I read with fascination the opinion piece written by Randy Vinson Sunday titled “What Legacy?’. It correctly points out the pride we all feel about the area we call the Square in Covington.
However, the piece also suggests a far more controversial position which I believe Randy feels with all his heart. Randy is admittedly and unabashedly a true believer in that school of planning referred to as “New Urbanism.” He believes that the best and only proper development template is that of the Square, compact mixed use village areas which combine small lot residential and the retail and service establishments which serve them all built around pedestrian friendly avenues and recreation.
The turn of the twentieth century nirvana of the small town Norman Rockwell life style is the guiding touchstone of this New Urbanism that forms not just a planning tool but a whole philosophy of what life should be like.
While we all enjoy the Square and its quaint style and Sunday-in-the-park feel, there are some severe limitations to the imposition of this style and the philosophy surrounding it to the entire ninth-largest county geographically in the state of Georgia.
First, we don’t live in a time remotely similar to the dawning of the twentieth century. Technology, time and intervening development patterns have forever altered how we live. The mass production of the automobile was probably the greatest single catalyst for cultural change since man became farmers instead of hunter gatherers. It changed not only how people moved from point to point, it changed where they could live, how they could shop and where they could work.
In a recent conversation with Randy, he asked me if I really believed we would rely on cars in the future. My answer was of course we will. Once freed from the confines of limited travel, we are not going back. Even if we wanted to, the development patterns since the construction of the Interstate Highway system in the 1950’s has given people the option to live at unimagined distances from their work location, and people have become suburbanites living ever further out from the urban centers.
When I was a boy, we had at least 26 dairy farms in Newton County. Today we may have one farm still milking. Why? Not because of urban sprawl, but because of technological advances and economic pressures that not only allow but demand that milk be produced in large farm milk factories.
The second and most important reason the approach suggested by Randy’s piece is inappropriate for Newton County, is that it presupposes that the optimal and only acceptable plan for the future is his. Not everyone wants to live in a loft apartment on the Square or in Clark’s Grove. Some people want to live in a Covington Place; some want to live in a Lochwolde; some want to live in a Melody Farms and some want to live on five acres outside Newborn.
While the new Walmart may not be the last store Walmart will build in Newton County, we must make accommodations for fast food restaurants, convenience stores and, yes, even big box retailers like Walmart, because they are all an essential part of how we live now. Yes, they must assimilate into our community, but we must not create unreasonable restraints on their development because some don’t believe they fit into our village.
What we don’t need is the blind adherence to a plan which purports to impose upon the 100,000 citizens of Newton County an ill-conceived, even if well intentioned, one-size-fits-all model which worked well in 1900 but doesn’t fit the way people live, work and shop today.
While I and everyone I know wants to protect against the type of unbridled residential growth which we experienced in the early 2000’s, we need to be sure we don’t go too far in the other direction. We need a balanced approach to land use which doesn’t mandate uniformity but emphasizes choice while demanding a high quality product.
It is like music. While I enjoy Aaron Copeland’s Appalachian Spring, many would rather listen to Elton John’s Yellow Brick Road or a Woody Guthrie folk ballad. They are all different but they are all classics. Not all development has to be just like the Square to be worthy of emulation.
And finally the property rights of the land owners must be balanced against the need of the general public to limit the use of their property. We must not impose a system which strips the property owner of the right to sell, use or bequeath his property because some people believe his land should forever remain a green space.
As I get older I am nostalgic for the more innocent days of my youth. I recall a time of small town Covington and the rural community of High Point built around a tiny Baptist church. In my recollections it is indeed the good old days. But when I really think about it, we lived then in a world of racial segregation and injustice, the constant threat of nuclear annihilation and far less available health care. Maybe they were not really the good old days after all.
We need to build a land use plan which mandates quality in development and construction but allows for people a wide range of choices in the size lot they choose to live on and the style residence they inhabit. Consideration must be given to the economic realities of our community so that our development standards fit the needs and situations in Newton County and do not seek to make us a Dunwoody or Alpharetta which we are not going to become no matter what land use plan or development standards we adopt.
Philip A. Johnson is a native of Newton County and has practiced law locally for 40 years.