COVINGTON, Ga. — Newton County commissioners have approved temporary zoning changes to help local churches open more quickly to students needing Wi-Fi connections for virtual learning during the school year beginning next month.
Commissioners unanimously voted Tuesday, Aug. 18, for a resolution to temporarily waive requirements that churches secure conditional use permits before opening schools or day care centers in unincorporated Newton County.
County Attorney Sam VanVolkenburgh told commissioners the temporary zoning waiver will not affect requirements that new church-operated schools and daycares comply with other state and local laws governing such facilities.
The action was in response to the Newton County School System’s recent ruling that all students attend classes online rather than in school buildings beginning Sept. 8 because of safety concerns around the transmission of the COVID-19 virus.
The county government requires a variety of entities to have conditional use permits and meet specific conditions before operating.
Applicants seeking such permits now must apply, wait up to 90 days and attend public hearings in front of both the planning commission and board of commissioners before the board gives its approval.
Churches themselves are allowed to operate under many zoning conditions in unincorporated Newton County. However, they must receive conditional use permits requiring fencing and outdoor recreation space, among other items, if they also operate child care facilities.
The county commission’s resolution cited the recent statewide and local emergency declarations concerning the COVID-19 pandemic and the reaction of many school systems — such as Newton County’s — not to allow in-person teaching.
“There is an unprecedented need for student digital learning spaces, internet access and supervision resources, and a recognized hardship on working families who struggle to balance the demands of employment with the supervision of children engaging in remote digital learning,” the resolution stated.
It suspends requirements that places of worship satisfy zoning conditions to add temporary school and child care services if they are in areas zoned for residential uses.
The board of commissioners had learned some churches were “willing and able” to offer everything from internet access and work spaces to “nutritional support” for students and families, the resolution stated.
In addition, “strict compliance” with the permit requirement “prevents, hinders and delays necessary action in coping (with) the COVID-19 emergency” and the permit process “may be lengthy.”
The commission’s action allows temporary operation of school and child care facilities and encourages those churches to “take reasonable steps to minimize any adverse impacts” such as traffic congestion on residential streets.
However, churches will be required to receive the permits again to operate child care and school facilities “upon the expiration and nonrenewal of the declared state and local public health emergencies,” the resolution stated.