agreement with the Town for paving roads in Hickory Ridge and Hickory Lake subdivisions and the abandonment of Hillsboro Road in North High Shoals so the Town can take over responsibility for the road.

Opening Comments

“So just a little background on what's going on here tonight,” Commission Chair John Daniell said as he began consideration of the county’s response to the Townley petition to North High Shoals.


“Prior to 2023, cities and towns in Georgia had the ability to exercise nearly unlimited powers of annexation,” he said. “The creation of new cities, mainly in the Metro Atlanta area, have become very frequent occurrences,” he continued.

“In some cases, entire unincorporated communities were incorporated into a new city despite objections from the majority of that community,” he said. “And those residents had no way to back out of that city.”

Deannexation was controlled entirely by the city, Daniell said.

In 2023, the legislature passed, and Gov. Brian Kemp signed, House Bill 374, “which places the power of deannexation with a property owner as long the request complies with certain conditions,” Daniell said.

House Bill 374 stipulates that “the municipal corporation shall approve such deannexation unless it finds that the deannexation would be detrimental to the health, safety, and welfare of the residents and property owners of the area to be deannexed or to the area remaining within the municipality.”

The bill also states that the governing authority of the county in which such property is located must adopt a resolution “consenting to such deannexation.” It does not stipulate what criteria the county can use in deciding how to act.

“Really the question before the Board of Commissioners tonight,” Daniell said, “is do we object to the town of North High Shoals deannexing this parcel.”

Townley Explanation

Daniell asked Russell Wills, who said he was representing Townley Family Partnership, to speak first at the public hearing on the resolution before the Commission.


Townley Family Partnership has been acquiring farmland in Oconee County “for some 30 some odd years,” Wills said. Townley, who grew up in and lives in Oconee County, is one of the founders of Zaxby’s.

Most of those large tracts of land are south of SR 53, Wills said, “but this one we bought in September of 2022.”

According to county tax records, Townley purchased three separate tracts totalling 583.1 acres on Sept. 9, 2022, for $7.6 million. North High Shoals, and these three tracts, are north of Hog Mountain Road.

“This particular property had about a 200-acre hayfield in the backside on the other side of Lane Creek,” Wills said. “So it was our primary purpose to buy this property for that 200 acre hayfield and to expand that existing field.”

Lane Creek cuts through the purchased property on its way to the Apalachee River.

Wills said Townley has encountered a problem because the “primary access to get to that back hayfield. It has a small bridge on it. Maximum weight is 10,000 pounds dispersed across the bridge.”

“This hay season we weren't able to get back there with hay equipment just due to the weight of the hay equipment and then ultimately bringing hay bales back out on that little tiny bridge would be impossible.”

“So the last several months we've a lot of options and how to utilize that back portion and get to it in a way that's feasible knowing that we could have 30,000 pound equipment coming in and out of there.”

Uncertainty From Joint Jurisdiction

“I know probably most of the people here speaking in opposition have seen a site plan we talked to North High Shoals about,” Wills said. “At this point we know we're probably going to lean towards putting in a big culvert over Lane Creek.”

Labeled Map Showing City Boundary (Orange Outline)
And Townley Properties (Red Outline)

“There's been a plan to, like I said, do some large acreage lots just to offset the cost of that bridge,” Wills said. “There’s been some plans just to clear it and fence it for cows. There's been plans just to leave it in timber for now."

The problem, Wills said, is that the acreage falls both under the zoning control of North High Shoals and of Oconee County.

“Whether we're building a lake. Whether we're doing a couple lots. Whether we're building a cattle barn, right now we're playing on both sides of the fence, and we need to fall under one zoning ordinance.”

“So we talked to the city about the possibility of what a residential, a small residential development, would look like,” he said. “In the process we got made aware of the new legislation that's come out on deannexation. With 70 percent of the land being in the county and 30 percent being in the city, being in the county makes a whole lot more sense.”

“Today we don't have a specific plan on what we're going to do,” he said. ‘But we know whether we're farming, whether we're doing large lots, whether we're building the lake, we've got to be under one jurisdiction, and our preference is to be within the county.”

The Townley land within North High Shoals currently is zoned A-1 (Agricultural District), and this would have to be rezoned by the Town to A-2 (Agricultural Residential District), with a minimum lot size of five acres, for a Town subdivision.

Daniell said at the beginning of the hearing that, were the land to be returned to the county, a five-acre subdivision could be built without a rezone, but a four-acre subdivision would require a rezone and “lot sizes of less than four acres is not consistent with the Comprehensive Plan adopted by the Board of Commissioners.”

Submitted Narrative

Carter Engineering submitted to the Oconee County Planning and Code Enforcement Department a narrative, dated Oct. 12, 2023, for what it called Apalachee Estates, a 32-lot subdivision with minimum lot size of five acres.

Map From Narrative For Proposed Subdivision

Since some of the acreage falls outside the current boundaries of North High Shoals, “The intent of the applicant is to annex the county property into the Town of North High Shoals,” the narrative states.

The development is to be accessed from Jefferson Road, according to the narrative.

Water is to be provided by Oconee County Water Resources Department. Sewerage treatment will be via onsite septic systems.

“The petitioners plan to complete the zoning efforts for the subject property by January of 2024,” the narrative states. “Once plans are approved and permits issued, construction efforts will begin on the site grading and infrastructure as needed. All lots are scheduled to be completed by January of 2025.”

Size of the homes will be 2,500 square feet and up, according to the narrative.

Carter Engineering submitted the narrative to the Oconee County Planning and Code Enforcement Department because the county staff, under agreement with North High Shoals, handles the initial review of zoning requests in North High Shoals.

After staff review, the zoning request would go before the Oconee County Planning Commission, which has a representative of North High Shoals, and then back to the Mayor and Council of North High Shoals for a final decision on the zoning request.

Townley’s rezone request for Apalachee Estates was scheduled for the November Planning Commission meeting, according to Ethan Perry, Planner with the county.

The request “was withdrawn prior to the meeting, and a staff report was never completed for this case,” Perry said in an email message on Thursday.

Incoming Mayor Speaks

The first of those who spoke in opposition to the deannexation request before the county, following the comments of Wills, was Steven Goad, the incoming mayor and former representative of North High Shoals on the Oconee County Planning Commission.


“High Shoals has been on record since 1794 as a community and since 1928 as a municipality,” he said. “It’s a very tight knit community.”

“I’ve heard from neighbors and friends that there’s great opposition to this,” he said. “I’ve taken a lot of phone calls the last several weeks...and what I do not hear is anybody in favor of deannexation.”

“I do not hear anybody say we can’t win this,” he said. “I don’t hear anybody say this might be a good idea. None of that comes about. It’s complete opposition from everybody I hear from.”

None of those who followed Goad to the podium contradicted that conclusion.

Chris Bell said “I can appreciate that they bought the land perhaps with plans for raising hay, etc, and now it looks like it might make more sense for them to raise houses instead.” But that means more traffic, he said.

Christopher Calloway said “I'd like to make a point that this particular parcel in question was never forcefully annexed into High Shoals. Historically it has been inside of the city limits.”

“A case like this,” he said, “you're pulling on a thread of the fabric of the Town, and if this deannexation is passed then what's to stop other deannixations inside of High Shoals or other municipalities in the county or in the state for that matter.”

Other Comments

Incoming Council Member Fred Johnson, who, along with Goad, will be sworn in at the regular North High Shoals Council meeting on Jan. 15, said that, prior to the meeting on Tuesday, he had “not heard any mention of the cattle being put on that land.”

“This came to the attention of the town when a plan for a subdivision with lots and a road was presented to the city,” he said. “Not with a discussion of, hey we need a throughway to get to hayfields.”

Vita Beall said “I don’t have any problem with cows being out there. The traffic on Jefferson Road is unreal. It would be a nightmare to have 32 more houses.”

Almost all of those who followed assumed that a subdivision was going to built and voiced opposition based on traffic concerns.

Joy Sizemore told the commissioners that deannexation “would change the fabric of North High Shoals forever, and once we do that, we cannot go back.”

North High Shoals Council Woman Meagan Cundiff told the commissioners “If you end up voting specifically not to oppose the deannexation I would request some verbiage that would specify that the decision is in the power of the Town's decision-making capabilities.”

Violet Dawe, the outgoing mayor, said “we have not annexed other property into the town. That’s been the historic limit for a long time.”

“This law that came into effect mid 2023 has a lot of unexpected consequences,” she added. “And if the deannexation can happen here, as somebody said, it can happen in any town throughout the state.”

Goad And Dawe On Cows

Both Goad and Dawe on Wednesday expressed surprise on the presentation by Wills at the meeting on Tuesday.


“That was the first time that anybody that I know of of the group heard anything other than a subdivision,” Goad said.

Dawe said she and North High Shoals Code Enforcement Director Morgan Wheeler met Jeff Carter from Carter Engineering on the fall, where Carter presented plans for the 32-lot subdivision.

“And there was a section that was outside of High Shoals, and we asked him to see if they were willing to annex it into High Shoals,” she said. “And they were willing to do that.”

This would require a rezoning of the land, she said, and “Signs went up along Jefferson Road for the rezone.”

She said the signs were up for a day or so. “It wasn’t very long, and then, on the same day, they sent an email, saying they were not going through with the annexation, but they were going to deannex.”

“They never said a word about the equipment over the heavy bridge,” she said.

“It’s a crazy law. It is foreboding for a lot of towns,” she said. “If they deannex this, we have people on the other side of the town who may want to deannex, because we have stronger zoning and we have an extremely good person who does the code enforcement.”

Commission Response On Legal Options

Comments from the opponents of the deannexation resolution spoke for about 30 minutes and were followed by a nearly 30 minute discussion among the commissioners.


Commissioner Chuck Horton was the first to speak, and he said “I didn't ask for it-- didn't go looking for this property. I'm still trying to figure my way with the law.”

“I really would like High Shoals to be the ones that deal with this,” Horton said. He said it was his understanding that by approving the resolution it put the decision before the Town.

“That's my understanding as well,” Commission Chair Daniell said. “By not objecting or approving the resolution, it puts it back into the Town Council.”

“I'm absolutely 100 percent certain, County Attorney Daniel Haygood said. “If the county consents tonight, the next step that takes place is it goes back to North High Shoals City Council, which can then turn it down on the basis of safety, public health and welfare. And I think we all heard a lot of input on those factors tonight.”

“The legislature didn't do any of us any favors by the way they wrote this,” he said. “There are no standards set out for the county's consent or not consent.”

“I also don't think the legislature put a whole lot of thought into what happens with small towns because what they did, what they said, was property owners have the right to deannex. That was where they went.”

“I think the standard for the county is we can’t act arbitrarily and capriciously in refusing to grant consent, but once we grant consent, it’s up to the City Council, to the Mayor and City Council, to determine this action to the detriment of the citizens of North High Shoals.”

Atlanta Laws

“I think the legislature did a disservice not only to the citizens of North High Shoals but every community, town, city, whatever size,” Commissioner Amrey Harden said. “Because I think this law, if I'm not mistaken, applies to every municipality regardless of size.”


“Of course, you know how that law is made,” he said, “is probably slipped in with another law and nobody knew it.”

“One thing that we here like to tell our legislators in Atlanta is we want local control,” Harden said. “We don't want the folks in Atlanta telling us what to do. And they'll give us the time of day and say yes we believe in local control, but they don't necessarily act like that.”

“I'm opposed to this whole idea of y'all losing a historic part of your city, your town,” he said. “As you said you did not annex this in. It's been there from the get-go, how many hundreds of years ago that was.”

“If the Town of (North) High Shoals wants to deannex it,” he said. “I don't think I have a problem with that. If that's what y'all want to do, I'm all in favor of it.”

Harden said he wanted to add to the resolution what he called a pre-approval.

“If the Town of (North) High Shoals approves the deaannexation,” he said, “we give them a prior approval on the consent to accept that land back out of the city back into the county.”

“I don’t have any problem adding that in,” Attorney Haygood said, “because that’s what the law says anyway.”

Final Decision

“None of us are safe when they meet,” Horton said of the legislature. “I wish they'd meet 24 hours and they’ve got to leave.”


“Months back we didn't have this issue,” he said. “Things were kind of rocking around pretty good. But you know now we’ve got to deal with it. And none of us here voted that way.”

“I agree,” he said. “I want High Shoals to deal with this. That's where it is. That's where the boundary is. That's where the property is.”

“I just want you to know when you leave here,” he said. “It’s not us shopping for property. It never was.”

Haygood amended the resolution accepting the Townley property back into the county by adding “subject to the approval of such deannexation by the Town of North High Shoals.”

The motion passed unanimously.

HB 374

Both Daniell and Oconee County Attorney Haygood described the change represented by House Bill 374 as shifting the power on deannexation from the city to the property owner.

Clip From Georgia Urban Ag Council Web Site
Celebrating Signing of HB 374

“Prior to HB 374, city had full discretion on deannexation,” Daniell wrote in an email on Wednesday evening. “Now the property owner has the right to deannexation.”

Prior to House Bill 374, Haygood said, “the cities had absolute veto power over the process so it was rarely used.”

House Bill 374 as passed actually was a combination of proposed legislation.

The first section is called the Landscape Equipment and Agricultural Fairness (LEAF) Act and prohibits local governments from banning “gasoline-powered leaf blowers.”

The second section bans local governments from adopting a policy restricting “type or source of energy or fuel.”

Section 3 changes the law on municipal annexation of territory to include the procedures for deannexation.

Votes On HB 374

HB 374 passed the Senate with a vote of 32 to 20 on March 29, the final day of the session, and the House that same day with a vote of 101 to 66.

Sen. Bill Cowsert, who represents Oconee County in the Senate, voted in favor of the bill.

Houston Gaines and Marcus Wiedower, who represent Oconee County in the House, voted in favor of the bill.

Gaines and Wiedower also represent parts of Clarke County in the House, and Trey Rhodes, another of Clarke County’s representatives, also voted in favor of HB 374.

Spencer Frye, whose entire district is in Clarke County, voted against HB 374.

Cowsert, Gaines, Wiedower, and Rhodes are Republicans, while Frye is a Democrat.

Other Action Involving North High Shoals

While it is not uncommon for the agenda of a Board of Commissioners meeting to involve an item relating to one of the county’s four incorporated areas, it is almost unprecedented for an agenda to contain three items for a single city or town.

In response to a request from the city of North High Shoals, the Board on Tuesday approved the abandonment of Hillsboro Road inside the boundaries of North High Schools so the Town can assume responsibility for traffic control on the roadway.

The Board also approved an Intergovernmental Agreement with the Town of North High Shoals for the paving of 1.9 miles of roadway in Hickory Ridge subdivision and Hickory Lake subdivision.

Of those miles, 1.1 are in the Town, with the remaining 0.8 are within the unincorporated parts of the county.

Because the work can best be handled by a single contract with an appropriate company, according to the agreement, the county will enter into a contract in the first six months of 2024.

The contract should not exceed $625,000, according to the agreement, and the Town is to be responsible for 57 percent of the costs, with the county responsible for 43 percent.

Zoning Decisions

The Board also gave unanimous approval of five zoning requests.


The Board granted a variance from minimum required screening for 5.8 acres located on the Dooley Connector inside the Parkside subdivision as part of construction of self-storage units.

The Board approved a variance for a reduction in setback lines from 30 feet to 28 feet for a 0.98-acre lot located at 3022 Spartan Estates Drive.

The Board granted a variance for Westminster Christian Academy to waive the sidewalk requirement on New High Shoals Road due to steep slopes, existing utilities, and public safety. The campus is on 43.42 acres at New High Shoals Road and South Bishop Farms Parkway.

The Board approved the rezone of 4.0 acres at 1210 Burr Harris Road from Agricultural District to Agricultural Residential District to split the acreage into two two-acre lots. The property currently has two houses occupied by unrelated families.

Finally, the Board approved the rezone of 6.1 acres at 1251 Silkes Road from Agricultural District to Agricultural Residential District for the construction of a three-lot subdivision with a shared driveway.

Shane and Michelle Cox, who live on adjoining property, spoke in opposition to the Silkes Road rezone.

As had been the case at the Planning Commission, Shane Cox voice concern about the impact of the septic systems for the three new lots on a well that is located near the property lines and serves his house.

Commissioner Mark Thomas told Cox that “your well will have to be taken into account when the septic system is put on that lot so that there's proper distance away from your well to install the septic system.”


The video below is from the Oconee County YouTube Channel.

I also attended the meeting and recorded my own video. The pictures above are from my video.

The meeting begins at 8:55 in the video below.

Discussion of the Townley request begins at 53:11.

Wills made his comments beginning at 56:14 in the video.

Goad began the comments of those opposed at 1:01:52.

Commissioner discussion of the deannexation resolution begins at 1:32:20 in the video.

The vote was at 1:59:32.

1 comment:

Harold Thompson said...

So did our local legislative reps forget to look past the performative nonsense of the Leaf Blower bill and not realize the chaos that HB374 would cause?