Watkinsville Will Preserve 100 Acre Thomas Farm as Greenspace and Park
Purchase Will Limit Growth on Simonton Bridge Corridor, Create Future Recreation Opportunities and
Protect Critical Calls Creek Watershed
WATKINSVILLE, May 1, 2023 – The City of Watkinsville today announced that it is under contract with property owners Mark and Mitch Thomas to secure and preserve the largest parcel of undeveloped land in the city, the 100-acre Thomas family farm. The Thomas property, located just inside the city limits along Simonton Bridge Road, includes more than 1/3 of a mile of frontage along Calls Creek, more than 60 acres of open pasture, 33 acres of woodlands, two ponds comprising approximately five acres, and one of Oconee County’s most iconic views.
“For decades, Watkinsville residents and Oconee County citizens have known they were almost to Main Street as they passed the two ponds on Simonton Bridge Road,” said Watkinsville Mayor Brian Brodrick. “What many did not know is that beyond those ponds were acres of the most beautiful land in our entire region. We are thrilled to preserve this land for future passive public use and to limit future development along the Simonton Bridge corridor, which already suffers from congestion at peak hours. The city council and I believe this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity.”
The new park would be equal to more than 4.5 percent of the entire land area of Watkinsville, and more than doubles the city’s usable greenspace while preserving critical acres of wetlands designated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“Watkinsville citizens have consistently asked us to save our green space and limit development of our remaining agricultural land – this accomplishes both of those goals on one of our most developable parcels,” added Brodrick. “Our goal is for every Watkinsville resident to live within an easy walk of meaningful greenspace. This acquisition – along with our purchase nearly 10 years ago of Watkinsville Woods, our improvements to Rocket Field and our largest current park at Harris Shoals – is getting us closer to this goal.”
The Thomas parcel is bordered by four existing Watkinsville neighborhoods – Morgan Manor, Simonton Place, Spring Circle and Calls Creek subdivision, as well as the historic Watkinsville Cemetery. The four neighborhoods comprise more than 210 homes. The city has future plans for a sidewalk connecting downtown Watkinsville to Simonton Place, creating a safe way for neighbors and others to access the park. Morgan Manor’s existing Simonton Bridge entrance will also be directly across from a future park entrance; the city anticipates installing a crosswalk to help residents from Morgan Manor to reach the new park.
“As a real estate agent, I have seen a lot of land, but I’m not sure I have ever seen a more beautiful piece of the Georgia Piedmont,” said Mayor Pro Tempore Christine Tucker. “We have a long history of conservative fiscal management, and that approach has allowed us to have the financial resources to even consider a purchase of this nature. We have not had any debt since the 1980s, and don’t take this step lightly, but we believe preserving the Thomas Farm is an opportunity that will benefit Watkinsville for many generations.”
The city will pay $4.55 million for the land, two existing homes, and certain capital improvements to the ponds and dams the Thomas family will make prior to the closing of the transaction. To fund the acquisition, the city will use a mix of SPLOST funds, American Rescue Plan Act funds, and debt. The ARPA funds were recommended for transformative projects when delivered to the city by the US Government. To service the anticipated debt, Mayor Brodrick is recommending a .84 mil increase in property taxes, which equates to approximately $137 for a home valued at $300,000. The city is currently evaluating low-cost financing options for the debt portion of the purchase, and anticipates closing by the end of the year. The dedicated millage will be used to service the debt and pay for principal until the city can retire the debt. The City will make a final decision on its budget by June 30 after a series of public meetings; it will also take a public vote to formally acquire the property at a later date.
City Council anticipates only passive uses at the new park, primarily hiking, walking, and other uses that do not impact the existing wildlife habitat and watershed. Preliminary plans call for an approximately 2 mile paved or gravel walking path, an additional two miles of smaller trails, multiple shelters and overlooks. Those plans also call for a 30-space parking lot, restrooms and space for overflow parking. Once the transaction closes, City Council will work with various committees and citizens to finalize plans and develop a timeline for implementation and access. See site plans below.
At this point, council anticipates hours being sunrise to sunset; it has not determined whether the existing structures on the site will be preserved. The land remains privately owned until it closes, and as such citizens should not attempt to access the property. Fifteen of the 100 acres are currently outside the city limits; the city anticipates annexing those acres as a part of the transaction.
Watkinsville is the county seat of Oconee County in Northeast Georgia. The city has a population of approximately 3,000 and a thriving downtown. Watkinsville’s vision is to create Georgia’s most compelling community by honoring our history, building community, and creating opportunity for citizens to engaged and do business with one another every day. Learn more at www.cityofwatkinsville.com.
Contact: Brian Brodrick, Mayor