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Thursday September 3rd, 2015 4:52AM

Habersham votes 4-1 to support Soque Scenic Byway

By Rob Moore Reporter
CLARKESVILLE - A proposal to create the Soque Scenic Byway on state highways and county roads resulted in a 4-1 vote by the Habersham County Commission Monday night.

The route would include Georgia Highways 197, 255, and 356, as well as Raper Mountain Road, Oakey Mountain Road, New Liberty Road and The Orchard Road, as well as Historic U.S. Highway 441.

The resolution states the route contains "significant scenic, natural, historic, cultural, archeological, and recreational qualities."

"Whereas, designation of this route fits the goals of the Habersham County Comprehensive Plan in that it will promote the development of tourism and the preservation of the Soque River Corridor, State Route 197 and other roads in the county; and whereas the Georgia Scenic Byways Program is a tool to encourage tourism and responsible development, bringing positive economic benefits and opportunities to this community," the resolution states.

The item was on the meeting's consent agenda, where items typically are not discussed by commissioners prior to a vote.

During the public comments portion of the meeting, held prior to the vote on the consent agenda, resident Dennis Magley raised questions about the designation.

"My question then is how are they going to get that property to pull off on?" Magley asked. "I mean, is it going to eminent domain or what?"

Resident Peter Davitto also spoke out about the proposed Soque Scenic Byway, asking for a delay until property owners along the route were notified.

Suspending the rules, Habersham County Commission Chairman Chad Henderson allowed Clarkesville Main Street Director Mary Beth Horton - who had not signed up - to speak on the issue.

"Mary Beth had come in anticipation of discussion of the Soque River Scenic Byway," Henderson said.

"The reason that we are seeking this designation is purely to market this area of northeast Georgia," Horton said. "That's our intention. All we want to do is be able to share with the state and perhaps other states in the country what we know and believe to be the most beautiful part of northeast Georgia.

"This is a tourism thing - this is to promote economic development," Horton said. "It's a positive thing. It's a marketing program."

Horton said there currently are only 14 Byways in Georgia.

Advantages would be signage, website presence, notation on state maps and more, Horton said.

Commissioner Sonny James said his understanding is that there is no eminent domain involved in the designation, and that the right of way along the route is sufficient without additional property.

"You're correct," Horton said.

With Henderson's permission, Horton called on Walton Smith of the county's comprehensive plan implementation advisory committee.

"We are at step 4 or 5 of a 24-step process," Smith said. "We had intended to come to the county commission down around step 15, after there had been public hearings."

That procedure changed when, in August, the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Transportation notified the committee that a resolution of support from the Habersham County Commission would be required because the route traverses county roads, Smith said.

"The concern is about private property rights," Smith said. "The purpose of the program is, as Mary Beth said, promotion of tourism - one of the primary industries of this county. This a DOT program, this is a promotional program. Nothing in the program increases the rights of the county or the government to take property."

While he said it would be nice for people to be able to pull off and look at the river at less than 50 mph, "we don't have any right to take anybody's property. Adopting this resolution doesn't change that. If we get a parking place, we negotiate with those owners and we come to a deal or we don't."

When the commission voted on the consent agenda, James voted against.

James confirmed after the meeting that he voted against the consent agenda because of concerns he had about the proposed Soque Scenic Byway, but said he didn't want to make additional comments.
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