A breakfast to meet the individuals running for the Board of Commissioners Tuesday morning quickly turned into a forum for challenger candidates to criticize the county's planning and zoning procedures.
The event, hosted by the Newton County Home Builders Association at Henderson's Banquet Room, was attended by 14 of the 20 candidates running for seats on the BOC. The NCHBA is a non-profit professional trade association that, among other things, lobbies the county and state on behalf of the housing industry in the county.
A majority of the comments made by the candidates focused on promises to work to bring more commercial and industrial development to the county. Criticisms by candidates for county chairman of the county's zoning ordinances, viewed by some as too restrictive, also was abundant.
Susette Monk, a real estate broker who is one of three candidates seeking the Republican nomination for chairman, said when she has tried to encourage business clients to settle in Newton County, they have refused based on the county's ordinances.
"People say they don't want to deal with the hassle," Monk said. "Our impact fees have scared people off. It offends me that it takes an attorney to get some re-zonings passed."
Ed Hutter, a developer who is running as a Republican for chairman, said the county's current zoning and business requirements have created a lot of problems for attracting new commercial businesses to the county.
Hutter and Willie Smith, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for District 1, both said they were opposed to the county's minimum 1,800 square feet building requirement for the construction of new homes and would like to see it lowered.
According to Kathryn Morgan, who is one of three candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for BOC chairman, in 1993 property taxes from housing proportionally contributed much less of the county's tax base than they do today.
"What we have now is an inverted balance," Morgan said, whose husband, Davis, previously served as chairman of the BOC for much of the 1990s.
Hubert White, a housing developer who is running as a Democrat for chairman, said the housing industry was "already beaten to death" by the current county administration before the housing downturn occurred last year.
According to NCHBA President Rob Goucher, housing industry business is down 85 percent from early 2007. Goucher said the industry was expecting only 300 new homes to be built in the county this year. In 2004, 2,245 new homes were built in the county.
White also had sharp words for the county's planning and development department.
"At some level it feels like they're encouraged to be less than cordial," White said.
County Chairman Aaron Varner, who is seeking re-election as a Republican, was not in attendance at Tuesday's breakfast but left prepared remarks where he defended the county's impact fee ordinance to NCHBA, who unsuccessfully sued the county over the ordinance when it was first enacted, and noted that the BOC had not increased the county's millage rate once in the past seven years.
"We were ill equipped in the 1990s for the tidal wave of re-zonings, growth and negative byproducts of this growth," Varner wrote in his remarks to NCHBA.
During a brief question and answer period with the audience, comprised largely of members of the housing industry, 12 out of the 14 candidates said they would support bringing liquor-by-the-drink to the county. Eight candidates said they were in support of the hotel/civic center project the county has undertaken with the city of Covington.
A majority of candidates said they were in support of requiring companies that win county construction contracts to purchase a percentage of their supplies from local businesses and 13 out of 14 candidates said they would like to see a county attorney on staff to deal with day-to-day issues.
Tuesday's breakfast was sponsored by Snapping Shoals EMC and Pinnacle Bank.