On Tuesday night, after a contentious meeting on other issues, Commissioner John Douglas at the very end of his comments almost parenthetically noted that he intended to bring up a motion to change the minimum lot size in eastern Newton County from two acres to three acres and to pass it in two weeks.
The board could act with dispatch to accomplish this, John contended, because the Planning Commission had approved the change to five acres about 18 months ago.
While his approach does not serve the area well, John is correct that things are happening in some portions of eastern Newton County. Specifically, unparalleled opportunity for real industrial job growth is knocking on our door in the area of northern east Newton County near the Hub Junction.
The promise of Baxter, which to many seemed only a dream a few months ago, is becoming a real probability. The Bio Tech training center to be constructed adjacent to Baxter, the relocation of Athens Tech administration to the Social Circle area, the merger of Georgia Perimeter College and Georgia State University and the plans of Walton County for the development of an industrial park across I-20 from Stanton Springs all point to the fact that our hopes for the Stanton Springs area will be realized.
But all that pales in comparison to the possibilities which have opened with the identification of the Mega Site along the railroad north of I-20 and west of Georgia 11. The three large sites which share the rail access at that location near an interstate access point and within a few miles of millions of gallons of raw water less than an hour from downtown Atlanta and two from Augusta, offers the potential for a campus style industrial client such as the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga which would change the trajectory of our future.
The indirect, or rainbow, benefits from the potential industrial and institutional expansions are almost beyond comprehension. A county where you cannot even purchase a business suit or see a movie today would suddenly see the retail, dining and entertainment options expand beyond our wildest dreams.
Many point out that the new jobs would not go to Newton County citizens and that those who come here to fill the jobs would move to Oconee, Greensboro or Madison as many of the Baxter transplants are doing. Instead of accepting that fact as inevitable, we need to ask “why.” The why is because we don’t have an inventory of suitable housing options. That will change if we create a situation where home builders feel comfortable that we have a zoning and development standards plan in place which they can rely upon as they plan their developments. They want the certainty of knowing what the plan will be tomorrow and the day after, and not the fear that the Board will on a whim change the entire dynamics overnight.
We have a county without a plan or even a vision. We bounce from idea to idea like a ping pong ball in play. Less than a year ago John was pushing 20 acres minimum lot sizes with a few compact communities, in support of a 2050 Plan which had been designed and promoted by a very limited group of stakeholders. Now he proposes we, without consideration of the unfolding opportunities in eastern Newton County, implement in two weeks a new plan which will insure half our county will be developed entirely with estate lots.
The best solutions are not always the simplest ones which can be explained in a thirty second sound bite. They may make for good political advertising in the next election, but they probably will make for very poor housing patterns in the future decades.
If we are to exploit the potential we now see as possible, we must find a way for the industrial and commercial neighbors we must have to provide the jobs and the life options we all want to coexist with the residents who work the jobs and purchase the goods and services.
This requires a plan. I urge the individual members of the Board of Commissioners to refuse to be complicit in the implementation of the non-plan of simply making all lot sizes a minimum of three acres for all of eastern Newton County.
Instead, call for a real discussion of a comprehensive review of our zoning and development standards to enable us to avoid the mistakes we made in western Newton County while maintaining the options we need to meet changing circumstances and create a variety of residential life styles to meet the housing demands that will inevitably come.
We must stop reacting to problems only after they are real, and develop a plan which anticipates the challenges while we still have time to create solutions. All of Newton County is looking for better jobs, more amenities and a better quality of life. This will not happen by accident. And simply building walls around part of the county as a monument to a 1950’s life style long gone is not the answer.
The answer is to plan for the growth so that we manage it and it does not overwhelm us. The beginning point for that is to develop a land use plan with the emphasis more on quality and less on minimum lot and house sizes.
Growth and change is coming to all of Newton County, but that growth and change can be managed to be beneficial for us if we move now to make sure the growth is quality growth developed around a real plan which accommodates a variety of residential, commercial and industrial options. And the key word is plan.