Oconee County: Drawing Power
Good schools and a good location
Despite Oconee County’s not-so-large size, it manages to behave almost as two counties — one bustling with development, one rural. Both ends of the county are seeing their share of new residents.
After six years of living in Metro Atlanta, Kimberly and Jeff Marsh couldn’t envision their three kids growing up in a large community where they didn’t know the neighbors, but they didn’t relish the thought of moving away from the North Fulton County schools they were happy with. Then some friends told them about Oconee County.
“We wanted a small community with awesome schools,” Kimberly says, “but that’s hard to find in Georgia.” Oconee County schools fit the bill. With test scores that consistently beat the state as well as the national averages, good schools have been drawing people to Oconee County for decades.
An educated population, a church they knew they’d feel at home in, relatively easy access to Hartsfield-Jackson Airport and the lack of traffic, combined with those rock-solid schools, made the decision for them. The Marshes moved to Oconee, where their children ride bikes around their public golf-course community and pick strawberries at the farm around the corner in April. “My kids think they died and went to heaven,” Kimberly says.
The Marshes are typical of people moving into Oconee County, says realtor Eddy Thaxton, who’s from the area and has been selling real estate for 10 years.
Thaxton explains that 30-40 years ago the county had a good school board that laid the groundwork for the school system it has today. “We also had good builders putting in good houses,” he says. “And it’s still the same 35 years later.”
According to figures provided by the county economic development office, 690 homes, including both new construction and resales, were sold in the county in 2005, with an average sales price of $278,426. That figure is up from 533 houses in 2004, at an average price of $258,068.
All the people Thaxton sold houses to last year moved to the area for the schools, he says.
Charles Grimes, president of the Oconee County Chamber of Commerce, tells newcomers who ask about the schools to “go find a house you like and all the schools are equal.”
A history of well-educated, involved parents, often working at the nearby University of Georgia, for whom the education of their children is a priority, helps explain school quality. Matt Forshee, former director of the Oconee County Economic Development Department (he left to become president/CEO of the Fayette County Development Authority), also points out that county commissioners as well as board of education members are elected countywide, rather than by district. “So they all work together for the good of the county, not their district.”
School Superintendent Thomas Dohrmann has been with the county for nearly two years and is quick to credit his predecessors for the excellence he inherited. “Historically there’s a real commitment to everybody working together,” he says. “We put children first and teachers second. We have strong teachers and strong parents.”
Amrey Harden, president and CEO of Oconee State Bank and the Oconee County Development Authority chair, points out that the school system is still small, only nine schools and about 6,100 students. That makes the quality easier to maintain.
The challenge, everyone agrees, is keeping education strong as the population of the county and the school system continues to grow. A largely agrarian community with little industry and excellent schools combined with affordable housing on large lots have made Oconee a residential county. Non-farming residents overwhelmingly commute outside the county, often into neighboring Athens, to work.
“Taxes are relatively low,” Harden says, “though they are going up. But there’s been no taxpayer revolt. Bond issues and local option sales tax increases pass. People think they’re getting value for their tax dollars.”
Crossing The Line
But a county can’t survive on residential taxes alone. Enter Georgia Highway 316, which connects booming Gwinnett County to Athens via the northern edge of Oconee County. Businesses have sprung up all along the 316 corridor in Oconee. For example, at the Epps Bridge Parkway-316 interchange, retail enterprises such as Lowe’s, Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Kroger have cropped up alongside restaurants including Zaxby’s, Fire Mountain Grill and Cracker Barrel. Another retail center is scheduled to open this summer.
Also off 316 is The Georgia Club, the region’s largest master-planned residential community. Although it began in Barrow County in 2001, The Georgia Club crossed the line into Oconee County in May with the 100-home subdivision Oconee Springs. The Georgia Club offers amenities such as golf, a clubhouse with dining room, swim park, fitness center and tennis courts. Homes in Oconee Springs will range from 2,200 to 4,000 square feet with prices from the low $400,000s to high $500,000s. Additional Georgia Club subdivisions are planned for Oconee and Barrow counties in the future.
Currently sitting idle along 316 straddling the Clarke County-Oconee line is the 900-plus-acre megasite known as the Orkin property. With infrastructure in, a tenant is being sought, perhaps one from the biotech industry.
University Parkway Technology Park being developed along 316 at the Oconee Connector by Nichols Land Development houses the University System of Georgia Board of Regents Office of Informational and Instructional Technology in the first of five planned office buildings.
The second building, scheduled for occupancy in July, was 70 percent leased in mid-May, says Ed Nichols, president of Nichols Land Development. The first tenant is a law firm moving from downtown Athens in part because of parking issues there, a problem the lawyers don’t face in their new space.
“There is no other Class A office space, except at the 316 corridor, until Gwinnett County,” says Forshee of the park’s potential. Medical offices and other small business would be a good fit for the space.
Continuing-care retirement communities are also looking to expand into the area.
Nichols would recommend doing business in the county but hopes, for his own sake, that not too many companies head that way. “It’s very nice to do business in Oconee,” he says. “The infrastructure is great. They treat you as a partner in development, not an adversary. I worry that word will get out about how easy it is to do business in Oconee.”
One of the people helping to make doing business easy is Harden. “One thing that set the development tone in the county was zoning, which was set in the 1960s. Zoning was the catalyst for how we developed.”
Hand in hand with thoughtful zoning, in terms of impact on development, has been the lack of sewer lines, only recently available in a small portion of the county. While larger property sizes that accommodate septic systems have helped to increase property values, a downside – lack of affordable housing – has developed.
“Developers are starting more dense residential now because sewerage is available,” Harden says. This will enable young people, fresh out of college, to afford to stay in the county.
Watkinsville, the county seat, is its second economic growth spot. With the receipt of a Georgia Department of Community Affairs Quality Growth Grant, the city has been able to update ordinance and zoning regulations in ways that will enhance the downtown area and encourage appropriate development throughout the city, says Brian Brodrick, a city council member who works for Jackson Spalding Communications in Athens. “We held numerous visioning meetings, etc. to set this up, and the consensus that emerged was very powerful — citizens want more sidewalks, trees to be preserved, a dedicated arts district and context-sensitive development downtown,” he explains.
The new Town Center shopping area, a stylized take on a traditional downtown, features upscale dining, salons and shopping that have helped attract people not just from across the county, but also from the Lake Oconee area in Greene County to the southeast. Unique restaurants featuring Cajun, French and a Mexican-Italian mix help make Town Center both a destination and a convenient stopping point for people traveling between Lake Oconee and Athens.
The county’s rural tradition means there are few historic buildings in the area, but Watkinsville boasts a small historic district that includes Haygood House, originally built in 1827 and now home to the Chappelle Gallery; Ashford Manor, a Victorian home on four lushly landscaped acres that’s now a bed and breakfast; and Eagle Tavern, a former inn and tavern and now a small museum.
Mayor Jim Luken says the city has been beautifying its streets by planting some 250 trees on business properties in town; 150 of those are 3- to-5-year-old good-sized trees. In addition, sidewalks and streetlights are being updated in order to make Watkinsville pedestrian friendly – an essential city element.
“We’re filling up downtown and pushing north and south,” Luken says of business growth. “And will be for years.”
Jittery Joe’s (an offshoot of the successful Athens coffeehouse) and a couple of other new restaurants are scheduled to open in the next few months. Watkinsville also is home to some light industrial business, including Southwire and Ameripride.
All this development is taking place in the northwest portion of Oconee County. The southeast part of the county, which is predominantly agricultural, is the reason Oconee was named the nation’s number three rural hot spot by Progressive Farmer magazine in 2005 and 2006. People from across the county are eager for part of it to stay rural, and government is working to help with that. The area of the county south of Watkinsville doesn’t have public water or sewer, which county commissioners control. Because they also must approve new development, there are no plans at this time for large subdivisions to come into the area without the utilities to accommodate them.
The area’s agricultural history stretches back before the Civil War when cotton ruled the land. Certainly the farming industry has seen changes since then. The last half of the 20th century saw the rise and fall of turkey and chicken farms. Now most farms are horticulture (plant nurseries) or cattle. The future of farming in the county looks as bright as it does in part because of Russ Page and the Oconee Partnership for Farm Protection (OPFP).
Page, a cattle farmer with a doctorate in reproductive physiology, has taken creative financing about as far as it can go in an effort to save family farms in the area. The partnership began seven or eight years ago with eight people who knew almost nothing about preserving farmland, Page says. They began to meet to educate themselves, along with other farmers and concerned area residents.
“A farmer’s land is his legacy,” Page says. Often farmers have no stocks or bonds or retirement funds, nothing besides their land. When developers come calling, many of them can’t resist the money that’s offered. But selling a farm for development is a decision with everlasting consequences. Once the houses go up, agriculture won’t return.
Given the long-term effects of building on rural land, the partnership knew there was one question to answer: How can farmers make money while preserving farmland?
The partnership’s solution is to purchase a farmer’s development rights or, as it’s called, an agricultural conservation easement, which means no structures can be built on the property either by the current owners or anyone they sell to.
Two appraisals are done on the property, one as farmland and one as developed land. The difference between the two, which can be thousands of dollars an acre, is the value of the development rights.
Three years ago, in a complicated process that used state greenspace funds, funds donated by the property owners, and matching federal money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to purchase development rights, the first farm in the county was protected. It was also the first such deal in the state. The purchase of development rights to a second farm should close in summer 2006, and Page says the OPFP is trying to save two more farms, out of 10-12 applications, this year, using county money in addition to state, federal and owner funds.
Having been through the process several times now, Page finds he has become something of an expert on fund raising for the purchase of development rights. He says one of the challenges is finding property that is most potentially fundable, since each granting agency has its own criteria.
Page and the OPFP aren’t alone in their goals. “State and federal government want to protect functioning farms,” Page says. “I think it’s right for the county. We have always been an agricultural county. We’re trying to help farmers be more economically viable.”
“Dr. Page is our conscience on development,” Harden says. “His focus is on the entire county, not just in his own backyard.”
That comprehensive focus may be the secret to success in Oconee County, but can that broad outlook continue, given the differences in the two ends of the county? An answer may be just around the corner.
“We must have a new comprehensive plan for the county by June of ’07,” Forshee says. Work was scheduled to begin on such a plan earlier this summer.
Oconee County At-A-Glance
Oconee County, 29,365; Bishop, 175; Bogart, 1,249; North High Shoals, 514; Watkinsville, 2.472 (2005 estimate)
County, 3.0 percent (May 2006)
Benson’s Bakery, Family Life Enrichment, Georgia Medical Business Service Inc., Oconee County Board of Commissioners, Oconee County Board of Education, Southwire Co., & Wal-Mart Associates Inc.
Georgia Department of Labor