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County permitting, zoning processes changed
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For years, a resident could call Newton County government with a question about a planning or building issue, speak to five different people in different departments and get five answers.

Now, those services have been brought together in one place, the Department of Developmental Services.

Newton County Chairman Kathy Morgan said the department will be a one-stop shop, combining the geographic information systems and planning and zoning departments. Anyone needing help with building permits and inspections, land disturbance and development permits, National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits, code enforcement, business licenses, GIS services, planning, zoning, stormwater education and sign permits can now contact development services, said department director Scott Sirotkin. The department's main phone line is (678) 625-1650.

One of the first tasks of the department will be to create a step-by-step guide for employees and residents on how to apply for every permit and license. The guide should head-off problems, according to Morgan.

"We've literally had constituents (who would) ask planning and zoning ‘What is required for me to build a building in my backyard?' Then zoning would tell them what the regulations and guidelines were. If (the resident) didn't like it (he) would talk to another employee in another department. And that employee may have worked in zoning before and he would say ‘Oh, no, this is what you have to do' or ‘This is what it means,'" Morgan said. "It would get to the point where they would get someone that would say yes to what they wanted."

Morgan said county workers should have referred the resident elsewhere, but that wasn't always practical, particularly during the high-growth years when every worker was swamped and tried to help when they could.

To make collaboration easier, employees have been consolidated into a smaller office on the second floor of the administration building, which also reduces utility expenses, Morgan said.

The reorganization would have taken place regardless of recent budget cuts; however, Morgan said the county didn't need as many department heads because the staffs at planning and zoning and other departments had shrunk dramatically with the economic downturn.

Planning and Development Director Marian Eisenberg was cut in June. Former Senior Planner Scott Sirotkin was promoted to director of developmental services and former GIS Manager Lynn Parham was promoted to deputy director.

Mapping It Out
Another benefit of the reorganization is that the county will use GIS software services more frequently. The GIS department has powerful software that maps the county's topography and can predict all sorts of water flows, which can help predict flooding patterns. GIS's mapping also makes it easier to determine right-of-way issues and property line disputes.

Tying GIS and planning's software together will benefit the county when dealing with zoning issues, Sirotkin said. For example, personal care homes can't be located closer than 500 feet from each other. GIS recently made a tool to map out existing personal care homes, and builds in that buffer, so when an application comes in, the department can immediately tell if the home would be allowed.

Morgan said the software also records every time someone looks at a property, so if a rezoning or permit request has to be reviewed by multiple employees they can easily tell who's already reviewed the plan.