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May 26, 2005 Issue

Charles Brannen, developer of River Landings, is in the process of developing a new subdivision consisting of 36 lots of river frontage along the Ogeechee in Midville. However he and a local conservation group are at odds over the impact such a development could have on the river.

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Development cited for environmental issues



Other Top Stories
Reassessment out, properties up 10 percent on average
Deputies say remains definitely not Bill Farrer

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Development cited for environmental issues

• River keeper says developers should be on notice, laws should be followed

By Parish Howard
Editor

When Teresa Haythorn looks at the Ogeechee River, with its cypress-shaded banks, she sees a beautiful natural resource, but she also sees a different kind of green.

A developer, licensed real estate broker and registered forester, Haythorn knows the value of river-front property, and not just that associated with the allure of the watercourse. When Charles Brannen told her about his desire to develop small, affordable lots along the Ogeechee in Midville, she saw the investment potential and ran with it.

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One local conservation group, focused largely on the Ogeechee River, thinks Brannen and Haythorn ran too far, too fast. After receiving complaints about the development, they wrote letters to the Environmental Protection Division and Army Corps of Engineers which have led to several thousand dollars worth of fines.

The developers say they did not know they were violating the law. The conservationists say that doesn't matter.

Both parties say they want to improve property values. Both say they support conservation with use. Both feel that people living along the water, the ones who own the banks and spend their leisure time fishing, swimming and enjoying the quiet beauty of one of Georgia's last unspoiled rivers will be its best stewards. With the most to lose from "bad" development and predatory land uses, both parties believe these river-front property owners should be the ones who will most loyally and fiercely protect the river.

The differences and similarities in these two groups' opinions can be as murky and clouded as the Ogeechee after heavy rains, but at the end of the day, the developers and conservationists often find themselves on opposite banks of the same river.

A Vision of Paradise

"Everyone wants a place on the river," Haythorn said. "Anyone who has ever been down there and seen it, loves it. But most of the tracts on the river around here are 200 acre or 400 acre tracts. Who can afford that? Nobody. I certainly can't."

She sees Brannen's River Landings, which she represents, as a way for ordinary people, with ordinary finances, to own a piece of the landscape they hold so dear.

On a surveyor's map, the lots look like 36 long piano keys on a curving instrument. The River Landings 36 lots range in size from .51 acres to 2.61 acres, each with roughly 86 feet of river frontage. About 25 acres of the highest ground, largely an open field facing into Midville, Brannen plans to leave undeveloped and has already planted pine seedlings which dot the gray dirt like a five-o-clock shadow of green bristles.

While he has already run water lines across the property and widened the old field road that runs along the treeline down to an old public boat landing, the majority of the work so far, Brannen said, has been spent in cleanup.

"Nobody wanted this place," Brannen said. "It was an eyesore. This is where the city of Midville brought its yard trash."

The property was also the site of an old saw mill and for years, Brannen said, people had apparently been using it as a dump.

"I started on Christmas Day," Brannen said. "I came down here and for six weeks I worked as hard as I could just to clean this place up."

The property was covered in debris, he said, and over those weeks he picked up trash, old refrigerators, license plates, beer cans and scrap metal.

He fenced the entire property and put in remote activated gates to keep out the trespassers he encountered over and over again on the property.

In November, Brannen went before the Midville city council and told them of his plans for the property.

"We told them that we were going to run the water lines, so no wells would have to be dug, at no cost to the city, but that we wanted to let the city have the meter boxes," Haythorn said. "The city embraced the project."

Next, Haythorn said, they went to Burke County's planning and zoning office.

"We did our checking," Haythorn said. "We thought we'd done everything we were supposed to do."

Before they knew it the lots were selling.

"I was getting calls before I had really done anything," Brannen said. "Just by word of mouth, they were selling. People were wanting a piece of the river."

FROG's Involvement

It was around this time, after the lots started selling that Friends of the Ogeechee River (FROG) says they started getting phone calls about it.

FROG members asked Canoochee River Keeper Chandra Brown, to paddle down and take a closer look at the project they had been hearing about.

"I could see the buffer had been cleared down to the water," Brown said. "There was a backhoe sitting on the bank. I could see no evidence of any sort of silt fencing or other erosion controls and thought there could be some potential violations here."

So, from her canoe, she took pictures of the lots where it appeared trees had been cut and took global position system (GPS) coordinates of the site. Later she helped John Lewis, FROG's president, draft a letter to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) asking them to look into possible violations of the Rules for Water Quality Control and rules for Erosion and Sedimentation Control.

"We were just being the eyes and ears for the river that we are supposed to be," Brown said. "We're supposed to look for areas where there might be violations. That's my job."

As a river keeper, and head of the organization currently merging with Jefferson County-founded FROG, Brown said that she takes her duties very seriously. According to her, those duties include making sure regulatory agencies like the EPD and Army Corps of Engineers are alerted to potential problems on the river and that permits, when issued, are as protective of the river as possible.

"All we did was send a letter requesting a site visit," Brown said. "The fabulous thing is that EPD is doing its job. The EPD is getting serious about dirt in our rivers."

The Consent Order

As a result of the letter, EPD visited the site and in April it issued a consent order pointing out several violations, requiring certain actions be taken and issuing a $10,000 fine.

The consent order sites violations of the Erosion and Sedimentation Act of 1975 (ESA) as well as the Georgia Water Quality Act.

"In response to a citizen complaint, Division representatives…made an initial visit to the site and documented stream buffer encroachments within the southeastern half of the site as well as the lack of any BMPs (best management practices used to reduce soil runoff)," EPD's order reads. "During subsequent telephone contact with the respondent, or agent of the site, division representatives determined that: 1) no NOI (notice of intent to disturb land) had been filed, 2) no fees had been paid, 3) no ES&PCP (Erosion Sedimentation and Pollution Control Plan) had been drawn up or implemented, 4) no required sampling had been done, 5) and no initial or routine inspections had been completed."

During a second visit, EPD representatives documented additional stream buffer encroachments on the western half of the site.

It required Brannen and Haythorn to provide the plans and paperwork that had not been filed, install the applicable BMP's and silt fences, perform specific storm water monitoring of the site, submit monthly inspection results and begin a Buffer Zone Rehabilitation plan in addition to paying the fine.

Views from different sides of the river

According to Haythorn, they did not know they were violating any laws or regulations at the site.

"There's no such thing as a developer's school," Haythorn said. "It's not like riding down the road and you see a sign that says the speed limit is 55 MPH. The only way to know you've broken the law is when you get a call from the EPD."

She claims that not in any of her real estate, forestry or timber harvesting classes has she come across the rules allegedly broken at the River Landings.

"We went to planning and zoning, we went to the city, nobody informed us of this paperwork," Haythorn said. "We are not trying to be flagrant abusers of these permits."

Within one week of notification by EPD, Haythorn said that she had a majority of the paperwork done and had even paid additional costs to have Environmental Services get out to the site the next day to start working on a wetlands delineation plan.

"I wanted to prove that I want to do this right," she said. "If I'd known, I would have had them there before."

As far as the encroachments on the stream's 25-foot buffer, Haythorn and Brannen both say it wasn't them, but they are being held responsible for actions taken by new property owners, after the land was sold.

"We didn't cut the first tree," Haythorn said, "and we have no intention to."

Either way, the EPD expects the ground cover and canopy to be restored.

"There aren't any stumps, because there weren't any trees here," Haythorn said walking over the site where Brown took the picture of the backhoe. "The property owner cut some chinaberry trees that were well out of the 25 foot buffer zone. These people are going to plant back. They want their lots to look nice. They want to do what's right. But what if they didn't? Can you imagine how hard it is to sell somebody a piece of property and then have to go back and tell them ok, now I have to come in here and spread leaves on your place and do this and that to it."

Both Haythorn and Brannen said that given time, nature will restore itself.

"This property isn't being logged, it's being enjoyed." Brannen said. "These are weekend getaways, a place where they can come and sit on the banks and cookout and get away from everything."

"All we are guilty of is not filing the appropriate paperwork," Haythorn said.

Both Brown and EPD don't feel that the violations are quite that simple.

"We aren't singling anyone out," Brown said. "Everybody has to do this and it isn't just red tape. You have to have a plan for how you are going to develop so that you don't negatively impact the river."

Brown said that she files a lot of letters like this one for streams along the Canoochee River. She guesses, possibly as many as three or four requests a month.

Jeff Darley, an EPD project manager in this district, said that his office sometimes gets notices of possible violations almost daily. In the last few weeks at least five developers across the state have been cited for sediment control violations, one of which was fined $20,000 for failing to prevent erosion that muddied a stream.

"People think dirt going into the river is no big deal," Brown said. "They think, hey, dirt is natural. But dirt is actually the biggest pollutant of our rivers."

She and Darley explained that not only do pollutants bind to loose soil, carrying heavy metals like mercury, as well as pesticides and chemicals into the water, but it also raises water temperatures which lowers oxygen levels.

"This can cause problems for fish, especially in the summer months," Brown said. "Not to mention, it isn't pretty. Nobody wants to go swimming in muddy water. They want the tea-colored water they're used to."

According to EPD any dirt leaving a construction site without a permit, constitutes a violation of the Federal Clean Water Act. That is any construction site, whether or not it is positioned geographically near a stream, creek or river.

"This is just the first residential development of this scale we've seen on this portion of the river," Brown said of the River Landings site. "We want people to live on the river, but they have to at least take that minimum step to protect it. Developers need to be on notice that they are going to be expected to follow the law. We're going to do what it takes to protect the people downstream. We're trying to protect other people's property rights."

Haythorn and Brannen say property rights, and property value, is one of the main things they have been considering during the creation of this subdivision. They see it as an enhancement of the river. They point to convenants they created that restrict the number of pets people can have on these lots. The convenants also require any structure built on the properties to be a minimum of 900 square feet, and completely ban mobile homes and "handi-houses."

"Really, we didn't know," Haythorn said. "We weren't trying to hide anything. How do you hide a subdivision? How do you sell lots without telling people about what you're doing? I just wish they had come to us first and told us there were problems before they got the government involved."

Reporting Potential Violations

"Maybe there is a disconnect we haven't identified," Brown said. "Maybe it is easier for developers in Atlanta to get this information than rural developers. I don't know. I'm not in that business and I don't know how they work, but I do know that ignorance is no excuse. If there is anyone out there who is doing something they think might impact the river, then they can call us and we can give them all sorts of information on the regulations that have to be followed. I just don't have much patience for anyone who will conduct any type of business without doing a minimal amount of research."

Haythorn, Brannen and the real estate lawyer who looked over their work as the property at the River Landings began to be developed and sold, say the laws they were cited for are not common knowledge among developers.

"People who spend money to buy a piece of the river do it because they love it," Haythorn said. "We don't have the right to serve them up to the government for logging it, developing it or using it."

But, in fact, people do have the right, and for years now EPD has been relying on people exercising that right and turning in potential violators.

Darley, one of the EPD's East Central District representatives who has been working with the site, said last week that due to staffing issues, his office, which covers 17 counties, has had to rely on local issuing authorities and complaints to enforce these state and federal regulations.

However, lately the EPD has been getting more and more serious about these issues, he said. In the last six months his office has added two environmental specialists to focus on enforcement of erosion and sedimentation control issues like buffer encroachments.

Haythorn has said that she wishes conservation groups like FROG would spend more time on educating developers about these regulations instead of on policing.

Brown and Darley echoed each others responses, claiming they have offered seminars and classes on erosion control and similar issues in the past, but have never had any participation.

"We don't like spending all of our time and energy on enforcement," Darley said. "To be completely honest, every consent order we file is a paperwork nightmare for us."

He said he wished they could spend more time being proactive.

Haythorn also questions the process EPD and other agencies use to lodge complaints against developers, foresters and landowners.

As it is, Haythorn says that anyone can fly over the river and using a GPS, simply report the coordinates of every logging site along the Ogeechee and the EPD and GA Forestry Commission are required to investigate these reports.

"That's our tax money being spent chasing shadows," she said.

Darley admits, complaints can be made by a simple phone call.

"You don't have to leave a name or anything," he said. "Once someone makes a formal complaint, then we have 10 days to investigate it to see if it is legitimate."

While he said that they do see some grudge complaints, the vast majority have some validity, but tend to have a wide range of degree of severity.

"The bottom line is that these laws and river groups like the river keepers are in place to protect state resources," Darley said.

Brown said that her groups are currently working on a two-pronged educational program called "Get the Dirt Out" which targets erosion control issues.

"The first prong is to educate volunteers to assess construction sites to see if they are following the best management practices and determine if it is likely that dirt is leaving the site," Brown said. "The second prong is to educate developers and construction companies on what the law is, what they can and can't do.

"Now that may seem backwards to some people, but we've found that when we try to do the education before the enforcement, no one shows up for the classes."

Still, Haythorn wishes someone had come to her, had made her aware before she had to pay the $10,000 fine, before she had to pay $7,500 for Environmental Services to come in and provide a rushed wetlands delineation plan, so she could have budgeted for the $1,500 erosion and sedimentation control plan, the additional surveying and other costs.

"Friends of the Ogeechee made a lot of assumptions about our subdivision, but never picked up the phone to call and ask us one thing about it," Haythorn said. "That's adversarial."

Brown doesn't think so.

"We have no authority to approach a developer or landowner," Brown said. "It's the government's job to do that. That's where our taxes go. It also seems more aggressive, not to mention expensive, for us to go to a developer and tell them we think you might have a problem with x, y and z. When they say, well I don't think so, what do we do next? We're not going to argue with someone over it. It's a nice idea to think we could go to the landowner first, but it doesn't really work."

Returning to the Landings

In the meantime Haythorn and Brannen are complying with the conditions of the consent order and EPD says that while they haven't fully satisfied it, they do seem to be working in that direction in a timely manner.

"They have been very cooperative in getting in compliance with the laws, whether or not they agree with them," Darley said.

Tuesday afternoon Haythorn said she had just dropped the wetlands delineation plan and the two-foot topographical maps the Corps of Engineers had required in the mail. According to Haythorn, the Corps is still trying to determine who is responsible for the possible wetlands violations, the developers or the new landowners. The agents handling the case were unavailable for comment at press time.

"The power poles were supposed to go up Friday and they should be connecting power very shortly," she said. "We're moving along."

They are still getting calls from individuals interested in the lots, Haythorn said.

"This is the right kind of development," she said. "The whole idea was to put people together with land they could afford, to bring man and nature together. The problems we had were on three of 36 lots. We're handling it."

Brown said that as of last week she had not followed up on the EPD or Corps' most recent findings on the development. Often, she says, their group just doesn't have time for it. They are moving along with their own projects and programs.

"This isn't about busting people," Brown said. "It's about protecting down stream property owners. Conservation of our waterways is why this whole thing got started. That's what we are about."





Reassessment out, properties up 10 percent on average

• Tax assessor encourages citizens to bring questions about notices to his office

By Ben Roberts
Staff Writer

George Rachels, Jefferson County’s Tax Assessor and Chief Appraiser, can assure the residents of Jefferson County of one thing: the reassessment notices recently sent out by his office are just as much of a headache and source of aggravation to him and his office as they are to property owners.

Unfortunately for Rachels, his staff and those angered by climbing property values, those reassessments are required by the state for the county to be in compliance, a fact of which many property owners do not seem to be aware.

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Rachels explained that there’s a broad misconception that when county commissioners decide they need more revenue to operate the county, they simply instruct his office to reassess property values. That belief, Rachels said, only adds to the confusion and difficulties for his office.

In fact, the need for reassessments is determined by a sales-ratio study conducted each year by the state. That sales-ratio study is based on property sales in the county for that year. The Department of Revenue monitors those sales to see how much more or less the property sold for compared to its assessed value. These sale prices determine a property’s fair market value.

State regulations require that a county’s overall property values be assessed at between 38 and 40 percent of their fair market value. As long as a county falls between 36 and 44 percent, the state will recommend adjustments be made to pull the value back between 38 and 40 percent. If the values fall below 36 or above 44 percent, however, that county is considered to be completely out of the tolerance level and more than minor adjustments and reassessments must be made.

As Rachels explained, the state’s interest in property values lies in the fact that it collects a quarter of a county’s millage rate.

“If you drop below 36 percent then the state sends the county a bill for the difference,” Rachels said. “They’re going to get that quarter of a mill one way or another.”

The results of the 2003 sales-ratio study, conducted from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31 of that year, were sent to Rachels’ office in May of 2004. It revealed that Jefferson County was below the 38 percent mark at 36.83, and adjustments would be required.

According to Rachels, most homes’ values increased an average of 10 percent as a result of the reassessments.

He is also quick to point out the sales-ratio study alone can cause the property value to increase, without improvements being made to the property itself. However, a number of things can change a property’s value including location, square footage and the construction of outbuildings, fencing and even the condition of driveways. “Eye appeal” even makes a difference, Rachels said, pointing out that a well-kept yard with plants and flowers adds to a property’s value.

The Tax Assessor’s Office is also alerted when someone applies for a county building permit, so they’ll know to check the property for improvements.

Rachels would also like to remind property owners that his office has no control over tax rates - it merely assesses the value of the property. That information is sent to the property owner and turned over to the Tax Commissioner’s Office for the creation of the county digest.

Rachels said his office has sent out 10,555 reassessment notices. Of that number, 48 property owners have officially filed an appeal with Rachels’ office. He expects that number to increase before the June 13 deadline to file those appeals in writing.

He is also hopeful, however, that some of those appeals will be dropped after property owners understand the process - which even Rachels, who has served as Tax Assessor and Chief Appraiser since November of 1991 and who has sat on the Jefferson County Board of Assessors since 1977, admits can be difficult at times to grasp.

This is why he recommends that property owners bring their questions to his office so he or someone on his staff can attempt to alleviate those concerns - saving everyone a little time and hopefully resulting in fewer headaches.





Deputies say remains definitely not Bill Farrer

By Ben Roberts
Staff Writer

While officials have yet to positively identify the skeletal remains found in northern Burke County last week, they are certain the bones are not those of Bill “Bo Peep” Farrer.

“I can say we are certain these are not the remains of Bill Farrer,” said Gary Nicholson, Special Agent in Charge of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s (GBI) Thomson office.

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Nicholson made the statement during a phone interview early last week, before investigators revealed speculation that the bones might belong to a missing juvenile, Tiffany Elizabeth Nelson of Augusta.

Nelson has been missing since June 6, 1994, when she was last seen that morning riding a red bicycle near the intersection of Richmond Hill Road and Lumpkin Road in Augusta. She was nine years old at the time.

Farrer’s sister, Mary Baker, who lives in Cumming, says her family contacted the GBI themselves when they learned of the unidentified remains. According to Baker, Agent Nicholson immediately told the family the remains were not those of their missing brother.

“There was hope,” Baker said, admitting the family cannot gain any amount of closure until their questions are answered. “We’re still looking for answers and we will continue to look for those answers.”

Farrer has been missing since September of 2002. He was 66 years old.

Investigators have said unspecified evidence at the scene has led them to the belief that the remains could be Nelson. While they will not elaborate on that evidence, Burke County Sheriff Greg Coursey did confirm reports that a small tennis shoe with a sock inside had been found. That shoe is close in description to those reportedly worn by Nelson at the time of her disappearance.

Coursey said that while they are focusing on Nelson at this point, no forensic data has come back to positively identify the remains yet.

“We still have no idea at this point of the age or sex of the individual,” he said.

Two men stumbled across the remains in a stand of planted pines last Monday morning, May 16, off Farmers Bridge Road, less than a mile south of the Richmond County line.




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