County officials have to turn over the rights of way for more than 100 properties to the Georgia Department of Transportation by June 2012 before construction firms can begin bidding on the long-awaited project.
The first phase of the project to widen the corridor between State Route 316 and Main Street in Watkinsville will transform a three-mile section of Mars Hill Road from a two-lane road to a four-lane divided highway.
In addition to securing rights of way for 98 properties, the county will also have to purchase four properties — including the Golden Pantry Food Store at Hodges Mill and Mars Hill roads — in order to make way for the planned road.
Connie Quintero, the manager of the Golden Pantry, knew about the widening project, but didn't know about the store needing to be purchased or relocated.
"We are in the middle of the road here, so I guess they'll have to do that if the road will be straight," Quintero said.
The Golden Pantry company has not returned calls from Oconee Patch.
Mars Hill property owners won't be hearing from Oconee County -- all the communication about easements and right of way rights will be handled by a firm the county will retain just for the negotiations.
“No Oconee County person, no public works employee, no commissioners will be negotiating anything,” said Emil Beshara, public works department director. “All of this will be conducted by a Georgia DOT-approved right-of-way negotiator.”
Beshara hopes to choose his recommendation for the firm that will handle those negotiations by the end of the week, he told the Board of Commissioners at their work session Tuesday night.
Two companies will be interviewed this week, with the public works department’s summary of these meetings and their recommendation submitted to commissioners for review before they make their decision at the board's next meeting on Feb. 8.
The county is responsible for paying the firm and other costs associated with the right-of-way acquisitions, but the Georgia DOT will reimburse the county $8.6 million for the land and rights of way along Mars Hill Road, according to Beshara.
Phase one construction will disrupt access to homes, offices, businesses and schools once it's underway.
Between 20,000 and 21,000 cars travel the stretch of road each day, which is twice what is recommended for a two-lane road, according to Beshara.
A typical timeline for a project this size is about two years, Beshara told commissioners, but the county has to have the titles in-hand in about a year and a half because the contract with the Georgia DOT to reimburse the county has an expiration date of June 30, 2012 — the end of the state’s fiscal year.
This is the first time that Oconee County is contending with both a monetary cap on a road project and an expiration date on a contract from the Georgia DOT, according to Beshara.
Though he told commissioners that they’re a little behind on completing the project, Beshara said he isn’t worried about making the deadline.
“We’re not going to hire a firm that does not give me a guarantee that it will meet the deadline, regardless of how many people they’ve got to put on the project,” Beshara said.