Sunday, July 27, 2014

Busy Oconee County Board of Commissioners Agenda Includes Liquor-By-The-Drink Referendum And Daniells Bridge Road Flyover Agreement

COLA For Retirees Too

Discussion of a liquor-by-the-drink referendum tops a busy agenda of the Oconee County Board of Commissioners Tuesday night that also includes consideration of contracts for three roadway projects, at least one of which has been controversial in the past.

Also on the agenda is an amendment to the benefits plans for retired county employees that led to open disagreement among commissioners early last month and an update on Mars Hill Road widening project that has been let for bid by the Georgia Department of Transportation.

Daniells Bridge Road Extension
Click To Enlarge

The liquor-by-the-drink referendum had been anticipated, but the inclusion of the agenda of the controversial flyover of SR Loop 10 to create a commercial loop connecting to Daniells Bridge Road had not.

That project officially is listed as “Long Range,” but behind-the-scenes negotiations by the county have resulted in the contract before the BOC Tuesday night that calls for approval of a concept plan in May of 2015 and authorization of construction funds in August of 2018.

The BOC meeting, which is to begin at 7 p.m. in the courthouse in Watkinsville, could be a lengthy one, depending largely on how many people want to express an opinion on the liquor-by-the-drink referendum.

November Referendum

County Attorney Daniel Haygood is scheduled to introduce discussion of a referendum for the November ballot for “sales of distilled spirits by the drink in restaurants only” as the seventh item on the 21-item agenda.

The county, on its agenda web page, has released no information on what Haygood will propose.

Voters in Oconee County most recently voted on the issue in November of 2002, when just fewer than 55 percent of the voters rejected the option. They turned down similar referendums in 1996 and 1990.

In 2008, the Board of Commissioners approved the sale of beer and wine in restaurants, as it is allowed to do without seeking voter input. It cannot approve alcohol sales without a referendum.

Pressure From Various Corners

Pressure for the referendum is coming from Epps Bridge Centre developer Frank Bishop, the Oconee County Chamber of Commerce, and the county’s Industrial Development Authority.

Both the Chamber and the IDA, the majority of whose members are appointed by the BOC, said it was not taking a stand on liquor-by-the-drink but only on whether it should go on the ballot. Bishop clearly called for passage of the referendum.

The IDA argued the issue should be on the ballot to support restaurant development, which is also what Bishop has said is his rationale.

No one will get any benefit unless the issue passes, contradicting the IDA argument that it was only supporting the referendum and not a specific outcome.

So far, no organized opposition to the referendum has surfaced.

GDOT Agreements

BOC Chairman Melvin Davis is bringing to the BOC for approval three Project Framework Agreements between the county and the Georgia Department of Transportation.

One is a $21.7 million reconstruction of Jimmy Daniell Road, another is a $3.9 million widening of Daniells Bridge Road, and the third is the $4.9 million extension of Daniells Bridge Road and flyover of SR Loop 10.

In each case, the county is being asked to agree to timelines and to its contribution of monies for the projects.

The county would contribute 5 percent of the funding for the Jimmy Daniell Road construction, 76 percent of the funding for the Daniells Bridge Road widening, and 6 percent of the funding for the Daniells Bridge Road extension and flyover.

State and federal monies would be used for the remainder of each of the projects.

Flyover Controversial

The Daniells Bridge Road extension and flyover have been opposed by residents of nearby subdivisions in the past, with much of the vocal opposition coming from Welbrook Farms subdivision, in which I reside.

In 2011, the Board of Commissioners eliminated the Daniells Bridge Road extension and flyover from the list of projects that the county would include on the 2012 Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax referendum in response to citizen complaints. That tax ultimately was turned down.

Extension Will Connect On Right
Blind Curve Ahead

Bob Isaac, a resident of Welbrook Farms and member of the county’s Citizen Advisory Committee on Land Use and Transportation Planning, has continued to voice his opposition to the project at meetings of that group.

The updated timetable and funding formula that will be before the BOC on Tuesday night has never been presented to the Citizen Advisory Committee.

Sherry McDuffie, a transportation planner with Madison Athens-Clarke Oconee Regional Transportation Study (MACORTS), told me on Friday that she is well aware of the opposition to this project.

Timetable Moved

McDuffie told me that the construction timetable for the project remains “Long Range” in MACORTS documents. The project is listed that way on the MACORTS web site in the FY2015-2018 Transportation Improvement Program document drafted on June 25, 2014.

The diagram of the project at the top of this post is from the June 25 report.

McDuffie also told me that timetables change when local officials negotiate with GDOT on their own priorities.

She told me she was aware changes were being negotiated for the two Daniells Bridge Road projects, but she had not been informed of the details of the timetable before the BOC on Tuesday evening.

GDOT sent Oconee County BOC Chairman Davis two separate letters on July 3 informing him of the new project timetable.

Davis sent a note to the other four members of the Board of Commissioners on July 10 indicating he would be continuing the discussions with GDOT “next week.”

Daniells Bridge Widening

The widening of Daniells Bridge Road also is listed as “Long Range” in the MACORTS documents.

Those documents also indicate that the widening will be only from just south of Chestnut Hill Road to Hog Mountain Road.

The GDOT letter of July 3, 2014, to Davis states that the project involves construction of turn lanes on Daniells Bridge Road all the way from Mars Hill Road to Hog Mountain Road.

The county already has installed turn lanes on Daniells Bridge Road from Mars Hill Road to Founders Boulevard.

Blind Curve

Emil Beshara, director of public works for the county, has said in the past it will be possible to make Daniells Bridge Road three lanes through the blind curve on the roadway as it abuts the entranceway to SR Loop 10 from SR 316, but not wider without taking additional right-of-way.

The Daniells Bridge Road Extension would connect to the existing Daniells Bridge Road just east of this blind section of the roadway, putting additional traffic on the roadway.

Blind Curve Traveling East

The Daniells Bridge Road Extension itself, according to the MACORTS documents, will be four lanes wide with a raised median.

It also could include entrance and exit ramps from SR Loop 10 at the flyover.

Jimmy Daniell Road

According to the MACORTS draft document of June 25, the Jimmy Daniell Road project involves the widening and reconstruction of Jimmy Daniel Road to four lanes with additional turn lanes as needed from SR 316 to the Atlanta Highway.

That project also is listed as “Long Range.”

The letter sent to BOC Chairman Davis, dated July 9, provides no detail on the project.

The road name is hand-written on the document, which initially referred to the Daniells Bridge Road Extension.

Retiree COLA

The cost of living adjustment for the county’s 78 retirees became controversial at the June 3 meeting of the BOC when Chairman Davis acknowledged, in response to prodding from Commissioner Jim Luke, that Davis had inserted the funding for the increase in the county’s Fiscal Year 2015 budget without informing or consulting with the other four commissioners.

The other four commissioners probably would never have known that the budget included the money except for the realization on the part of county Finance Director Wes Geddings that the county could not make the allocation without changing the Defined Benefit Plan.

That change will require a vote of the BOC, and that is what is being requested of it on Tuesday night.

The BOC is being asked to approve a one-time payment to retirees or their beneficiaries who are currently receiving benefits under the existing plan that is equal to 3 percent of each individual’s annual benefit.

The 2015 budget also includes a 3 percent COLA for existing employees.

Mars Hill Road Bids

The state let bids on July 18 for widening of Mars Hill Road from SR 316 to Butler’s Crossing.

Included is 3.3 miles of roadway and new bridges over Barber Creek.

The state has received four bids, ranging in price from $26.4 million to $31.5 million.

The bidders were:

G.P.’s Enterprises Inc. of Auburn ($26.4 million), C.W. Matthews Contracting Co. Inc. of Winterville ($29.5 million), E.R. Snell Contractor Inc. of Snellville ($30.8 million), and CMES Inc. of Lilburn ($31.5 million).

County Administrative Officer Jeff Benko is scheduled to give the update on the project, which is expected to take three years to complete and will divert traffic onto Daniells Bridge Road, long before the proposed widening of Daniells Bridge Road takes place.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Oconee County Industrial Development Authority Calls For Liquor-By-The-Drink Referendum

Vote Unanimous

The Oconee County Industrial Development Authority decided to weigh in on the liquor-by-the-drink issue on Monday afternoon, voting unanimously to ask the Board of Commissioners to put the issue on the November 4 ballot.

BOC Chairman Melvin Davis, a member of the IDA, said the commissioners will take up the issue at their meeting next Tuesday night and then vote on whether to put it on the ballot at the meeting on Aug. 5.

The IDA spent 33 minutes talking about the appropriateness of interjecting itself into the debate and about the language of a resolution.

In the end, it decided that it wanted to make the case that a “healthy, growing restaurant community” is important to economic development in the county. The unstated assumption was that liquor-by-the-drink is crucial for the health of the restaurant community.

In the short video below, Angela Helwig, IDA secretary, reads the motion, made by IDA member Ed Perkins, to her right. Rick Waller, chair, is on the left.

Kay Keller Raised Issue

Kay Keller, president of the Oconee County Chamber of Commerce and a member of the IDA, brought the issue before the body on Monday with her report on a survey the Chamber conducted of its members.

That survey showed the Chamber members want the issue on the ballot.

The Chamber has sent its own letter calling for a vote to the BOC, and Keller suggested the IDA might add its support to the Chamber effort.

County Attorney Daniel Haygood said the IDA could take a stand, but the “question you have to address is whether the IDA wants to get involved” with the issue.

No one seemed to have any serious reservations about getting involved, and the dominant question was about the language.

Davis abstained in the vote because he is on the Commission, to which the resolution was addressed.

Ordinance Outlined

Haygood said he expected the liquor-by-the-drink ordinance to be very similar to the existing ordinance for the sale of beer and wine in restaurants in the county.

The county currently has a map restricting where licenses can be issued.

It also requires that 75 percent of the sales in the restaurant with the beer and wine licenses has to be for food.

Haygood acknowledged that his expectation could be wrong and that the BOC will have to decide on the type of ordinance it wants to draft if it goes forward with the referendum.

Any ordinance passed by the BOC will affect only the unincorporated areas of the county. The county’s four cities have control over alcoholic sales in their jurisdictions.

(I did not attend the meeting on Monday. Sarah Bell did and gave me a video recording she made of the session.)

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Wilkes Defeats Hale In Oconee County Board Of Commissioners Race

Only Woman Defeated

Former Oconee County Commissioner W.E. “Bubber” Wilkes unseated incumbent Margaret Hale in the Republican primary runoff for Post 3 on the Board of Commissioners today, with 51.2 percent of the 4,253 votes cast.

Wilkes will have no opposition in November, meaning he will return to the Commission after an absence of 10 years.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

A Name Not On Oconee County Ballot On Tuesday Is Key Part Of Election

Early Turnout Nearly Matches May

Melvin Davis’ name is not on the ballot on Tuesday, but he is very much a part of the Oconee County Board of Commissioners Republican primary runoff election.

Post 3 commissioner candidates Margaret Hale, the incumbent, and W.E. “Bubber” Wilkes, seeking to regain a spot on the Commission after a 10 year absence, have made the role of the Commission chairman a key issue in the campaign.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Georgia Department Of Transportation Too Busy To Enforce Sign Law At Oconee County Connector, Deputy Commissioner Says

Explanation For Boswell Signs

Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis seems to have it about right.

The state does not have the time for, resources for or interest in enforcing its ban on signs in the right-of-ways for highways around the state, according to Georgia Department of Transportation Deputy Commissioner Todd Long.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Oconee County Commissioners Set To Approve Agreement For Roadway In Gateway Industrial Park

State paying $172,000

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners is set to give formal approval tomorrow night to an agreement whereby the county will pay John W. Rooker and Associates nearly $250,000 to build a roadway to property Rooker Properties LLC bought from the county in its Gateway Business Park.

The Georgia Department of Transportation gave the county a $172,000 grant to pay for the bulk of the cost. The county, through its Industrial Development Authority, will pay the remaining $75,674 from the money it earned from the sale of the property to Rooker.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Cheddar’s Files Planning Documents, Joining Other Development In Oconee County’s Expanding Commercial Corridor

Yogurt Too

The Oconee County Planning Department has approved the final construction planning documents for the proposed Cheddar’s Restaurant on Epps Bridge Parkway at the front of Epps Bridge Centre, signaling that the project is moving forward even without the certainty of liquor sales.

Engineers for Cheddar’s submitted the documents on June 25, and the Planning Department stamped them as compliant with county requirements that same day. The next step is the application for and issuance of actual construction permits.