Let me begin by saying that I regard Randy Vinson as intelligent, articulate, insightful and a sincerely good person, but I never forget Randy is a planner with one concept of how the world should be planned.
The really important issue which this county now faces is not about Randy or me. It is about which path the county will choose. The path the non-governmental think tank, the center, would have us embrace is a comprehensive new zoning plan authored by a paid consultant whose planning credentials come from a suburb of one million people with an average income of over twice that of Newton County, 15 miles from downtown Washington D.C. They call it the 2050 Plan.
The proponents of the 2050 Plan have done a stellar job of marketing the name brand of the 2050 Plan, but have been slow to release to the county commissioners, the city council members or the public the specifics of the proposal which will have the greatest impact on the individual citizens of our county of any local law of my lifetime, and that is neither short nor hyperbole.
The 2050 Baseline Ordinance, a document of 100 pages, was just two weeks ago released to the officials of the local governments expected to pass it. The Center timetable called for passage in December, but as questions have been raised about the plan, proponents have begun to push for more rapid passage.
The plan creates two new zoning districts covering most of Eastern Newton County. The rural district comprising 25 percent of the county would have a minimum lot size of 10 acres and the conservation district comprising 37 percent a minimum lot size of 20 acres. Stop and think about that for just a moment. Nearly 62 percent of the county would have a minimum lot size of 10 acres or 20 acres. Even Vinson had to acknowledge that this was perhaps a “bridge too far.”
And don’t think this affects only large landowners because it does not. If you own 15 acres and you have two children you would like to give 5 acres each so they could build homes, you can’t.
They will tell you that rendering your land virtually worthless by only allowing you to build one house per 20 acres is offset because you can sell what are called Transferable Development Rights to developers who want to build in Western Newton County or Covington or the Compact Communities that are exempted from the 10 and 20 acre minimum lot size restrictions. We don’t know if there will even be a market for the TDRs since we don’t know if developers will want to build with a higher density in the receiving areas, as they are called, than that already allowed under the ordinance. And even if a developer does want to exceed the base density, the ordinance allows the developer to pay the county a penalty and not have to buy the TDRs from the landowner on the open market.
This ordinance even tells you how much window space you can have on the front of your house, the percentage reflectivity those windows must have, the building materials the house must be constructed of and the number of colors you can use.
While it is my personal belief that the Baseline Ordinance as now drafted would be an enormous case of government overreach, I don’t expect the commissioners and council persons to take my word for it. I implore them to read the entire Baseline Ordinance for themselves. The goal of the plan is admirable, but the devil is in the details. Accepting this ordinance as written by the center and its consultant without investigating what the ordinance actually says is like letting the fox install the security alarm for the henhouse.
As citizens we should encourage our elected officials to slow down this process to allow them to independently review the ordinance. We should insist on a thorough and sifting debate among the people who put this ordinance together and the property owners who are most severely impacted.
We should ask, “Do we really want a system where local government picks the winners and the losers instead of allowing the market to do so?” With 62 percent of the county land area frozen in its current state and removed from the pool of available land the market will push the cost of the available building lots up. At the same time the draconian demands of the ordinance will push the cost of construction up. Thus by driving up the price of housing, this Ordinance seeks not only to pick the winners and losers, but also to choose the spectators.
Finally, once the Board of Commissioners have addressed the glaring issues in the ordinance, this matter should be put before the public in the form of a referendum held in conjunction with the 2016 presidential general election when there will be a maximum number of voters. We vote on all alcohol laws and bond issues, and all the alcohol changes and bond issues of the last 30 years combined pale in comparison to the impact of this plan.
This is much more than just a new zoning ordinance. This is an enormous experiment in social engineering with the 100,000 residents of Newton County, their property rights and the future of our county acting as the test subjects. Newton County is not by any metric similar to the Washington D.C. suburb model the xenter and its paid consultant would have us bet the farm (and the house and our future) on.
We all want to avoid the excesses of the early 2000’s as reflected in the aggressive development in Western Newton County, but we need to make sure we don’t go too far to the other extreme. Balance and moderation should be our touchstones. We must not abandon our property rights to secure a zoning plan which may well not fit our county anyway. Let’s at least have a debate over the 2050 Baseline Ordinance before us now.
Philip A. Johnson is a native of Newton County and has practiced law locally for 40 years.