Update 2022-02-06: Board’s Pleasure should be Deny: Miller Bridge Road rezoning @ LCC 2022-02-07.
It’s almost enough to make you wonder why the Lowndes County Commission does not want the public to know what it is doing?
A state-funded road restriping with the list of roads not revealed to the public for three months, and no minutes for the relevant meetings on the Lowndes County website (but LAKE kept a copy from their old website).
A petition with 300 signatures the County Planner just took out of the board packet so even County Commissioners did not see it.
Two board packets (for Planning and County Commission meetings) not returned for more than the statutory three days, and then one of them only partial.
No board packets on the county’s website, even though other counties larger and smaller in Georgia and Florida have been doing that for years.
No minutes (except one) before 2014, or maybe some hidden. Not even any agendas before 2012.
County Commission staff do take videos of the Commission meetings, but they only post videos of the Regular Session (not the Work Session), and not even those between October 2020 and October 2021. This is despite spending more than $100,000 for new audio visual equipment for the Commission Chambers, while the Valdosta City Council has livestreamed through the pandemic using an employee’s iPhone.
I could go on about the stealth reapportionment of Commission Districts and the half million dollar bailout of a developer, both at the same January 25, 2022, Lowndes County Commission meeting, both not revealed to the taxpaying public before the voting Regular Session.
But just items related to the Miller Bridge Road rezoning requests are enough to raise questions about the secrecy of Lowndes County Commission and staff.
Why don’t they want the public and the taxpayers to know?
What don’t they want us to know?
Lowndes County’s trademark secrecy applied to Miller Bridge Road goes back as far as 2013, when then-County Engineering Services Director Mike Fletcher announced a grant from GDOT for striking, signs, and raised pavement markers for 30.79 miles of road, for $142,491.75: “I will also give you a copy of the roads that will be restruck under this contract.” Commissioners had no questions.
That list of roads was not in the board packet for that Work Session.
The next day, July 23, 2013, at the Regular Session, he still did not reveal which roads, but did, answering a Commissioner’s question, say the work would only apply to those parts of roads with 55 MPH speed limits.
After I asked in the LAKE blog post for the October 7, 2013, Work Session did the Commissioners get that list of roads, the next day at the Regular Session, he read the list aloud: Shiloh Road, Skipper Bridge Road, Miller Bridge Road, Lake Park-Belleville Road, Val Del Road, Old Quitman Road, Johnson Road, and Whitewater Road.
So if you were there, or you read the LAKE blog or watch the LAKE videos, you would know about Miller Bridge Road being on that list. Not so much if you depended on the county’s Minutes. The Minutes for that meeting are not on the county’s website. Only one meeting’s Minutes are on there for 2013, and none for 2012.
However, Gretchen has the old minutes on her laptop. Here’s what the Minutes for October 8, 2013 say, typos and all:
Striping, Signage & RPM’s[sic] on 30.79 miles of roadway, County Engineer, Mike Fletcher, presentd[sic] the item, with sold[sic] bidder Peek Pavement Marking, LLC, submitting a bid in the amount of $136,179.50. Mr. Fletcher added the entire amount would be funded by the Georgia Department of Transportation. Commissioenr Powell made a motion to approve the bid in the amount of $136,179.50, Commissioner Page second. All voted in favor, no one opposed. Motion carried.
No mention of a list of roads, much less the actual road names.
Oh, I’m sorry. If you click on HTML or PDF under Agendas and Minutes on lowndescounty.com for that date, you get a link that claims to be for the Minutes, but actually takes you to the Agenda. If you click on Packet, you get the Minutes. I don’t know about you, but right now I don’t have the time to try every single link under Agendas and Minutes to find out what they lead to.
Anyway, why does a county pave a road, sign it for 55 MPH, and then buff up its stripes? To promote development, as in subdivisions.
The 7532 Miller Bridge Road rezoning showed up on the GLPC agenda for November 29, 2021.
At that GLPC meeting, the owners spoke for, insisting that everybody wants to live in the north part of the county, and you just can’t stop growth. Well, Lowndes County could stop promoting sprawl.
Attorney Brad Folsom and local landowner David Adams spoke against, and almost the entire room raised hands in opposition.
Gretchen Quarterman spoke against, on behalf of WWALS Watershed Coalition, Inc., because the entire site is in an aquifer recharge zone.
Planning Commissioner Franklin Bailey outright said that he could support it at 2.5 acres but not at 1. The Planning Commissioners then unanimously voted to recommend denial.
At the following Lowndes County Commission meetings, December 13 and 14, 2021, the rezoning was withdrawn, but the applicant said it would be back with larger lot sizes. And staff dug up a 1999 rezoning a mile south down the road for 3-acre lots. Staff didn’t mention that almost none of those lots have sold in the past two decades. So why do we need more such lots?
At the December 13, 2021, Work Session, Monday Work Session we learned that County Planner JD Dillard “just took … out of this packet for now” a petition with 300 signatures against the rezoning. Not even the County Commissioners had seen it, and it was not returned in response to a LAKE open records request for the board packet. The public only learned about this in response to a question from County Commissioner Demarcus Marshall. The missing petition is actually mentioned in the Minutes:
REZ-2021-28 Windy Hill S/D, 7532 Miller Bridge Road, ~34 acres, E-A to R-1, Community Well & Septic (WITHDRAWN), Planning and Zoning Director, J.D. Dillard, presented the item. Mr. Dillard stated that the case has been withdrawn. Commissioner Marshall questioned if a petition was submitted, since there was not a petition in the agenda packet, Chairman Slaughter stated that a petition was available for review.
But the Chairman did not say for review by whom. The Minutes don’t say, but the LAKE video shows, that he said by the folling evening’s Regular Session.
Nothing new was learned at the December 14, 2021, Regular Session, where the Chairman and County Planner merely said it had been withdrawn. There was no mention of the petition, not even whether the County Commissioners had seen it.
LAKE sent another open records request, and got the petition. Apparently the county redacted the email addresses. That may be useful for privacy. It also makes organizing opposition more difficult.
The Miller Bridge Road rezoning came back as R-A for larger lots (instead of R-1) on the agenda for the January 31, 2022 GLPC meeting. Despite having more than the statutory three days of the Georgia Open Records Act (GORA), the county failed to return the board packet in response to a LAKE GORA request.
However, the opposition provided an image of a map of parcels owned by oppisition signers of the petition.
After LAKE reminded Lowndes County of the relevant passage from GORA, the three Lowndes County GLPC packet items were sent to LAKE at 8:03 AM on Manday, January 24, 2021.
After a run-around from county staff, LAKE got a referral to staff of the Southern Georgia Regional Commission (SGRC), which returned the Dasher packet document in less than ten minutes.
Meanwhile, county staff failed to address most of the requirements of the Agriculture/Forestry/Conservation Character Area of the Comprehensive Plan, while saying “existing development pattern and growth of the community” was more important. Nevermind the overwhelming majority of the local community signed a petition opposing this rezoning. You know, the petition that the County Planner “just took … out of this packet for now”.
The Planning Commission did vote 8:3 to recommend denial of the rezoning. Now it’s over to the County Commissioners to decide on Tuesday, February 8, 2022.
For a year Lowndes County did not post any videos of their meetings, even for months after they spent $110,147.78 back in April 2021 on Commission Chambers Audio and Visual Upgrade. LAKE does not have videos of that Work Session or Regular Session because we were not going there during the height of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, Valdosta City Council meetings were streamed on facebook live using a staff member’s iPhone, since at least June 2020.
On June 6, 2021, we heard that most of the county’s audio and visual equipment would be in by July, and all by August.
August came, and the county’s sound feed to the media corral in the back of the Commission Chambers continued to fail. Even when the sound feed is working, the speaker’s podium microphone is often so badly placed that county staff or other speakers are inaudible. Ambient sound using the LAKE video camera’s microphone is better, even at the Planning Commission meetings, in a room with bad acoustics.
Apparently Lowndes County has again started posting videos of their meetings on YouTube. But they only leave them up until the next meeting, so currently only the December 14, 2021 Regular Session is listed under Agendas and Minutes on lowndescounty.com.
If you go to the Lowndes County Board of Commissioners YouTube channel, you’ll see videos for “LCBOC CM 11 9 21”, “LCBOC CM 10 25 21”, and “Oct12Meeting”, which if you follow the link to the video you can see is for October 12, 2021. Nothing else for 2021. Before that, there’s “LCBOC CM 10 27 20”, “LCBOC CM 10 13 20”, back through “LCBOC CM 8 11 20”. Nothing before that.
The county does not post video of Work Sessions at all anymore. The county does record the Work Sessions, because Gretchen had an audio fail for one of those, asked county staff for audio, and got video on a stick.
No agendas are on the county’s website for 2011 or previous years, and no minutes (except one) for 2012 and 2013, or maybe they’re hidden in the third link under a column not the one that says Minutes.
Back when the county put up its current website, the excuse for not including older Minutes, Gretchen remembers, was not enough disk space. Yet she has all the older agendas and minutes on her laptop. In this day of multi-terabyte external disks for less than $100 (I’m using one right now), and the county spending many tens of thousands of dollars on cloud storage, what more feeble excuse can the county find?
Investigative reporting costs money, for open records requests, copying, web hosting, gasoline, and cameras, and with sufficient funds we can pay students to do further research. You can donate to LAKE today!