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County preparing for increased growth
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Homebuilding is picking up and entrepreneurs and corporations are increasingly considering Newton County in their search.

At the same time, the effects of the housing collapse are still felt by residents who, while they see illegal trash dumping in abandoned subdivisions and uninhabited houses with grown-over yards and broken windows, also drive on congested roads.

Local leaders have been working to prepare the county for the next wave of growth, implementing parts of the 2050 Plan, which seeks to save money and reduce sprawl by consolidating growth and protecting the county’s natural resources.

The Newton County Department of Development Services plays a crucial role in each area, but it has experienced the same ups and downs the county has seen over the past decade.

Longtime county employee Lynn Morgan Ervin was recently named Department of Development Services director and is trying to help her staff navigate the needs of a county with growing demands on a stagnant budget.

Housing coming back

Several area subdivisions in various stages – from those with whole phases built to those that only have roads and utilities installed – are being purchased, with others being aggressively marketed as Newton County begins to follow in the footsteps of its more urban metro neighbors.

As of late November, builders had secured 55 residential building permits in 2013, the highest total since 2008 and a large jump from the 10 permits handed out in all of 2012.

Ervin said multiple subdivisions have active homebuilding, including Silver Ridge, Cooper’s Lake and Oakwood Manor, while another few subdivisions are working on land disturbance permits, which are required before actual home construction can take place.

Though development is picking up, and those processes take up a lot of staff time, budgets for many county departments have remained largely stagnant. Ervin is doing her best to move people around to handle the most-needed tasks. So, she made Carol Callwood the department’s development coordinator, the position that keeps track of a piece of property from initial conversations about development through to actual building.

The change has helped ease some of the burden on Landscape Architect Debbie Bell, who had become a jack-of-all-trades as one of the department’s few holdovers from the housing boom days. A lot of knowledge has to be re-learned and re-taught when a department goes from 30-plus employees to 10.

 Future meets present

The housing collapse is seen as a mixed bag by some county leaders, because while it was part of economic devastation for many, it also prevented all of Newton County from being overrun by sprawling subdivisions.

For years, county, city and community leaders have been developing a comprehensive 2050 Plan, a broad outline of where leaders want to see growth, what kind of growth they want to see, and where they don’t want to see development.

One significant part of the plan is being developed now: baseline ordinances that are designed to be adopted by the county and every city in Newton County to ensure that development rules and regulations are consistent county wide.

While that work is ongoing, another aspect that’s already been put in place in two areas is the zoning overlay, which encourages high-end, mixed-use (commercial and residential) development.

The Almon/Crowell and Salem Road corridors both have had zoning overlays placed on them, which means more specific development rules and regulations that focus on building quality and aesthetics and ease of pedestrian and vehicle transportation.

As defunct subdivisions are restarted, new developers must comply with beefed-up requirements. County officials hope this will prevent the outcry generated by some previous westside developments that residents called ugly and accused of being built with cheap materials.

At the same time, county officials are being realistic in working with subdivisions that already were partially built in terms of roads and infrastructure, waiving rules that forbid cul-de-sacs (they hurt traffic flow and interconnectivity, but it would be expensive to tear out any that are already built) and require sidewalks (if they’re not practical or important for connectivity in the short-term).

 Clean it up

County officials are also fighting a seemingly never-ending battle to keep people from dumping trash in abandoned subdivisions. The county has tried to contact the property owners of the subdivisions – most often the banks that foreclosed on the properties – to ask them to rope off or put gates at entrances to uninhabited subdivisions.

 Moving forward

The Development Services Department was formed by combining the planning and zoning and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) departments into one, following budget cuts in June 2010.

Though employees have had to adapt to a lot of changes over the years, Ervin believes they’re building a good team.

"We have learned to function and handle our caseloads more efficiently with fewer people, and I truly believe our customer service is improving. We’re turning into a more proactive department," Ervin said.

She said there are still a lot of challenges, but an improved structure plus additional support, including hiring an outside company, has helped.

The Collaborative Firm is assisting the department with updating its business license ordinances, which should go before the Board of Commissioners in February, and the application process for beer and wine licenses.

The department is working on other projects, including installing another zoning overlay, this time in the Brick Store community (around the U.S. Highway 278, Ga. Highway 11 intersection), and updating other ordinances, including a new one that simplifies the rules on where cell towers can be located.

Ervin said she’s also trying to encourage citizens to make appointments as often as possible to give them dedicated time.

Walk-ins are still accepted, but the department wants to provide the best experience possible, Ervin said.