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Social Circle seeks to annex 449 acres in Newton

SOCIAL CIRCLE - Two public hearings seeking comment on the proposed annexation of 449 acres in Newton County into the corporate limits of Social Circle will be held at 6 and 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall.

City Clerk Susan Roper said the Social Circle Planning Commission will conduct a public hearing on the matter at 6 p.m. and is expected to make a recommendation on the proposed annexation at that time. The mayor and City Council will hold their public hearing on the annexation proposal at 6:30 p.m.

According to the annexation petition, the property in question is solely owned by Carolyn Penland and lies on the north side of Interstate 20, between Ga. Highway 11 and Old Social Circle Road. City Manager Doug White said the majority of the property is zoned agricultural in Newton County and would come into the city limits of Social Circle under AG-2 zoning. White said Social Circle updated its zoning ordinance so that its AG-2 zoning would be in line with Newton County's agricultural zoning.

If approved the Penland annexation will be the third such annexation by Social Circle in the past six months. In September the council approved annexation of 334 acres, most of it in Newton County. That property lies along the north side of Interstate 20, starting from U.S. Highway 278 by County Line Road, running southwest along U.S. 278 and I-20 to a point less than halfway to Old Social Circle Road. That tract had several zoning classifications in Newton County and was rezoned to AG-2 in Social Circle. At the time of the annexation, there were seven owners listed, with Donnie Clack of Little River Ventures LLC owning about 320 acres.

The City Council approved annexation of another 223 acres of largely undeveloped land at its December meeting. That land, owned by Greg Rosa, lies in both Newton and Walton counties and is located south of Social Circle and north of Interstate 20 along Little River Road, off Ga. Highway 11. It was also brought into the city limits under AG-2 zoning, which is agricultural with low density residential dwellings.

White said property owners must wait one year before seeking a different zoning designation for property that is annexed into the city.

The Penland property, along with the other properties already annexed, is part of 1,150 acres that Social Circle attempted to annex in 2006 and rezone for a mixed-use industrial park. Social Circle voted to annex the 1,150 acres, but the effort was initially blocked when Newton County filed suit, claiming that the annexation violated the regulations for Developments of Regional Impact set by the Department of Community Affairs, as well as Social Circle's own zoning ordinance, state annexation law and Newton County subdivision and rezoning regulations.

State Rep Doug Holt, R-Social Circle, subsequently sponsored legislation limiting the annexation power of cities. Holt's legislation, which was approved by the General Assembly in 2007, entitles counties objecting to annexations to binding arbitration.

According to James Griffin, an attorney in the Newton County Attorney's Office, the county has not objected to the recent annexations by Social Circle.

"The law would require us to ask for arbitration, and once we got to arbitration the burden would be on us to prove that the annexation would create a material detriment," Griffin said. "And because we have to prove it would be a material detriment, we would have to bring in a lot of experts."

That, plus the fact that Social Circle is annexing properties under AG-2 zoning, could make it difficult to argue against the annexations.

"It would be hard to prove a material detriment to an AG zoning," Griffin said. "It's pretty obvious, but I think the owners are probably interested in developing their property next to I-20, but at this point the county has not objected on those grounds."

Staff reporters Crystal Tatum and Michelle Floyd contributed to this report.

Alice Queen can be reached at alice.queen@rockdalecitizen.com.