Hall County officials have found a way they may be able to circumvent the length and expense of an in-depth environmental assessment of the proposed Glades Reservoir.
But there is a cost for the convenience that could add up to as much as $300,000 in additional consulting fees for the project, though the county's elected leaders say it won't be nearly as much as the cost of an Environmental Impact Study.
The Board of Commissioners will vote today on an agreement to pay an employee of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to walk the county through the in-depth permitting process for Glades.
Commissioners say the cost of that help could range from $150,000 to $300,000, though they won't know the exact cost until they receive a contract from the corps in a few weeks.
The money will help the county cut the length of an Environmental Impact Study from as many as five years to less than two.
The corps informed county officials in July that their proposal to build Glades Reservoir was too controversial because of its relationship to embattled Lake Lanier.
The Glades project is supposed to provide 80 million gallons of water per day to the Northeast Georgia region. It would impound water headed for the Chattahoochee River, creating an 850-acre lake north of Lake Lanier.
The corps' July decision meant the Glades project would be subject to an in-depth environmental impact study — a process that requires more time and allows greater opportunity for public input — rather than the fast-track permitting process county officials had hoped would end in permission to build the reservoir by June 2012.
The decision likely could have held up the permitting process for two to five years, and likely would have set a precedent for about 10 other reservoir projects in the development stages in Georgia.
It meant that the corps would be in control of the environmental analysis, choosing one of three county-preferred engineers to perform the study.
The county would have remained responsible for the costs of the study, adding as much as $3 to $5 million to the cost of the project, commissioners said.
Since the corps issued its decision in July, county officials have lobbied state leaders, including Gov. Nathan Deal, to aid them in the permitting process.
Deal has a made a concerted effort to promote reservoir development in the state since his term began in January, including $46 million in this year's state budget to promote the expansion of existing reservoirs and find ways to stabilize the state's water supply.
A spokesman for the governor could not comment on Deal's involvement with the Glades project Wednesday.
But commissioners say a meeting they had with Georgia Environmental Protection Division Director Allen Barnes earlier this month was orchestrated by the governor.
A spokesman for the EPD was not immediately available for comment Wednesday, but commissioners said the agency's head served as an intercessor between the local reservoir interests and the corps.
The result was a deal that promises to speed along the permitting process for Glades with the help of a corps employee to serve as the county's guide through the process. Commissioners and their main consultant for the reservoir project, Tommy Craig, say the corps has similar deals with the Georgia Department of Transportation.
"I think this is the way to make the corps feel comfortable with what we're doing, it gives them cover," Commissioner Scott Gibbs said. "This is not a trial basis; this is being done at the state level already."
The corps consultant would be paid for by county special purpose local option sales tax dollars that are set aside for the reservoir project, adding as much as $300,000 a year to the $65,000 in average monthly fees the county pays to consultants already assigned to the project.
Since SPLOST funds are limited, paying the corps employee for the help would mean the county will have to cut funding for another SPLOST-funded project.
But it would also mean the county could avoid paying for independent consultants to fund the Environmental Impact Study, which is also paid for with SPLOST funds.
Gibbs says the new deal will mean the county could have a permit in-hand for the reservoir in the next 14 to 18 months.
A spokeswoman for the corps, contacted late Wednesday afternoon, could not provide an official answer on the corps' offer to the county or what it means for the reservoir's permitting process.
"Ronald Reagan said ‘I'm here to walk alongside of you rather than ride your back,' and I think this is a chance that we have with the Corps of Engineers to walk alongside of us," said Commission Chairman Tom Oliver. "I think it's a beautiful scenario, and I think it's really incredible how it's laid out this way."
A proposal that the county will vote on today would limit the funding for the corps officer to two years. The resolution would enable the county attorney to move forward with the contract, but the official contract will be written and provided by the corps to be signed by Oliver in the coming weeks.