In their first joint planning session in over a decade, the Dawson County Board of Commissioners and the Dawsonville City Council gathered at Amicalola Falls on Friday, Oct. 5 for a day-long retreat with the goal of strengthening communication between the two governing bodies.
For some, it was the first time commissioners and city council members met face to face.
Over the course of the day the two groups worked to gather a greater understanding of the vision and long term goals of the other, discussing past issues as well as what is working well now and what could be improved.
Langford Holbrook from the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia facilitated the meeting between the two entities, and four big topics dominated the overarching discussion of how the city and county can best work together going forward.
City close to acquiring airport
The biggest elephant in the room was addressed early on as Mayor Mike Eason updated the commissioners on the status of the city’s plans to purchase and operate the longest air strip in north Georgia, the Elliott-family owned airport off Hwy. 183.
Eason said the city’s involvement in the airport dates back to 2006 or earlier and that there has been a lot of controversy about the airport since then because there was limited communication.
Eason said that since last December, the city has been working with the Georgia Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration to get the airport into the NPIAS, or the National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems.
“Once you get into that, you are eligible for federal funds to improve and enhance your airport. Our goal since I have been here is to ensure that we don’t cost the citizens of the city of Dawsonville any money,” Eason said. “Getting into the NPIAS would give us the ability to draw down millions of dollars possibly to improve the airport, to make it a good quality general aviation airport.”
The city does not intend to make the airport a commercial airport but a public airport, according to Eason. If the city does not acquire the airport, the Elliotts will sell it and the buyer could turn it into a commercial airport.
“If this doesn’t work there is a good chance it could become something that we in our community don’t want,” Eason said.
The airport has been in existence since the early 1980s.
“People say all the time ‘I don’t want an airport up there, don’t put an airport,’ but the thing is there is already an airport there,” said city council member Jason Power.
The city is currently awaiting the FFA’s ruling about placing the airport on the NPIAS. Even if placed on the inventory program, it would be around October of next year before any funding would become available.
The Elliotts are donating the land that the runway is on to the city. The land is worth several million dollars and will cover the state and city’s portion of a match to the federal funds.
“One thing that will happen...every year the airport will receive $150,000 from the FAA for general upkeep and maintenance,” Eason said. “Once you receive any money from the feds, all revenue and anything generated at the airport must stay in the airport itself.”
The city does not plan to build hangars at the airport but to lease the ground so that people who want to house their planes there can lease space and build a hangar to the city’s specifications.
“We really feel like in the next 30 days we’ll probably have an answer from the FAA which means if we get in the NPIAS, it’s a done deal,” Eason said.
Eason said that once the airport gets in the NPIAS, town hall meetings will be scheduled to give citizens a chance to learn about the project and voice concerns.
District 2 Commissioner Chris Gaines has also served on the city council, and said he is glad to hear that public meetings with the airport consultant, Phil Eberly, are still part of the plan.
“The thing that I like about this process...is the previous time it was done, it was perceived as a secret thing,” Gaines said. “We have to have public meetings and the way that they function these meetings is they give you information in pods and it’s really addressing the concerns that people have and that information is coming from a professional that knows how to address those questions and it's all out in the open for everybody to look at.”
TSPLOST a possibility
In a similarly sticky vein, city and county have been bouncing around the idea of a single county TSPLOST, or Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, but sitting down together helped the two groups hammer out some details concerning projects and how the revenue would be split.
Gaines said that a previous attempt at a regional TSPLOST had failed around the state, and that under the regional TSPLOST, Dawson County was a donor county and would have generated more revenue than would have stayed in the county.
Under the single county TSPLOST, whatever is raised in Dawson County would stay in Dawson County, like the current SPLOST.
The county and city must have an intergovernmental agreement and decide on a percentage split or it would automatically default to .0075 cents as opposed to the maximum one cent, and revenue would be split at whatever the current SPLOST is set at, which is currently 85 percent to the county and 15 percent to the city.
“It’s in everybody’s interest to be able to talk through this and come up with where we feel like we need to be, and it's very clear from both of our budgets that we continue to see just an incredible amount of increase in sales tax revenue, no secret, predominately raised from the Ga. 400 corridor,” Gaines said.
Gaines said that the potential revenue for a TSPLOST at one cent over five years is $50 million.
To put that in perspective, the full-depth reclamation and repaving of the six miles of Dawson Forest Road in 2016 cost the county around $2.5 million.
“It doesn’t go very far,” Gaines said. “We start talking about bypasses and Lumpkin Campground and some of these other projects, it gets consumed quickly.”
The next step is for the city to decide if they want to come to an agreement with the county, and then both will have to come up with project lists and decide what percentage the city would take.
“Ideally it frees up SPLOST funding, because right now over 54 percent of our funds in SPLOST are being consumed by road projects,” Gaines said.
Between 82 and 84 percent of the county’s SPLOST revenue is generated by people who don’t live in the county but come to spend money in the county.
“For us it's always been a win-win when it comes to SPLOST and ESPLOST and LOST...they’re coming up and they’re paying for our infrastructure,” Gaines said.
A TSPLOST would have to be passed by Dawson County voters.
Both sides push truck route around city of Dawsonville
City council members and commissioners placed emphasis on taking steps forward on a Hwy. 53 truck route to bypass the city of Dawsonville, which is on GDOT’s list of scheduled projects, albeit scheduled for 2028.
According to Eason, limited parking, dangerous crosswalks and heavy truck traffic impede downtown growth and development.
“We want the city to be a destination for people; we can’t do anything right now because Hwy. 53 and Hwy. 9 cut right through the center and the right of way for the state comes right up to the buildings, not the parking lot, but the front of the buildings,” Eason said. “So we can’t do anything to improve the quality of the downtown area until we get the trucks out of town with a truck route.”
Eason said that about one third of the potential routes are on city property, and that the Turner family owns another 40 percent of the land. One of the routes is no longer feasible due to the new Thunder Ridge subdivision on Hwy. 9, and all four have outlets on Turner land north of the Shoal Creek Bridge.
With subdivisions and other structures continuing to go up in the city, obtaining right of way and establishing a route quickly is on the forefront of everyone’s mind.
“I’ve been on the board kind of a long time, and this was a discussion we had probably my first or second year, this truck route around Dawson County,” District 4 Commissioner Julie Hughes Nix said. “I would love to see us really work toward coming together...somehow somebody think of a way that we can push this truck route.”
Eason said the projected cost for the bypass is $17 million, though GDOT is expected to also contribute.
Eason said he was going to try to set up a meeting with Rep. Kevin Tanner and GDOT to try to see how much the city would have to put in to get the truck route moving.
Potential impact fees for the city
The city has been considering instating their own impact fees, which are one-time fees charged to new development to help offset the cost of services, since the county reinstated their impact fees in August.
Eason said the city has contacted Bill Ross, who helped the county reinstate their impact fees, and are awaiting a proposal from him. The county reinstated impact fees on Aug. 16 and have since raked in $44,000.
“We have not seen a throng of people trying to get into the city because of the county impact fees,” Eason said. “I think a lot of the reason people try to get into the city is the water and sewer, which we have.”
Eason said some of the council members had expressed concerns about the impact on businesses, as the city has long struggled with attracting and maintaining businesses.
Power, who is building a new house in the county, said he is concerned that residents who already live in the county but want to build a new home would have to pay $3,500 just like any developer would when building new homes in a subdivision. Legally, impact fees cannot be charged to one and not the other.
“It’s hard to tell farmer Brown after he’s been here for 40 years that you can build a house but it's going to cost this much,” Power said. “I just wish there was a way to differentiate between a developer and somebody just wanting to build a house.”