My wife and I moved to Covington in January of 1982 after an extensive search for a place to live and raise our family. I had taken a position working in downtown Atlanta and could have lived anywhere in the metro area. We chose Covington because of its small town atmosphere, the picturesque City Square, and its rural countryside. Like most citizens in Newton County, we had real concerns when the building boom hit in the 2000’s and the county started experiencing massive, out of control growth. We saw the very characteristics of the county that brought us here disappear at an alarming rate.
Fast forward to 2005 and I was serving as an appointee on the Newton County Water and Sewerage Authority Board. Development pressures were hitting our county hard. Because of the need to address problems recreated by poorly controlled growth, the idea of the Leadership Collaborative was born. This was an attempt to get reasonable people together to solve some of the problems impacting every citizen in the county. The members of the Leadership Collaborative included elected and appointed officials, as well as key staff from the Newton County Board of Commissioners, the Newton Water and Sewerage Authority, Board of Education, Covington-Newton Chamber of Commerce and the Cities of Covington, Oxford, Porterdale, Newborn and Mansfield.
At our first meeting in 2005 there was a lot of apprehension by most collaborative members about the challenges we faced. We all understood that the threats to our community were significant enough that we were going to have to work together to address them. One of the greatest challenges faced by the group was how we will accommodate another 250,000-300,000 people who will move here by 2050 and still conserve key areas, protect our water supplies and retain some of our county’s farms and rural character. Something had to be done to compensate landowners in the rural and conservation zones for protecting their land from development. After looking all over the country we learned of a program called Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) that has been used effectively in other parts of the U.S.
The voluntary TDR program allows a rural landowner or farmer to keep their land, yet realize a financial benefit if development rights are sold to someone who wants to increase the density of a development project in an area of the county that already has the infrastructure to support it. TDR’s allow a rural landowner to generate funds for retirement, pay for college or for whatever they wish and yet leave the land to their heirs. But, it’s true that the land cannot be subdivided for residences later. On agricultural land, owners can still build barns or chicken houses, plant trees, grow crops and raise livestock while enjoying lower taxes. This is a win/win for the landowner, for the developer and for the county because it preserves our rural character and protects our water sources, while allowing growth in areas that can best accommodate it.
Yes, there are still issues to be worked out with the TDRs, and with the housing density allowed in conservation and rural zones. However, let’s not throw the whole idea out until we have taken time to really evaluate whether this concept could benefit county landowners and taxpayers in the future.
One point that has had very little discussion is the savings that the 2050 Plan could generate for taxpayers and rate payers of Newton County. A University of Georgia economist estimated that if this plan goes into effect as written, it will save Newton County taxpayers $3.3 billion by 2050 compared to continuing our present approach to growth and development. Tremendous savings can be realized by lowering water and sewer infrastructure costs, reducing school system costs, adding more local jobs, having less traffic congestion, locating retail establishments in walkable centers and increasing agriculture-related jobs.
If you listen to some commenting at the public meetings you would think this plan is a communist plot to take over Newton County and was prepared by outside elitists who know nothing about our way of life. Actually, it was prepared by citizens of Newton County who put forth their best effort to devise a means to deal responsibly with future growth. Many serving on the Leadership Collaborative were unpaid volunteers like me who spent hundreds of hours on this project. I’m not a developer, large landowner or a lawyer. I am not a rich guy that stands to gain anything by implementation of the plan. I am an ordinary citizen, retired from my career and no longer serving on the water and sewerage authority. All I own is my house and lot in Covington. Most of our citizens are like me and will benefit from the 2050 Plan by having a county that continues to possess the characteristics that make it a great place to live. Please continue to educate yourself about the 2050 Plan, decide on your own if this is what our community needs and then let our elected officials hear from you.