Planners recommend annexation

Photo by Howard Reed

Photo by Howard Reed

COVINGTON -- The Covington Planning Commission recommended approval Tuesday night of the annexation and rezoning of more than 150 acres near Covington Municipal Airport, despite the protestations of nearby residents. The property is owned by the Newton County Industrial Development Authority, which hopes to market it to attract industry to the area.

The undeveloped property fronts Ga. Highway 142, City Pond Road and Airport Road. Currently zoned county R-3 (residential) and AR (agricultural residential), the IDA is seeking a rezoning to city M-2 (heavy industrial).

The IDA purchased the property in 2004, with city and county backing, for the purpose of recruiting industry, said IDA attorney Frank Turner Jr. In six years, only one significant prospect has expressed interest, and that may be because the property was not adequately zoned, Turner said. The state places priority on property that is properly zoned and publicly owned, he said. Further, both the city and county future land use maps show the area as industrial.

"We simply need available, shovel ready sites to show to prospects," Turner said, adding potential users have not been identified. The IDA is willing to place the same covenants on the property as govern the Newton County Industrial Park at Ga. Highway 142 and Alcovy Road, which prohibit uses that create a nuisance via excess noise, odor or pollution, Turner said.

But nearby residents still aren't happy with the proposal. Mike Traylor, a 20-year resident of City Pond Road, said the development will have a negative impact on his neighborhood. He presented a petition signed by 90 residents who are in opposition.

The document caused a disruption at the meeting, when two Planning Commission members, Paul Oeland and Michael Geoffroy, went outside of public view for a private discussion. They were then briefly joined by Chairman Lee Aldridge and Planning Commissioner Eula Hardeman. It turns out Hardeman had signed the petition declaring her opposition to the rezoning, and the members were discussing whether she should recuse herself, according to Aldridge.

Oeland, who is an attorney, stated he wasn't sure that she was required to, but gave the petitioner a chance to object. Turner said that petitioners have a right to expect an impartial hearing before a board that has not pre-determined the facts, but added he would not tell the commission how to proceed. Aldridge asked Hardeman to recuse herself, and she left the room.

Concerns raised by residents include the need for a traffic study, whether their property would also be annexed and how property values will be affected. They also objected that the setback from Ga. Highway 142 will be 75 feet but only 25 feet where the property abuts residential property. Planning staff recommended the buffer be increased to 50 feet, which was added as a condition to approval.

Senior Planner Scott Gaither said the city does not target property for annexation; residents would have to petition the city if they want to be annexed, he said.

But Danielle Drive resident Adel Underwood said he believes he'll be forced out.

"Once you get this up the street, sooner or later it's going to close in on you," he said. "I'll be between this and the airport. That's going to be prime for development."

Residents also pointed out that the state Board of Education recommends no school be located within 1 mile of an industrial park -- the site is across the street from where a new elementary school is being constructed.

Turner said the Newton County Board of Education was aware the site was targeted for industrial development when it purchased the property. Planning Commissioner Ruel Parker, former superintendent of Rockdale County Schools, said the state takes various factors into consideration, and in some cases will allow schools to locate with a mile, or even within, an industrial park.

Turner said the IDA has historically been picky about industries it recruits and though warehouses and distribution centers would be allowed under the zoning, the IDA would rather see industries such as SKC, General Mills and Nisshinbo there.

Chamber of Commerce President Hunter Hall urged the commission to approve the petition. In today's economic climate, if a community does not have ownership of a property and proper zoning in place, it won't be in the running for industrial development, he said.

The Planning Commission recommended approval by a vote of 4 to 1. Those in favor were Geoffroy, Oeland, Parker and John Travis. Greg Shy was the only member opposed. Shy said he wants a traffic study done, though Gaither said Tuesday night a traffic study would be a waste of money without an identified user in mind.

Ann Traylor said she's not ready to give up yet.

"We're going to fight as long as we can fight, but if we can't win, we'll move," she said. "I don't want to wake up in the morning and see an industrial plant out my window."

The petition is expected to go before the Covington City Council at its Dec. 6 meeting, set for 6:30 p.m. at City Hall, located at 2194 Emory St.