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Posted: August 7, 2014 10:00 p.m.

Johnson: Modify it through compromise

About the time of the Mansfield public hearing the chairman came by to see me. He had heard the strong concerns expressed by the public regarding the 2050 Plan Baseline Ordinance, and I think sincerely realized that those concerns had to be addressed. His idea at the time was to pick a small group of people who would represent the position of the landowners in eastern Newton County and a group who were in favor of the plan, lock them in a room and let them come up with a compromise position which preserve the basics of the plan while making it more palatable to the large number of citizens who opposed the Plan on the issue of property rights.

At the same time at least three of the commissioners told the crowds at the public hearings that the 10/20 acre minimum lot was a dead issue and would be changed. This was even communicated by the facilitator at the public hearings. Yet in the meetings that followed, the minimum lot sizes never changed. Despite assurances that those minimums were off the table, the plan kept being explained and sold with exactly the same core provisions.

As the plans for the citizen panel progressed it changed from a group of eight with four from the proponents of the plan as drafted and four from the opposition to the plan as drafted who would engage in a thorough review and debate of the issues to a citizens panel chosen ad hoc by eight different selectors with no mention of parity. However, the assurance was made by the chairman that the group of citizens who had concerns about the property rights issue would be represented by a place at the table.

Perhaps the method for selection is to blame, but now that the selections are being announced it has become evident that not one member of the panel has been chosen to represent the views of the citizens who have expressed concern about the general philosophical issues involved in the plan. In other words, while the Smart Growth faction, the Center faction, the compact communities faction and the utility industry faction will have a majority position on the panel, not one person who has expressed concern with any of tenets of the plan will even have a seat at the table.

I believe that the larger community of people in the eastern side of Newton County will feel betrayed by the commission in the formation of this panel. There are many people who could have been chosen which would have soothed the ire of people who feel most threatened by this plan. Jimmy Alexander, Judge Greeley Ellis, Freddy Greer, Pete Spears, Jerry Bouchillon or Buddy Morgan would have brought an understanding of the concerns of the citizens of who live in unincorporated Newton County. Any of them could have articulated the problems and fears which the land owners have with the plan.

While I have argued strongly that we should not abandon the plan but should attempt to modify it through compromise, that position does not run deep in the eastern side of Newton County. Those people have roots in the land and the plan represents a confiscatory taking of their rights to enjoy that land. Yet the Board of Commissioners has chosen to absolutely ignore the position of that large segment of the population by denying them even one seat at the table which will make a recommendation to the board on action on the plan.

How can you hope to bring those people into the discussion much less a consensus on the plan when they don’t even have the opportunity to debate it?

The success of any citizens panel lies in the acceptance of it by the community as representative of the entire community. The structure and membership of this committee clearly does not meet this test.

If all you wanted was a rubber stamp of the 2050 plan as drafted to lend you political cover to pass it, you still have only gotten half the loaf. It appears you will get your rubber stamp, but it will not provide you with the political cover you are so desperately seeking.

Philip A. Johnson is a native of Newton County and has practiced law locally for 40 years.

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