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Posted: April 23, 2013 10:03 p.m.

Planning the future

Longtime Newton County planner Sirotkin leaves, reflects on his past

Scott Sirotkin never intended to work in planning and zoning, yet he found himself in Newton County during the biggest home building spree in U.S. history and eventually was named director of the department.

Seven years after joining Newton County, Sirotkin is leaving the county to pursue his true passion while he’s young enough to switch careers, but he’ll continue to work on some of the county’s most vital planning and hopes to remain in the area, which has become his home.

Sirotkin has been director of Newton County’s Department of Development Services since late 2010. The department was created after significant layoffs and combined the planning, zoning and the Geographic Information Systems departments; Sirotkin helped shape the direction of a new department in a time of a change and also focused on laying the groundwork so the county doesn’t find itself overrun by housing like it was in the mid-2000s.

The county is currently hiring Sirotkin’s replacement and is also again looking for zoning administrator (see sidebar story).

As for Sirotkin, he’s pursuing a master’s degree in computer science from Georgia Southern, so he can get back into the field of analytics and databases, which look for ways to make sense out of and practically use the wealth of information and data collected today.

In the meantime, he’s working on a six-month contract with the county to continue working on the development of the county’s 2050 Plan, including the set of ordinances being developed that will direct future growth, strengthen building standards and protect greenspace.

Sirotkin will also continue to work on the county’s Neighborhood Stabilization Program, the 2009 federal home revitalization plan, which requires lots of paperwork and documentation. The county still owns five homes that need to be sold to families through Habitat for Humanity, but the homes have liens on them because the contractor who made repairs wasn’t paid by the previous nonprofit, Conyers-based IECDG, that originally worked on the program.

The county attorney’s office is negotiating with the lien holder, and once that’s done, the homes will be sold to qualified families.

Finally, Sirotkin is working on a training manual for the development services department to help make for smooth transitions in the future when employees go and come.

Background
A Georgia native, Sirotkin graduated from Lakeside High School in DeKalb County and then from the Georgia Institute of Technology with a degree in computer engineering. He planned to pursue a master’s degree in electrical engineering, but decided to take a break from school first and took an internship with Xerox in Rochester, N.Y. He liked the work, 

but was more idealistic at the time and figured there was more to life than making copy machines, so he pursued a city planning degree instead.
“It had some technical problem-solving aspects, but, at least at the time, it seemed like it dealt more directly with people and how we live and that sort of thing — making a difference,” Sirotkin said.
So he got his city planning degree from Georgia Tech and entered a new field.
He started out working with Charis Community Housing, part of FCS Urban Ministries, where he raised funds and purchased land in Atlanta in need of reinvestment, and then moved on to the Georgia Environmental Management Agency, working on hazard mitigation planning.
The state agency studied likely natural disasters and developed plans to prevent or limit the effects.
He got to see a lot of the state and use Geographic Information Systems mapping software.
He came to Newton County in 2005 after marrying Jenn Howard who worked in the Oxford College library.
He had some planning and zoning training so he applied for the zoning administrator position in Newton County.
Little did he know how busy his work was about to become.

The boom and recovery
“Crazy is not a bad description,” Sirotkin said in his typical laid-back style as he remembers that first introduction.
His second day on the job, he had a zoning meeting before the Board of Commissioners, where he had several rezonings and an equal number of variances as everyone was trying to build wherever they could.

“It was just crazy; just to keep up with the paperwork and process everything was a challenge; unfortunately, the county got a little overwhelmed. We didn’t have something like the 2050 Plan,” Sirotkin said.

Sirotkin became senior planner a couple of years later around the time the county was trying to figure out what to do about the rampant development, which was taking its toll of public services.

The county, school system and water authority were all being affected and that spurred them to come together and have conversations about how to spur high-quality and cost efficient development.

Sirotkin began working on a transfer of development rights (TDR) program, where certain land is able to be developed more densely than normal in exchange for land being permanently conserved as greenspace.
He also began working on the Almon Overlay Plan, which seeks to promote town center development in the densest residential areas and promote high-quality building standards moving forward.

He continued to work on similar efforts as director, rolling out more parts of the 2050 Plan, including a Salem Overlay, and working to strengthen bonding standards for developers to ensure enough money is left to finish roads and amenities in the case of a subdivision going belly up before its finished.

Sirotkin believes the county is in much better shape to deal intelligently with growth than it was years before, but he still sees several challenges to be navigated.

Continuing to roll out elements of the 2050 Plan is crucial, and the ordinances — essentially county laws — that are coming will be the key element in enforcing higher standards and truly controlling and directing growth.

However, even if future development occurs the way everyone wants, the county still has dozens of unfinished — some never started — subdivisions. Some, like the recent Silver Ridge Farms subdivision at the intersection of Jack Neely and Harold Dobbs roads, will be purchased and built out, but even they have questions, including years old infrastructure, water pipes and utilities, that could have been damaged and require expensive repair.

That’s not to mention the projects that never get rebooted.

“What do you do with roads partially installed and the sewer systems? Do you just say we’re not going to do anything, or do you work with the property owners to figure something out?” Sirotkin said.

He does believe that TDRs could play a role in helping find uses for that land, but those are complicated questions that will have to be decided.

Sirotkin’s future
As for Sirotkin, he’s not sure what kind of data and what sector he wants to work in yet, but he knows he’s interested in helping find solutions for some of society’s issues which are hidden in the stores of data collected every day.

For example, the health field is full of potential, including studying behavior or medications and trying to find patterns that help health experts predict and prevent health issues instead of treating after the fact.

In the meantime, he’ll continue to serve on the Covington Redevelopment Authority, watch and study the game of baseball, travel with his wife — including their multiple yearly trips to Disney World — and be a part of his new-found home.

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