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Council O.K.s plan for city development
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Over the past several years Covington has completed numerous high-end plans and strategies designed to guide future development, but the city finally approved a plan to actually carry out those previously identified goals.

The city council approved the Covington Urban Redevelopment Plan on March 18, with council members Keith Dalton and John Howard opposing the plan.

The URP is supposed to correct blight, decline and disinvestment in Covington and will build on several previous plans, including: the 2001 Downtown Master Plan; the 2005 U.S. Highway 278 LCI; the new zoning ordinance adopted in June 2008; the Spring 2009 Downtown Covington Government District Plan and the February 2009 Newton County Economic Development Strategy.

City officials identified a large portion of the city as being in various states of blight, including almost all of the U.S. Highway 278 corridor and downtown Covington and a significant portion of south and southwest Covington. The purpose of the URP is to indentify and prioritize redevelopment, to bring in more state and federal money by qualifying Covington for more grant programs, to be able to provide financial incentives, like tax breaks, to private investors and to ensure that new development is consistent with the city’s future vision.

Interim Planning Director Randy Vinson said that the URP will enable the city, private developers and private land owners to seek federal and state grants, tax credits and low-interest loans among other benefits. In 2008, the Department of Community Affairs gave out $36 million in grants in the form of Community Development Block Grants, which are open for annual competition among local governments. Covington didn’t receive any of that money and city officials hope the city’s fate will change this year with the addition the URP.

o Some specific items in the URP are to:

o Create more mixed residential-retail buildings; to bring residential into the downtown business district and to neighborhoods

o Reduce the number of auto-oriented businesses on U.S. Highway 278

o Create more pedestrian pathways and connectivity

o Encourage private building of affordable senior housing

o Increase pedestrian connectivity across the city, but specifically in and around Harristown

o Convert the railroad in Covington into pedestrian pathways

o Reinitiate the conference center/hotel project

The Neighborhood Stabilization Program is a big part of the URP, and addressing blighted housing in general is one of Mayor Kim Carter’s chief goals.

"This plan is yet another tool to help us address poverty and blight in Covington," Carter said in an e-mail on Friday. "With 25 percent of our residents living at the poverty level or below, and many living in blighted housing, this is just the right thing to do. We intend to use the government programs available to us to give our residents a hand up and not a hand out."

The URP has received some opposition because under the Urban Redevelopment Law, areas included in the URP must be classified as slums. The UR law provides a broad definition for slum, including areas that promote ill health, high crime and juvenile delinquency, impair positive growth of communities, aggravate traffic problems or contribute little income to the tax base.

Dalton said he had a problem with all of Highway 278 being called a blighted area, because in his opinion there are only a handful of properties of truly blighted properties. He said that even though the URP allows for more funding, he doesn’t believe that all of 278 should be included.

"I can see a potential property owner on 278 being upset about being labeled as blighted," Dalton said. "I don’t like to paint with a broad brush if I don’t have to."

According to a 2005 UR Act Guide produced by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, governments determine for themselves whether or not areas are slums. In addition, Vinson said 278 was included because it is adjacent to blighted areas, and will allow the city to use the URP benefits in more areas.

"We see these financing incentives (grants, tax credits, etc.) as being almost a mandatory requirement for redevelopment to take place in these areas during these economically challenging times. This plan is totally consistent with our ongoing Livable Communities Initiative work," Vinson said.

Covington resident Jerry Bouchillon, a former city attorney, said he objected to the URP at the May 18 council meeting. His family owns several parcels along 278, and although he understands that the label is necessary to receive help, he believes that the 278 corridor is developing well because of the new zoning ordinances, and the city’s money and time would be better focused elsewhere.

He said if the URP requirements are too strict and all of 278 is built up to be grade-A commercial space, the rent would have to be at least twice as much as current prices, which would be a heavy burden on business.

In addition, he also thinks that some of the URP’s goals, specifically rails-to-trails and the conference center/hotel should not be pursued because they face significant opposition and are potential money pits for the city. He said the city should focus its efforts on rehabilitating residential properties.

Finally, he said that many of the goals, including the two above are simply too ambitious in this economy during this time, and will cost the city a lot of money that would be better spent elsewhere.

"It looks like the URP is trying to put all these (previous) plans into place; to make Covington be what it can never be, like a Hilton Head, S.C. or Buckhead," Bouchillon said. "Just read the demographics and look at the poverty and you’ll these plans aren’t realistic."

However, the first step that must be taken is the formation of the Covington Redevelopment Authority, which will decide how to carry out the URP and which projects to pursue. An organizing committee was recently formed to decide how to structure the CRA, and the committee will meet for the first time on July 2. Carter is the chairman of the committee and the other eight members were selected by the city council members, Covington Housing Authority and Downtown Development Authority.

To see a copy of the plan visit the Covington Planning and Zoning Department, located next to City Hall.