In June, the city of Euharlee acquired a permanent conservation easement from Cartersville Ranch LLC, a Rollins family company that owns 1,800 acres of contiguous property, including Dobbins Mountain, that would be affected by the route GDOT chose, commonly known as Route D.
The agreement poised the city -- whose attorney, Boyd Pettit, is a partner of GeorgiaLink Public Affairs Group, a lobbying firm that represents another Rollins family business -- to be a conservancy of more than 100 acres of the mountain. Cookerly Public Relations, a firm reportedly hired by the Rollins family that is representing the Coalition for the Right Road, says the Cherokee darter, a fish classified as a threatened species since 1994, is endemic to the Etowah River basin, which includes the Pettit and Nancy Creek watersheds.
"The way Route D has been designed will result in an accumulating chain of impacts from stormwater run-off, the introduction of fill into 36 acres of floodplains and the numerous bridges and overpasses that would cross streams in the Pettit [Creek] and Nancy Creek watersheds," said Tony Greco of Athens-based environmental consultant Nutter & Associates in the Cookerly release. "The Cherokee darter is extremely sensitive to land use changes. Route D would increase impervious land surface in the Pettit and Nancy Creek watersheds to such an extent that we anticipate surviving populations of Cherokee darters there would be significantly reduced or completely eliminated."
Calling the move "unusual" during the June 15 public meeting during which the Euharlee council made the agreement official, Pettit said the city's intent was to "avoid development of environmentally sensitive properties, preserve natural resources here in our area and establish a comprehensive plan to set aside a portion of this property for greenspace," adding the area is home to significant natural, scenic, watershed and wildlife properties.
The property under the conservation easement is located between Ga. 20 and U.S. 411 north in Cartersville, an apparent unusual location for the city of Euharlee, which is some 15 miles away.
In an e-mail to The Daily Tribune News, Cookerly Account Supervisor Cory Stewart said Euharlee is "directly downstream of the Pettit Creek watershed, which the proposed route [would] cross at several points. The watershed flows into the Etowah River."
Bartow County officials say opponents of Route D project approached and offered the government a similar agreement, but sole Commissioner Clarence Brown declined involvement.
"They would have done the same thing with us as they did with Euharlee, but I said no. I didn't want any part of that," Brown said, adding that he has supported a U.S. 411 Connector and did not want to take a stand against GDOT. "I need their help for other road projects. We still have Old Alabama Phase 3 and the Highway 20 project and I get help with all these intersections and curbs."
Euharlee City Manager Trish Sullivan said at the time the agreement was announced that city officials had approached Cartersville Ranch LLC concerning the conservation easement. Pettit added Thursday that he had been involved in lobbying for another Rollins business during the most recent Georgia General Assembly session and was approached by two city council members who had attended an "educational program" at the ranch.
The coalition, led by the Rollins family, has hosted public and private sessions at the ranch off U.S. 411, rallying members and presenting engineering and ecological experts. The group opposes GDOT's preferred Route D and favors Route G, which they say would be shorter and cost less.
"They were not there at my invitation. They were there at the invitation of others, and I was contacted then by them later saying [they] may have an interest in getting involved and assisting Cartersville Ranch in connection with this and I disclosed to them what my relationship is with the Rollins' family businesses," Pettit said, adding he also fully disclosed his relationship with Euharlee to Cartersville Ranch. "I don't know that I see any potential legal battle in the future for the city. ... I've been practicing law for 31 years or so, and there's always [the] potential [for legal issues] in any transaction, so certainly where there's an easement accepted by the city, could there be some sort of litigation down the road and the city's involved? Absolutely."
When asked if either Pettit's relationship with the Rollins family or the potential for future legal issues concerned her, Euharlee Mayor Kathy Faulk answered no to both.
She added the city acquired the easement "for the wildlife, the historic value, for the flora and fauna. It encompassed all of that."
"Euharlee has always been interested in historic conservation, greenspace, those kinds of things. That's the direction we've always taken. With Dobbins Mountain, that is such a piece of history with the mines there, Civil War trenches. ... It was just a natural thing for us to do," Faulk said, adding Euharlee could undertake future conservation activity, but no projects are currently in the works.
The conservation easement, purchased for $10, allows Cartersville Ranch LLC to resume ownership and requires Euharlee to declare the acreage a wildlife refuge, Pettit said. It is a move State Transportation Board member David Doss of Rome said would require federal approval, commonly known as 4(f) designation.
The Department of Transportation Act of 1966 includes the special provision, Section 4(f), which stipulates the Federal Highway Administration and other DOT agencies cannot approve the use of land from wildlife refuges, among other parcels, unless there is no feasible and prudent alternative to the use of land and the action includes all possible planning to minimize harm to the property resulting from use, according to the agency website.
Neither Faulk nor Pettit could detail the process of seeking a 4(f) designation or say how long it could take.
"The city has not been asked in connection with the conservation easement for any funding for obtaining a 4(f) designation or any other," Pettit said. "They've not been asked for any funding. I'm not aware of any request nor any indication on the part of the city that they would pay.
"If there is an application process, the grantor of the easement, which is Cartersville Ranch LLC, could be the one that actually is involved in the application process, providing the documentation. But at this point, I've not been asked and to my knowledge the city has not been asked to do that, to do anything."
Editor's note -- This is the first in a two-part series on the proposed U.S. 411 Connector. Read Part 2 in tomorrow's issue of The Daily Tribune News.