Social Circle mayor: Deannexation not a fix

SOCIAL CIRCLE -- Mayor Jim Burgess said proposed legislation to deannex a portion of Social Circle from Newton County would not necessarily resolve a conflict over a rezoning application to bring a drag strip to the city, but could actually cause more harm than good.

After reviewing a history of how Donnie Clack's 322 acres came to be annexed into the city limits in 2008, Burgess told a gathering of residents opposed to Clack's plans to build a motorsports complex Tuesday why he believes it is important to keep the city limits intact.

Clack has requested to rezone his property between U.S. Highway 278 and Interstate 20 from agricultural to general commercial with special conditions. His plans are to build a motorsports complex with a 1/8-mile drag strip as the anchor. Clack recently submitted a letter through his attorney to the city asking to withdraw his petition without prejudice, meaning he can resubmit his plans at a later date.

Clack has an alternative site plan that repositions the drag strip that he is considering presenting as part of his rezoning application. The Social Circle City Council will consider his withdrawal request during its April 20 meeting.

The issue has polarized the community, with most homeowners whose properties surround the land in question opposed to the plans. Many of those property owners live in Newton or Walton counties but are not within the defined boundaries of Social Circle.

Walton County resident Shirley Cooley lives near Clack's property but is not in the city limits. She told Burgess she contacted Kevin Little, chairman of the Walton County Board of Commissioners, about the rezoning petition.

"He told me there is nothing he can do. We are asking for your help," Cooley said. "If we're not in Social Circle and we're not in Walton County, then where are we?"

Newton Countian Betty Bledsoe lives in Social Circle, and she said this property is in a watershed district and the current zoning category is in place to protect the watershed and the Little River.

"A motorsports complex is just not according to our zoning ... there is a proper place for everything. I'm not against a drag strip, but not in the middle of residential neighborhoods," Bledsoe said. "Why are we not protecting the Little River?"

Jim Hickock said he worked with Newton County on developing the overlay district for the Hub Junction near the intersection of Ga. Highway 11 and U.S. 278. He said that overlay is a major reason Georgia Perimeter College located there.

"This motorsports complex is very, very detrimental to that and to the Little River," Hickock said. "Deannexation is probably the smartest thing to do for the city of Social Circle."

Burgess disagreed and said that deannexation would, in fact, be harmful to Social Circle.

He outlined six reasons for his opinion:

* Deannexing the Newton County portion of Social Circle would "retard future growth and economic development because our growth is to the south, not to the north," Burgess said. He said without growth, cities will deteriorate. He pointed to the city of Monticello, which is operating in a deficit and recently had to disband its police department.

* Ga. 11 is "the city's gateway and I think it should be under our control." The reason, Burgess said, is "because Newton County has not acted responsibly." He said Newton County has spot-zoned 20 acres along Ga. 11 for commercial use that was to be developed into a supermarket.

"I prefer that that kind of development should be to the north," the mayor said.

* Social Circle is more oriented to Covington and Newton County than to Monroe and Walton County. "More of our residents shop, exercise, eat in Covington," he said. "It's hard for me to understand why Newton County thinks we're not good enough for Newton County."

* Deannexation would cause Social Circle to lose a valuable tax base. Burgess said that even in its undeveloped state, that property brings in about $75,000, or 1/2 mill, in property taxes for the city and the Social Circle School System.

"Can you imagine what this property would do for the school system once revenue starts coming in," Burgess asked.

As a point of comparison, he said that Solo Cup brings in about $250,000 a year to schools and once the General Mills distribution facility comes online it will bring in about $500,000 a year. The two industries do not have to pay city taxes for five to 10 years, but once those tax abatement periods expire, the city will realize that income as well.

* Social Circle could lose potential sales tax revenue through local option sales taxes, special purpose local option sales taxes or education local option sales taxes.

"We don't know what that amount is, but it could be substantial money," the mayor said.

* Finally, Burgess said, if the property is deannexed, Clack would have the right to request rezoning from Newton County, so the issue would not go away.

Burgess stressed that the Planning Commission and the City Council must make any rezoning decisions free from prejudice or bias and the burden lies with the city to justify why they approved or denied a petition.

Joyce Hull said she and her husband moved to River Cove Meadows subdivision a few years ago because of the small-town, quiet nature of Social Circle.

"You talked about 'retardation of growth,' but that's exactly what would happen (if drag strip approved)," she said. "People won't move here."