Fayette Commission debate focuses on bypass, responsiveness
All eight candidates for three posts up for grabs on the Fayette County Commission squared off in a forum June 19 hosted by the Fayette Local Issues Tea Party.
Unlike other forum formats, the same questions weren’t posed to each candidate. Instead, any candidate could chime in with a response by raising a purple card to be recognized before moderator Leslie Edwards moved to the next question.
A portion of the event focused on the controversial West Fayetteville Bypass, which is under construction and was initially planned to connect Ga. Highway 85 south of Fayetteville with a path leading northwest toward Piedmont Fayette Hospital and then northeast to Ga. Highway 92 north at Westbridge Road.
Commissioner Lee Hearn, who is seeking reelection, has proposed an alternate for the third (southern) phase that would have the road end instead at Ebenezer Church and Redwine roads instead of going across farmland to reach Hwy. 85 south.
Hearn was asked by Edwards to justify his support for the West Fayetteville Bypass even though he has said recently the East Fayetteville Bypass would handle a lot more traffic.
Hearn said a recent traffic study to help in designing the intersections for the west bypass projected that traffic on the northern part of the bypass would reach about 8,000 vehicles a day “which completely, in my mind, justifies the work that has been done.”
The south end of the bypass, in contrast, has very little projected traffic with less than 3,000 vehicles a day, Hearn said. Hearn in recent weeks said he would prefer to scale back the final southern phase of the bypass in scrapping a continuous road path in favor of making intersection improvements to handle the traffic load appropriately.
Hearn noted that the bridge on Ebenezer Church Road needed to be replaced as well, and that was part of the third phase of the bypass.
After Hearn’s comment, Post 2 candidate David Barlow chimed in that the bypass was for developers and not for traffic, a statement he attributed to former Fayetteville Mayor Ken Steele.
Post 3 candidate Randy Ognio also replied, saying the county missed out on state and federal funds that had been planned for the as-yet-unbuilt East Fayetteville Bypass. The East Fayetteville Bypass is planned to stretch from Ga. Highway 85 north of the Fayette Pavilion shopping center to Ga. Highway 54 and then on to County Line Road south of Hwy. 54 where it would end at the intersection of County Line and Jeff Davis Road.
“Why they built the West Fayetteville Bypass was quite obvious: it was for developers,” Ognio said.
Post 2 candidate Jack Smith said there was no federal funding for the east bypass when the commission decided to build the west bypass instead. In fact, the county’s transportation tax was slated to raise $70 million for the county, and if the East Fayetteville Bypass had been built, it would have eaten up $69 million, nearly the entire amount of revenue from the tax, Smith said.
“The intersection improvements, the Jimmie Mayfield (Boulevard) widening, none of that would ever have happened had we pursued East Fayetteville as number one,” Smith said. “It was the elimination of federal funds, it was the need for us to reallocate and re-budget those funds to get the most bang for our buck that caused us to change the priority.”
Ognio said he disagreed because he thinks the federal funding is “still there and they’re looking to use it now.”
Post 3 candidate Stopford said that the property around the west bypass is not zoned for more intensive development.
“The zoning there does not indicate it’s for anything other than to relieve traffic in that area,” Stopford said, adding that the citizens of Fayette County have indicated they would much rather the west bypass funds be diverted to the east bypass.
Ognio replied that Stopford must not be aware of the plan for the West Fayetteville Neighborhood which involved a proposed zoning change and new businesses coming to the area on farmland that is currently undeveloped.
Post 2 candidate Sheila Huddleston said she thought the West Fayetteville Bypass “impedes traffic” and is “just an accident waiting to happen.”
“It doesn’t make it any quicker for cars to get through,” Huddleston said.
Another question centered on why the current county commissioners don’t respond to ci
tizen comments during the public comment portion of commission meetings.
Post 1 Commissioner Robert Horgan noted that it is the commission’s policy not to address citizens who speak during public comment.
“It’s not out of disrespect or anything like that, but to keep the meeting going correctly,” Horgan said, adding that the people “are heard” when they address the commission.
Post 3 candidate Ognio noted that he asked several questions at the June 14 commission meeting about a project to add rip-rap to protect a hole at the Planterra Ridge Golf Course from erosion since it abuts the county-owned Lake McIntosh reservoir. Ognio said he wanted to know if the lake would have “wave action” to create erosion, if the county looked at other options, whether there were competitive bids and if the money was coming from the Lake McIntosh project.
“They approved the consent agenda without answering any of those questions,” Ognio said.
Post 1 candidate Charles Oddo noted that residents who don’t hear feedback from the commission might feel their comments aren’t being heard, and he suggested there’s no reason that policy couldn’t be changed.
“If you go and expect to hear an answer, and you hear nothing, you feel like you’re not being paid attention to and that affects the community at large and that’s what you’ve got to get away from,” Oddo said.
Post 2 candidate David Barlow said citizens who ask questions of the commission should be given the courtesy of a reply, and he intends to do just that if he is elected. His remark drew widespread applause from the audience.
“It seems foolish to me that the citizens who are the taxpayers, the citizens who actually pay the bills, are not allowed to receive an answer,” Barlow said.
Post 3 candidate Susan Stopford said she thinks transparency between the commission and citizens is vital.
“I’ve talked with so many neighbors and friends and said, ‘Hey what do you think of that West Fayetteville Bypass, everyone thinks that stinks.’” Stopford said. “I’ve had people say ‘What are you talking about?’ They have no clue, they have no interest in it.”
Moderator Edwards asked if the county paid to install crosswalks at highway intersections all over the county in recent years, but Smith replied those were constructed by the Georgia Department of Transportation over the objections of the county, which preferred to spend the money elsewhere.
“They refused, steadfastly,” Smith said.