Motorsports complexes outlawed in Newton

Photo by Lisa Bishop

Photo by Lisa Bishop

The Newton County Board of Commissioners has amended the zoning ordinance to specifically exclude tracks for motorsports from allowed uses under commercial outdoor recreation facilities.

County officials say the move was part of an overhaul of the zoning ordinance, as several amendments have been approved recently. Firing ranges were also excluded.

But Donnie Clack, who has proposed locating a drag strip in Newton along I-20 and U.S. Highway 278, doesn't believe it.

"I think it is ironic and comical they threw outside motorsports complex into the mix. I'm sure it wasn't aimed at me or my property because I know those commissioners have higher standards than that," Clack said. "The Newton County commissioners have been speaking loud and clear they pretty much don't want anything in the county down there. I guess the tax base is strong enough they don't need any additional revenues."

Commercial outdoor recreation facilities are defined in the ordinance as "any establishment whose main purpose is to provide the general public with facilities for active, outdoor recreational activities and where tickets are sold or fees are collected for participation in the activity." Examples listed include water slides and parks, golf and miniature golf courses, driving ranges and baseball batting cages.

"The amendments were the result of a comprehensive effort to update the county's commercial regulations and were not aimed at any particular use of property," said Scott Sirotkin, director of the Newton County Department of Development Services. Though a drag strip wouldn't be allowed under the current ordinance, "As I mentioned to the board, if they direct staff to do so, we can work on a set of proposed standards for such a use for the board to consider," Sirotkin said.

Clack said in early 2010 that he planned to take his petition before Newton County after he was unsuccessful in Social Circle. But the project has long been on hold due to the economy. He also owns Lanier National Speedway in Braselton, which has been facing financial difficulties lately as attendance has dropped.

Clack said he still has citizens asking him weekly, "Can we get the drag strip?"

As initially proposed, the 1/8 mile drag strip would be part of a larger motorsports complex that would include grandstands, a possible campground/RV parking area, a motocross track, multi-use arena and staging area.

Clack and several other property owners annexed about 1,150 acres north of I-20 and west of U.S. 278 from Newton into Social Circle in 2008. A year later, Clack petitioned the city to rezone his property from agriculture use to general commercial with special conditions to construct the motorsports complex.

The request set off a fierce debate among residents of both Social Circle and Newton, and prompted the creation of the Concerned Citizens of Social Circle, a group that's main aim is to build opposition to the drag strip.

After much back and forth and delay, a zoning error was discovered -- a 1-acre parcel of land fronting U.S. 278 was included as part of Clack's property, but actually belonged to another individual who did not request annexation, creating an unincorporated island. The Social Circle City Council opted not to amend the boundary error and voted to de-annex the entire 1,150 acres.

Clack vowed to take his petition to Newton County, but knew all along he'd face a tough crowd. Commissioners issued a letter in 2010 urging Social Circle officials to deny Clack's request. The letter said the project would have an adverse impact on the surrounding area, citing noise and traffic congestion, and would not conform with the county's Comprehensive Land Use Plan.

"A drag strip might bring tourism, restaurants, motels and retailers to the region, but at the high cost of creating an unbearable nuisance for existing residents and of negating many of the development advantages of our area," the letter stated.

Most impacted would be Stanton Springs, the 1,600-acre mixed-use property owned by the Joint Development Authority of Jasper, Morgan, Newton and Walton Counties, according to Newton officials, who said the drag strip could deter development there.

But Clack said that argument doesn't hold water.

"Stanton Springs has been on life support for 10 years," he said of the project, which has yet to attract any development. "If it was a human they'd pull the plug on it. But as long as the taxpaying citizens are paying the tab, they keep on supporting it. They don't want something that will bring instant revenue. A lot of people reading this article will never live long enough to see the results of Stanton Springs, and I might be one of them."

Clack said he's not giving up despite the financial constraints he's under now and despite the recent action by the county.

"I'm not saying we're dead, but they've shot us in the head one more time and I didn't even know we were playing war," he said.