U.S. Representative Jim Marshall (D-GA) applauded Newton County’s plan to control future growth, but he told local leaders not to expect much help from the federal government.
Marshall visited The Center for Preservation and Planning Thursday afternoon to learn about and weigh in on the county’s 2050 Plan. This build-out plan envisions what Newton County will look like in the year 2050 or beyond, when the county’s has reached its population threshold, around 400,000 people.
The plan is the result of four years of work of The Leadership Collaborative, a grouping of public and private leaders from authorities, cities, the county, non-profits and the school system. Several of those leaders presented the plan to Marshall, telling him how the county leader’s unique communication with each other allowed them to plan together to prevent sprawl and protect the environment.
David Waller, a member of the Newton County Water and Sewage Authority, said before joining The Leadership Collaborative, he didn’t know other officials, like members of the Board of Education, and didn’t understand their issues, like why schools require so much land. Vice versa, he said the schools may not have understood why the WSA wanted a water system that used gravity flow technology.
The 2050 Plan has four principles: protect water sources, prevent sprawl by creating communities, create road and pedestrian corridors to connect those communities and coordinate infrastructure to save money. All of these principles are designed to improve quality of life, conserve agricultural land and natural resources and save governments money by concentrating services.
Principles in Action
Marshall asked if the county had tried to actively legislate any of these principals, and county leaders pointed to the recently pass Almon Overlay Ordinance, which promotes increased density and higher building standards in the historic Almon community. Commissioner Mort Ewing also brought up the fact the county passed Georgia’s most stringent water buffer requirements, 150 feet, in 2003.
Geographic Information Systems Manager Lynn Parham said the county and cities were already coordinating services, by combining departments like GIS and E-911.
When Ewing mentioned that the county, its five municipalities, the WSA and the chamber of commerce all approved resolutions supporting the 2050 plan, Marshall said that was wonderful but wondered if opposition would come out of the woodwork once the plan was made public. County Chairman Kathy Morgan said she expects the proposed savings in infrastructure to drive home the benefits of concentrated growth.
In addition, she said County Attorney Tommy Craig said he thought the county’s ordinances would hold up as long as they were wary about issuing variances.
The conversation then turned toward schools. Morgan said Alcovy High School is the most expensive school to operate, because it’s isolated and requires many students to be bused in. When the school system was deciding where to locate its most recent school, Morgan said she told Superintendent Steve Whatley, he could put the school wherever he wanted, but the county wouldn’t pay to build roads or extend utilities. By working together, the school system ended up purchasing land owned by the Industrial Development Authority and working out an agreement with the WSA to extend utilities.
Marshall said the worst thing that happened during his time as Mayor of Macon was the decision of the school system to locate a school on the county line.
“All the urban planning experts will tell you to keep things congested. If something is out on its own, don’t build around it,” he said, noting that water authorities and school boards in many communities don’t talk.
The 2050 Plan calls for the county’s population to increase to 400,000 people in the next 40 or more years. Marshall said that would be explosive growth and the much of the population of the past decade was due to an overheated housing market, and not the best gauge for the future. However, The Center’s Executive Director Kay Lee said the population projection was based on a compilation from nine different demographic services companies. She said if growth comes slower, the county’s plan will simply be easier to carry out.
One of the keys of the plan is to have three areas of the county: a dense western section with five concentrated town centers at Covington, Almon, Salem, Oak Hill and Hub Junction that will house 80 percent of the population while composing only 35 percent of the land; a rural zone though the middle of the county that would house 15 percent of the population and take up 25 percent of the land; and a conservation zone in the eastern section that would take up 40 percent of the land and house only 5 percent of the population.
Marshall said sprawl is terrible, but he saw a problem with the plan, because the landowners in the west would have more valuable land than those in the east who couldn’t sell their land to developers. He proposed the idea of special tax districts, where the western zone would be taxed heavier because its residents would be the ones using the infrastructure built by the county. Although, he had never heard of this being done elsewhere, he said it was akin to taxing people who live in flood areas when levies were built.
Despite all of the positives, Marshall said local quality of life issues would be low on the federal government’s priority list. He said healthcare will totally bankrupt the government in the future, regardless of whether the recently passed bill stands.