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Petition begun to de-annex Social Circle

SOCIAL CIRCLE -- The calendar was a crucial factor in the decision of a group of residents to start a petition drive to de-annex a portion of Social Circle from Newton County.

The Concerned Citizens of Social Circle voted Thursday to work toward collecting signatures of residents in the city of Social Circle and in Walton and Newton counties who would be in favor of legislative action to move the boundaries of the city limits out of Newton County. The purpose of the action would be to remove about 322 acres that is at the center of a rezoning controversy from the incorporated limits of Social Circle.

The property's owner, Donnie Clack, annexed his land in 2008 into the city limits and has subsequently requested to rezone the property from agriculture use to general commercial with special conditions for the purposes of constructing a motorsports complex, including a 1/8-mile drag strip.

Residents in Social Circle and Newton County are sharply divided over Clack's plans. Residents in the area whose goal is to build opposition to the drag strip and urge the Social Circle City Council to deny the zoning request formed Concerned Citizens of Social Circle, or CCOSC.

In the meantime, state Rep. Doug Holt, R-Social Circle, whose district includes the Newton County tract annexed in Social Circle, has crafted legislation that would de-annex Clack's land from the city. CCOSC invited Holt to speak Thursday at its meeting and give more information about his proposed legislation.

Holt said to the group that his proposal to de-annex the land was in reaction to what he has heard from his constituents in Newton County who are concerned about the proposed drag strip that would be constructed on the property north of Interstate 20 and west of U.S. Highway 278. The land abuts residential property along Willow Springs Church Road and would impact other subdivisions, including Surrey Chase and River Cove. Many of the affected residents live in the Social Circle Zip code but are in Newton County.

"This is just a way to put an option on the table," Holt said, adding that this is a political maneuver and makes no statement on the technical aspects of land use and development.

The state representative provided an overview of how Clack's property, along with about 700 acres owned by a couple of other landowners, came to be annexed into Social Circle. Holt added that the annexations were not viewed favorably by Newton County, and in fact, the county and the city took their dispute to court. Several pieces of legislation have been passed since 2000 as a result of city's encroachment into Newton County, including a state law that requires cities seeking to annex land over a county line to first secure the permission of that county's Board of Commissioners.

Holt said that if the de-annexation were to occur, Clack could always request to re-annex his property back into Social Circle. However, Social Circle would, at that time, have to obtain permission of the Newton County BOC, which may not look too favorably on that request, given the history between the two governments, Holt said. Furthermore, de-annexing Clack's land would create a domino effect of de-annexing the other Newton County properties since they would then be considered isolated islands and could therefore not be within the boundaries of Social Circle.

Passing local legislation affecting the boundaries of cities is not uncommon, Holt said, "but it is a rare circumstance when local legislation is introduced in contradiction to what the local government says it wants," he said.

Taking Clack's rezoning request out of the hands of the Social Circle City Council through de-annexation, Holt said, is just one benefit the legislation could have.

"It also carries with it the side benefit of disentangling the Social Circle government and the Newton County government and they can go back to being good neighbors," he said.

Many in attendance at the CCOSC meeting stood to thank Holt for his support of them and urged him to continue to pursue the legislation. Holt advised the group that the other two state legislators who represent Social Circle -- Rep. Jeff May of Monroe and Sen. John Douglas of Social Circle -- would need to sign on before he could go any further. Holt stressed that Douglas and May would likely not take such a political move without hearing from their constituents that this is their desire. He said he estimated about 1,000 signatures would be a good benchmark.

"You have about two and a half weeks to get a petition and phone calls into your legislators," Holt said, reminding the crowd that the General Assembly is on day 27 of a 40-day session. He said if the other two legislators do come on board, he'd need about 10 days to get the legislation prepared for the governor's signature.

After some discussion, CCOSC president Jenny Cole said she had not made up her mind how to proceed on de-annexation and wanted to hear what Mayor Jim Burgess had to say on the matter when he addresses the group next week. However, several others in attendance protested saying that time is of the essence and there was not a week to spare. Many stated their desire to have options to defeat the drag strip other than solely relying on the City Council to deny Clack's rezoning request.

Newton County resident David Stillerman made a motion that the CCOSC immediately begin a petition drive showing support for de-annexation. Bob Hapner, who lives in Surrey Chase subdivision, seconded the motion. By a show of hands, 26 people voted in favor, one was against the move and 10 remained undecided.