Last week I attended two informal meetings of citizens and two Chamber of Commerce moderated meetings on the 2050 Plan and a meeting on the Highway 278 Community Improvement District. I came away with an appreciation of just how similar is the end result most of us want for Newton County and yet how distant are the means that we would employ to accomplish that end.
After listening to the presentation by the consultants who prepared the 2050 Baseline Ordinance and the reaction by the several hundred citizens who attended these meetings, my take away was that most citizens of Newton County want a quality, convenient and livable county. However, they don’t want government, which they don’t like and don’t trust, to be the architect of how they deal with their land and how they live their lives.
Though not addressed in the 2050 Baseline Ordinance discussion, the Highway 278 CID meeting did acknowledge that for all of us to prosper and enjoy the amenities of life, Newton County must have commercial development. Obviously commercial development will largely be concentrated in the City of Covington, and if current development trends are any indication of the future, it will occur in the eastern side of Covington.
Evident to all of us who have spent any time thinking about what is happening in the county, Newton County citizens who live west of the Yellow River do not come to Covington to shop, dine or purchase services. They go west to Rockdale County. A wise observer of human behavior once told me people don’t go away from the most active area to shop, they go toward it.
Therefore, if the commercial development we all want in Covington to provide employment, shopping, entertainment and the amenities of modern life is to prosper, then we must have some residential development east of Covington. As much as some might like to see everything east of the Alcovy River a large green space, not only is that not fair to the people who live and own property there, it is not consistent with a thriving commercial center in Covington.
The question I’ve been asked by the proponents of the Baseline Ordinance is, “Do we want to continue to do things like we have been?” referring to the intensive starter home development which flooded into western Newton County during the 1990’s and the early 2000’s. The inference in their question is we can either have the development model of the 2050 Plan or we can have western Newton County repeated again in the east, as if there is no alternative which doesn’t involve either extreme.
Not one person I talked to who owns land or lives in eastern Newton County wants to see a proliferation of subdivisions like the Silos at Ellington with its large boxes and vinyl siding built on long straight streets which lead nowhere. But neither do they want a top down development model imposed on them. Just because the proponents say that the trend among young people is to live in compact communities does not mean that all residents want to live in little villages. Many people want to live on three acres in traditional neighborhoods or on five acres in rural communities.
Our past mistake was in mandating lot and house sizes and in not mandating quality construction and development standards. Most of us don’t have strong disagreement with reasonable quality demands on the houses or the developments. Most of us don’t oppose requiring interior streets in separate developments to connect or requiring street configurations which are attractive and community oriented or requiring sidewalks or providing for tree requirements.
Our development model must make accommodation for the way we live. For example walkability is important for the compact communities, but we cannot force everyone into a compact community in some form of social engineering. Development standards must accommodate our continued use of the automobile as our primary means of transportation.
Thomas Jefferson expounding on liberty and rights once said: “The right to procure property and use it for one’s own enjoyment is essential for the freedom of every person, and our other rights would mean little without these rights of property ownership.”
We need a plan flexible enough to allow people to enjoy their lives in the type of setting they wish, whether that is a compact community at Hub Junction, a Lockwolde or Reserve community on Highway 213 and even a golf course community with a community sewerage treatment system on the Spears family land on Highway 11.
Perhaps we can create other less intrusive means to encourage conservation of land in its passive or agricultural state with tax incentives or a totally voluntary program of transfer of development rights without the hammer of ridiculously low densities.
There are ways to accomplish what the vast majority of us want without stripping part of us of our right to our own enjoyment of our property.
Newton County does need a new comprehensive plan. There are admirable parts of the 2050 Plan such as the consolidation of the development standards and the zoning provisions, the higher quality demands and even the concept of retaining a degree of the rural nature of the county into the future. However the base upon which the Plan was built - the freezing of development in 62 percent of the county and forcing development into the receiving areas by imposing 10 and 20 acres minimum lot sizes in over half of the county - is not acceptable to the majority of the citizens of Newton County if those who attended the meetings are to be believed as representative of the county residents.
Clearly the roll out of the Plan with such an intrusive and extreme center piece was unfortunate. I fear that the many points on which most of us agree were lost in the contentious controversy over the parts on which many of us do not agree. To many people the Baseline Ordinance just reinforced their distrust of government, and they will not give the proponents a second bite at the apple. Let’s hope that a plan with broader support can be created and that most people will give the modified plan a second look.
Philip A. Johnson is a native of Newton County and has practiced law locally for 40 years.