Residents who attended the city of Richmond Hill’s town hall on growth and traffic Tuesday night made one thing clear — they want the city and county to cooperate. The question is, will it happen?
About 100 people filled the city council chambers for the presentation and a Q&A session that lasted about 90 minutes.
“Let’s make one thing clear, we’re not here to play the blame game,” Mayor Harold Fowler said to open the session. “The city and the county have to come together and work together to do what is best for all of South Bryan County.”
The Bryan County Board of Commissioners had scheduled a similar forum in June but had to cancel it due to scheduling conflicts. Commissioners are hoping to reschedule it for mid-August.
Councilman Johnny Murphy said he hopes the city has more such town halls, including one with the county. He suggested a local church might even want to host one so that more seating would be available.
Fowler said he has requested a joint meeting with the county, but has not yet heard back.
Commissioners Chairman Carter Infinger disagreed.
“I told the mayor we should look at doing that in the last quarter,” he said. “We’re very busy right now putting together our capital improvement plan and revising our ordinances.”
Infinger added that cooperating with the city has to be “50-50” to work.
“We’ve talked about some projects before, but if we don’t want to do everything their way, then we get told that we’re not working together,” Infinger said. “That’s not the case.”
One such project that came up Tuesday night was the city’s offer to connect South Bryan County to Richmond Hill’s waste water treatment plant. Fowler said the city has “run into some walls” on that front.
“It would cost $1.5 million for them to connect, but they want to spend $12 million on their own plant,” he said.
Infinger said those discussions broke down because city wanted to take over the water and sewer system.
“Why would we want to give up our revenue stream like that,” he said. “It was an all or none deal.”
City Manager Chris Lovell said the city will continue to work with the county.
“We are actively seeking relationships and partnerships with them,” he said. “They are looking out for their interests the same way we are, and we may not see eye-to-eye on everything, but we have a respectful and friendly relationship. We will work better and make a more deliberate effort.”
Several other issues were raised that are outside of the city council’s purview, such as school start times, the need for a new library and the approval of subdivisions in the county.
Murphy said there are about 2,700 families that live outside the city that feed traffic into the city daily along Highway 144.
“It’s not city residents that have created these massive traffic issues,” he said.
Murphy added that two subdivisions previously approved by the county off of Oak Level Road totaling nearly 8,000 homes will add to the problem. Another 5,000 homes have been previously approved along the Belfast River and Belfast Keller corridor.
Officials hope, however, that the new interchange on I-95 at Belfast Keller Road will help alleviate the problem.
Bids for that project are expected to be sought this fall, while bids for the widening of Highway 144 should be let next spring.
Assistant City Manager Scott Allison addressed traffic issues in general, referring to a 2014 transportation study the city and county commissioned jointly.
“That allowed us to predict our future needs and identify needed improvements,” he said. “We don’t have control of any of the major intersections, but we do have influence.”
Of the main thoroughfares in the city, GDOT controls U.S. 17 and Highway 144, while the county oversees Harris Trail, Brisbon and Port Royal. The city owns Timber Trail.
Allison said the city has recently spent $2 million on traffic control improvements and $300,000 on street resurfacing.
Councilman Russ Carpenter said he thought the town hall was a success.
“Our goal for the meeting was to better demonstrate what the city has been doing in dealing with traffic and growth,” he said. “The attendance was exceptional, and the questions asked by our residents raised legitimate concerns and provided the city with specific marching orders. To that end, meetings are being scheduled.”
Carpenter said during the town hall that a meeting involving all four government bodies in the county — the cities of Richmond Hill and Pembroke, commissioners and the school board — is in the works.