After hearing from Clara Rawls Eason, one of 22 property owners along Old Happy Road who have signed a petition to have it paved, the Bulloch County commissioners on Tuesday morning voted 6-0 “to move forward” with the paving – but it won’t exactly happen tomorrow.
With the design work and other preparations, two years could pass before construction begins, according to the county engineer.
Currently dirt, Old Happy Road is 2.5 miles long, from Old Highway 46 on the south to Mud Road on the north, in the southeastern part of the county, an area recently subject to much attention from developers. Eason moved back to Bulloch County in 2021 but had started her petition drive in 2020, while she was still a resident of Tennessee, to have Old Happy paved.
“Knowing that I was going to retire and come back home to Georgia, I started the petition hoping that I would be a lot farther by now on getting the road paved,” she said after Tuesday’s meeting. “I moved back in 2021 and we’re in 2023, and we just got one step forward. This is a very slow process.”
By Eason’s count there are 32 property owners along the road, so the 22 who have signed the petition would be more than 68 % of that total number. They include the largest single property owner on the road, but also some small parcel owners, and together hold about 62% of the right of way frontage, said County Engineer Brad Deal.
Eason showed the commissioners some slides she said gave an indication “of how we are living on Old Happy Road.” Some of her pictures showed cars and trucks struggling in soft sand on the road. Others showed a Lowe’s delivery truck and a satellite dish equipment van that slipped into the ditches in wet conditions.
“All of it cost them costly delays,” Eason said. “He had to call for a backup to come pull him out. … I’m afraid this can happen also to EMS responders or police in pursuit of a criminal, not to mention a school bus full of small kids.”
She noted that, as a connector road between Mud Road and Highway 46, Old Happy Road allows access to Interstate 16 and State Route 67.
“This connector road serves a purpose to the entire county and a very important part in the growth of Bulloch County,” Eason said to the commissioners. “Please vote ‘yes’ to the paving of Old Happy Road and consider revising the outdated requirements on the petition so that other communities can also experience better living conditions.”
A little later during the same Board of Commissioners’ meeting, Deal gave a planned presentation, saying he had not known that Eason was also going to speak.
“As we’ve discussed before, we have about 62 percent of the right of way frontage accounted for on the petition … and a couple of years ago we had put some money in the budget for this road with the thought that it would likely warrant moving forward,” Deal said.
Funding for this and other local paving projects comes from the Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, or T-SPLOST, a 1% tax. The county has just $150,000 from T-SPLOST budgeted for the Old Happy Road paving this fiscal year but more available in future years.
Deal gave a rough estimate that completing the project could cost $2 million, increased from a $1.5 million estimate a few years ago. A need to protect wetlands, subject to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determinations, could add to the cost, he said.
The county government actually uses a scoring system, not simply the number of property owners petitioning, to rank dirt roads for potential paving. Old Happy Road’s score of 63 was the second-highest score of any road the county has rated for paving, behind only Hightower Road, Deal reported.
Hightower Road, he said, did not have more homes on it than Old Happy Road, but had “a greater density over a shorter length.”
But residents of about 70 homes, including some on two or three dead-end roads that branch off Old Happy Road, must use it for access to their property, Deal said. The road is also flat and lacks good drainage so that it “creates a lot of drainage issues that Public Works has to deal with on a daily basis,” he said.
Deal recommended moving forward with the surveying and design work and the identification of wetlands. He also recommended 60 as a threshold score for paving roads and said 60% could also provide a “rule of thumb” for property owner support.
County Public Works Director Dink Butler also spoke to the board, calling Old Happy Road “probably one of (the county’s) highest complaint roads.” He ranked it third, behind Hightower Road and Clary Road, as a paving priority based just on the maintenance issues and complaints.
Commissioner Toby Conner made the motion “to move forward” with the Old Happy Road paving project, and Commissioner Anthony Simmons seconded.
Two uncertain years
But Deal cautioned that property owners who sign petitions to have roads paved sometimes refuse, later, to donate right of way. County Attorney Jeff Akins noted that the county could end up having to use condemnation procedures for purchases or right of way, and that other steps would come back to the commissioners for future votes.
Deal said the surveying and design work will probably take six months, Army Corps of Engineers permitting for wetlands could take another six, and meanwhile the county will begin right of way acquisition, which he said also typically takes six months. He shared this timeline with Eason.
“So I was telling her it could be two years before we’d be able to start construction,” Deal said. “It’s not a number I like to use, but it is probably a realistic number.”