Georgia DOT official’s involvement in shopping center raises concerns

A Georgia transportation official has come under scrutiny for his role in a state decision that would benefit a proposed Oconee County shopping center in which he has a financial interest. (Photo courtesy of Oconee County)
A Georgia transportation official has come under scrutiny for his role in a state decision that would benefit a proposed Oconee County shopping center in which he has a financial interest. (Photo courtesy of Oconee County)

A Georgia transportation official has come under scrutiny for his role in a state decision that would benefit a proposed Oconee County shopping center in which he has a financial interest.

Jamie Boswell is a member of the State Transportation Board, which oversees the Georgia Department of Transportation. He also owns a real estate company that is selling parcels in a proposed $50 million shopping center near a planned Ga. 316 interchange at the Oconee Connector near Athens.

GDOT initially declined a request to allow full access to the shopping center — complete with a stoplight and a left-turn lane — on the Oconee Connector. Agency engineers said the entrance as designed would be too close to the interchange and could cause traffic problems in the area.

But GDOT’s chief engineer overruled that decision after Boswell intervened on behalf of the owner. Boswell says he only delivered documents that showed GDOT had previously agreed to allow full access to the property at the requested location.

Boswell said he was not involved in GDOT’s decision, and he doesn’t see any conflict between his duties as a State Transportation Board member and as the real estate agent for the property.

“It had nothing to do with me,” he said of GDOT’s decision.

GDOT also said Boswell’s involvement was not a factor in its decision to allow full access to the shopping center on the Oconee Connector. In a written statement, Chief Engineer Meg Pirkle, who made the decision, cited the 1997 agreement and a desire to avoid litigation over the issue.

Some Oconee County residents say the old agreement shouldn’t matter because road and development conditions in the area have changed dramatically since 1997. They’re suspicious of Boswell’s involvement because his company stands to benefit from sales of parcels at the shopping center and other nearby properties.

“He’s got real estate signs all up and down 316,” said Ian Taylor, who lives near the proposed shopping center.

The controversy comes as GDOT is spending $828.8 million to convert Ga. 316 into a limited-access highway stretching across Gwinnett, Barrow and Oconee counties. That work involves replacing stoplights on the highway with bridges and interchanges.

One of the new interchanges is at the Oconee Connector near Athens. Construction on the $70.5 million interchange is set to begin in 2024 and finish in 2027.

That’s where a developer wants to build a shopping center on 47 acres. The development would include a Publix grocery store, a hotel, retail shops and restaurants.

To move forward with the project, property owner Maxie Price needs the Oconee County Board of Commissioners to approve new zoning. In correspondence with GDOT, he said the stoplight and entrance on the Oconee Connector is also critical to the development’s success.

The Northeast Georgia Regional Commission — which reviews developments with a regional impact — found the additional traffic generated by the shopping center “risks degrading the performance of Ga. 316 as an efficient, high-speed connection between Athens and Atlanta.”

GDOT also objected to the request for the stoplight and a break in the median on the Oconee Connector. In January, District Traffic Engineer Jason Dykes cited the proximity of the light to the planned ramp of the new interchange, GDOT documents show.

Dykes and his team said an existing median break at the site should be closed. As a compromise, they recommended permitting a driveway that would allow vehicles to turn right — but not left — into and out of the shopping center. Oconee County’s planning staff also wanted the “right in, right out” access, rather than a stoplight and median break.

Price’s attorney objected, saying current and former owners of the property had made substantial investment decisions based on a previous agreement with the county and GDOT.

In 1997 GDOT and the county agreed to allow a driveway and median break in exchange for right of way for roads. Price’s attorney said that commitment was reaffirmed in 2009.

Ken Beall, whose planning and engineering firm represents Price, said GDOT officials didn’t know about the old agreement when they rejected Price’s request.

“No one had historical documentation beyond last year to evaluate this entire rezone request,” Beall said.

GDOT correspondence shows Price delivered those documents through Boswell and State Transportation Board Chairman Rudy Bowen.

Citing those documents, Pirkle, the GDOT chief engineer, overruled the decision of the agency’s district staff, granting Price’s request for the median break on April 6. Pirkle notified Boswell and Price of her decision.

Boswell said he did not lobby for the highway access Price sought.

“I make no engineering decisions,” he said. “My only involvement was delivering the information from (Price’s) attorney to the DOT office so they could review it.”

Pirkle also said Boswell’s involvement was not a factor. In her statement, she said she respects GDOT’s district staff, but it’s “not uncommon for a chief engineer to use their discretion to amend a decision based on a variety of factors.”

“In this specific case, GDOT made a commitment almost 25 years ago to allow for a specific level of access at this location, well before Mr. Boswell became a member of the State Transportation Board eight years ago,” Pirkle said. “I felt it was most appropriate to honor a commitment that was made by a previous (GDOT) commissioner and avoid what could have become a costly legal challenge. The decision did not involve Mr. Boswell or his role on the State Transportation Board.”

As to the potential traffic problems the shopping center access might cause, Pirkle said GDOT will “identify appropriate traffic control” as the Ga. 316 interchange is designed. Though GDOT has agreed to allow the median break, she said it has not approved the requested stoplight.

Boswell said he does not believe his involvement in GDOT’s decision violates state ethics rules.

Among other things, the ethics code says members of state boards should “never take any official action with regard to any matter under circumstances in which he knows or should know that he has a direct or indirect interest in the subject matter of such matter or in the outcome of such official action.”

William Perry, founder of the group Georgia Ethics Watchdogs, said Boswell likely didn’t violate state law. But he said that’s because Georgia’s ethics laws are “so weak and purposely vague for these situations.”

“By law, not unethical,” he said of Boswell’s involvement. “By common sense, extremely unethical.”

Despite GDOT’s decision, it’s unclear whether the shopping center will be built.

The Oconee County Planning Commission has twice rejected Price’s zoning request after residents cited traffic and environmental concerns. The Board of Commissioners is expected to take up the request Tuesday.

THE PROJECT

GDOT is spending $828.8 million to convert Ga. 316 into a limited-access highway stretching across Gwinnett, Barrow and Oconee counties. That work involves replacing stoplights on the highway with bridges and interchanges.

One of the new interchanges is at the Oconee Connector near Athens. Construction on the $70.5 million interchange is set to begin in 2024 and finish in 2027.

In Other News