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A look ahead: Water, roads, politics worth watching in 2017
Key government decisions could have impact on Hall this year
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Jan McCord, a Martin’s Crossing Drive resident, asks questions of public officials July 12 during the Martin Road Community Meeting at the Mulberry Creek Park and Community Center in South Hall. Many residents of the Martin Road community attended the meeting to show their resistance to the planned I-985 interchange at Martin Road to public officials. - photo by Erin O. Smith

There are always stories that are undervalued at first glance. Then there are trends that get overhyped. And, finally, there is news so unexpected that no one could have predicted it.

We’ll likely see all of that in 2017, but here are several issues that will come up this year and may have some of the biggest impact on local residents.

Water wars

The decadeslong “water wars” may reach some finality in 2017.

In December, the Army Corps of Engineers released its manual describing water operations in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin, which includes Lake Lanier in the headwaters. It’s the first definitive such document in more than half a century.

And while it reflects favorably for Georgia by basically agreeing to the state’s requests for water withdrawals, how it plays out is another matter.

One potential wrench in the works is a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on water sharing between Florida and Georgia.

Ralph Lancaster, a Maine lawyer appointed to preside over a lawsuit by Florida alleging Georgia’s “overconsumption” of water,” presided over a trial this fall between the states and is expected to rule on the matter — perhaps early this year.

His ruling will be, in effect, a recommendation. The Supreme Court will have the final say, which could come later in the year.

Meanwhile, the area is still trying to emerge from a year of drought that saw Lanier’s water levels drop a dozen feet below full pool.

Transportation

At least a couple of major transportation projects will be brewing this year.

Perhaps the most controversial one is a planned $27 million interchange off Interstate 985 in South Hall.

The Georgia Department of Transportation is looking to build a diamond interchange connecting Martin Road on the east side of I-985 to H.F. Reed Industrial Parkway on the west side.

While the project has garnered much support from area government officials and business leaders, it has been criticized heavily by area residents, with “Stop Exit 14” signs planted in yards along the mostly residential Martin Road.

A committee made up of 15 local residents has been formed to give input to a freight study that will look at the Martin Road corridor and explore transportation options from Exit 14 to Winder Highway.

Elsewhere, work on Hall County’s next big road project — the long-awaited widening of Athens Highway/U.S. 129 in East Hall — is underway.

Mostly the work so far has involved grading and clearing as “there is an 18-month allowance of time for utilities to be relocated,” DOT district spokeswoman Katie Strickland said in August.

The $44.1 million project, which has an April 2020 completion date, starts at Gillsville Highway/Ga. 323 and runs to the Pendergrass Bypass in Jackson County.

The work also includes construction of a bridge and approaches over Allen Creek, according to the DOT.

Service delivery and comprehensive plan

The intent is to improve efficiency, eliminate any overlap in services, minimize the prospect of double taxation and cut operational costs. The real-world consequences, however, are revealed in the amount of money at stake.

And so that’s where the negotiations between Gainesville, Hall County and other local governments over how to deliver services to local residents will be defined in 2017.

With potentially millions of dollars in revenue from business licensing and property taxes at stake, local governments are preparing to meet a state requirement to draft a service delivery plan by the end of June to guide management in the coming years.

Officials in Gainesville and Hall County have said they are likely to find agreement on most of 50 services, but negotiations over a few critical items like public safety, water access and road maintenance could see local governments jockeying for position.

Two new areas of service that will need to be addressed include public transportation and affordable housing programs.

Meanwhile, local governments are simultaneously reworking their long-term comprehensive plans to guide commercial and residential growth across Hall. It, too, must be complete by the end of June.

The plan update will tackle everything from zoning and building standards to the integration of economic development and quality of life issues, and could help direct investment in new community centers and parks, commercial businesses and residential development.

Local governments are planning public input meetings this year for both the service delivery and comprehensive plan updates.

City Council elections

The presidential election in 2016 left many residents and voters just glad for the campaign season to finally end in November.

But the breather from politics won’t last long. Local cities have a slew of council and mayoral races lined up for 2017.

In Gainesville, Mayor Danny Dunagan’s seat, the Ward 1 post held by Sam Couvillon and the Ward 4 post held by George Wangemann are all on the ballot this year.

The mayoral seat and two council posts also are up for election in Lula. Mordecai Wilson and Marvin Moore said they plan to seek re-election, while Mayor Milton Turner has not announced his intentions.

In Flowery Branch, council Ward 3, 4 and 5, held by Fred Richards, Joe Anglin and Monica Beatty, respectively, are up for election alongside Mayor Mike Miller’s office.

Mayor Lamar Scroggs of Oakwood is also up for re-election, as are council members Sam Evans and Pat Jones if they choose to seek another term.  

And the Ward 3 and 4 seats on the Clermont Town Council, now held by Margaret Merritt and Kristi Crumpton, respectively, as well as Mayor James Nix’s seat, are up for election.

Qualifying for all races will be held in late August.

Staff writers Joshua Silavent and Jeff Gill contributed to this story.

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