Newton County’s plan for the future was praised this week by a national group of expert planners, offering more outside validation for an effort that’s been under way for a decade.
The county’s 2050 Plan won the American Planning Association’s (APA) Vernon Deines Award for outstanding small town or rural plan, and one planning association official said the plan was so good, he’d recommend it’d be entered next year into the running for one of the APA’s overall national awards, alongside the U.S. biggest cities.
The 2050 Plan seeks to direct future growth to create dense, mixed-use residential and commercial communities in western Newton County to save money on future infrastructure (schools, roads and water lines) — $3.3 billion in savings over four decades to be exact — and build off the existing density from the housing boom, while also seeking to protect the rural nature and agricultural heritage of other portions of the county.
The plan isn’t being driven forward by just one entity but has been supported for years by leaders in Newton County government and those of Covington, Mansfield, Newborn, Oxford and Porterdale, as well as the county’s school system, the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce and the Newton County Water and Sewerage Authority.
That level of collaboration among so many entities is rare, and it’s one of the key reasons Newton County won its award; in many other communities, the cities and counties are competing for land, resources and control.
Shailaja Roos, who helped judge the plans for the APA’s Small Town and Rural Division, said the 2050 Plan requires complex coordination.
“Making a pretty looking plan is fairly easy and most cities can do that. But with Newton County, the number of entities that were involved in collaboratively creating a plan is quite a different thing you do not see (very often),” Roos said. “I’m a planner. I will tell you, doing a plan for one city or community it quite challenging at times with all of the people with different interests, agendas, desires, especially in a small, rural area where some people want roads and others don’t and neither side is willing to budge. Sometimes I call it Congress.”
Chad Nabity, chair of the Small Town and Rural Division, said while his division exists specifically to give smaller communities a chance to compete for national awards, he could see the 2050 Plan having a shot next year at landing a National Planning Excellence Awards for a comprehensive plan. This year’s winners were Cincinnati, Ohio and Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
While the 2050 Plan is a comprehensive plan, it’s much more than that to Kay Lee, the executive director of The Center for Community Preservation and Planning (known as The Center) on Clark Street in Covington. The Center is the neutral meeting place where representatives from all of the county’s different governments and entities have been coming to meet since before 2005. Lee always talks about the place, the process and the plan. The place is The Center. The plan is the 2050 Plan. The process is the Leadership Collaborative, the official title of the multijurisdictional group of leaders that meets regularly.
“Now, it’s a whole story to tell people,” Lee said, noting the award adds some extra legitimacy to the officials who helped create it. “When talking with potential investors, industries and residents it is easy to wow them with a plan that commits to saving them $3.3 billion, while accepting growth, while preserving small town character and a rural landscape.”
Key part of plan in works
The key to and heart of the 2050 Plan is actually being developed now. In order for the county to have truly consistent growth and development, all of the county’s governments have to have the same set of underlying, “baseline ordinances.” Anyone who’s dealt with zoning and development issues, knows that’s not often the case between two governments.
Lee said the baseline ordinances have already been under development for the past 18 months and will be rolled out in sessions to all government officials and the public throughout the year. She said the goal is to have them adopted by governments before the end of the year.
Officials have said the ordinances will be the mechanism that puts the teeth into the 2050 Plan.
For more information about the 2050 Plan, 2050plan.org, which Lee said is continuing to be updated.