Plans for drag strip could stop

Doug Holt

Doug Holt

SOCIAL CIRCLE -- State Rep. Doug Holt has crafted legislation that could de-annex property in Newton County from the city of Social Circle, putting the brakes on plans of one property owner to develop a drag strip there.

"This could set everything back, but it's not a permanent solution," Holt said Wednesday. "The only permanent solution would be to de-annex Social Circle from Newton County altogether. We could do either. The public notices (about the proposed legislation) I have put out could be used for either purpose."

Holt, a Republican from Social Circle, said before he can introduce the legislation in the General Assembly, he must first get the signatures of state Rep. Jeff May, R-Monroe, and state Sen. John Douglas, also a Republican from Social Circle.

Calls to May and Douglas were not returned as of press time Wednesday.

The property in question includes about 322 acres north of Interstate 20 and west of U.S. Highway 278 that lies in both Newton and Walton counties and was annexed in 2008 into the city limits of Social Circle.

The property owner, Donnie Clack, has requested to rezone the land from agricultural use to general commercial, and is seeking conditional use on approximately 120 acres that would be used for a motorsports complex, including a 1/8-mile drag strip. The property abuts residential property along Willow Springs Church Road and would impact other subdivisions, including Surrey Chase and River Cove.

Residents in Social Circle are sharply divided over Clack's plans. A group of residents has come together to form Concerned Citizens of Social Circle, whose goal is to build opposition to the drag strip and urge the Social Circle City Council to deny the zoning request.

In response, Clack has created a group of residents in Newton and Walton counties who support the plans, Citizens for the Motorsports Complex.

The Planning and Zoning Commission voted in November to recommend approval of Clack's rezoning request with certain special conditions. The City Council was slated to take action on the recommendation during its public meeting in December; however, due to overwhelming public attendance and comments at the meeting, the City Council voted to defer the matter back to the Planning and Zoning Commission to hammer out the details of the special conditions.

In January, a committee consisting of Planning Commission members, CCOSC members and Clack, met for a work session dedicated to discussing residents' concerns about Clack's plans. During that meeting, Planning Commission members tasked Clack with presenting more specific details about his business plan, how he will address concerns about increased traffic, air and water pollution, as well as the mitigation of excessive noise and light from the drag strip.

Once Clack provides the Planning Commission with those details, his rezoning request will be placed on the agenda for an upcoming meeting.

Social Circle City Manager Doug White said Wednesday that Clack had not yet submitted anything, so the earliest the Planning Commission could consider his request would be April.

Once the Planning Commission votes to recommend approval or denial of Clack's request, the City Council will make the final decision.

In the meantime, Holt is working to take the issue off the plate of the City Council entirely.

"My rationale for this legislation is that I have had a couple of folks with a legal background wondering if the city would be able to say no, if they wanted to," the state representative said.

He said when the property was wholly in Newton County, the rezoning request could easily be denied because the county's land use plans show this area is to be used for rural and agricultural purposes.

But cities are designed for more concentrated land uses, which makes it more difficult for city officials to deny these kinds of rezoning requests, Holt said.

"The city may not have grounds to say no," he said. "I'm not saying that with certainty, but those are the opinions I've gathered from others."

Holt explained that if he is able to introduce his legislation -- and the governor signs it -- the property would no longer be within the jurisdiction of Social Circle. Clack would have to apply to the Newton County Board of Commissioners -- which has already expressed its desire that Social Circle not approve the request -- for rezoning.

"That's not to say the owner couldn't apply for reannexation," Holt said. "It just slows it down."

Holt said that since counties and cities are "creatures of the state," they can be created, eliminated and changed by legislative action.

"All sovereignty resides with the state of Georgia," he said.

"My ability to move forward is limited only by getting all three legislators on board," Holt said.

He said he expects the General Assembly will be in session at least through the middle of April and would need about a week's time to get the legislation finalized and to the governor.

The original annexation of this property was also contentious, pitting Social Circle against Newton County in the Newton County Superior Court. Clack, along with other property owners, sought in 2006 to annex 1,150 acres in unincorporated Newton County into the city limits of Social Circle. The issue was ultimately resolved out of court with the property being annexed in 2008.

The ordeal spurred new state legislation regulating annexation disputes, authored by Holt.

Now, local governments submit disputed annexation requests to binding arbitration before an independent panel.

Previously, cities were free to ignore mediators' recommendations, which happened in the Social Circle case.