Officials divided over value of 2050 Plan

Newton BOC work session set for Tuesday

COVINGTON —The baseline ordinances developed as part of the 2050 Plan have cost local taxpayers more than $250,000, but elected officials are divided over whether the finished product was worth the expense.

“It’s not worth it in my mind, no,” said Newton County Commissioner John Douglas.

Douglas, who represents District 1 on the eastern side of the county, said the 2050 Plan started off as a good idea to preserve some the open parts of the county.

“But since that point, it has fallen off the tracks and become overreach and an intrusion,” he said.

The 2050 Plan is a strategy designed to guide Newton County’s future growth. The plan, developed by the Newton County Leadership Collaborative at The Center for Community Preservation and Planning, is based on four development principles — protecting clean water; creating communities; creating corridors; and coordinating infrastructure. The plan is based on projections that the county’s population could reach 400,000 by 2050.

All of Newton County’s governing bodies have approved resolutions in general support of the plan, and the Leadership Collaborative held a series of meetings in 2012 to introduce the concepts to the public. Covington, Newton County and the Newton County Water and Sewerage Authority also agreed in 2012 to fund the development of baseline ordinances for three development zones in the plan — conservation, rural and compact community.

Over the summer, a series of town hall meetings was held to introduce the public to the proposed baseline ordinances, which are zoning and development regulations designed to achieve the objectives of the 2050 Plan.

Public reaction to the 2050 Plan was largely negative, with some of the meetings turning contentious at points.

Primarily, residents took issue with two proposed regulations in the baseline ordinances — a minimum lot size of 20 acres in the conservation district, which would be on the eastern side of the county, and the use of transferable development rights, or TDRs. Those two proposals are designed to protect the Alcovy River and preserve farmland by driving development to areas earmarked for greater density.

“It would be fair to say these ordinances have not been well-received,” said Keith Ellis, chairman of the Newton County Board of Commissioners.

As a result, local officials opted to form a 13-member citizens committee to revisit the proposed ordinances and provide feedback. Even that proposal, though, has not been without controversy. The city of Covington, which has spent more than $81,000 toward the development of the 2050 Plan from June 2013 to June 2014, suggested it should appoint seven members on the committee – equal to the number nominated by the Newton County Board of Commissioners, that has likewise spent more than $83,000 in the past two fiscal years on the plan, according to documents provided by the county – bringing the committee membership to 19. The BOC has not agreed to expand the committee and nominations to the body have stalled.

The financial commitment the county has made toward the development of the 2050 Plan will be the focus of a work session scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Historic Courthouse.

Douglas said one of his primary concerns is that the county does not have a contract with The Center, which makes it difficult to keep tabs on how much money has been spent. Instead, the county, the city of Covington and the Newton County Water and Sewerage Authority entered into an intergovernmental agreement in October 2012 wherein each entity agreed to contribute $50,000 to create the ordinances. The process was expected to take 18 to 24 months and cost between $150,000 and $250,000. The city of Oxford also contributed $5,000 toward the effort.

However, with the total cost closer to $270,000 and more funds budgeted for this current fiscal year, commissioners are wanting to take a closer look.

“It’s very important that we get control of the money for the benefit of taxpayers. It’s not logical that we would give basically a check with a certain amount of money with no strings attached, no regulations, no rules,” Douglas said. “That has to stop. When you control the money, you control the show.”

Ellis agreed that it is important that the BOC get a handle on the exact cost of the 2050 Plan.

“We need firm numbers, a good timeline and a scope of work that includes deliverables, and in this case, public support,” he said. “We intend for everybody to be completely aware of what we have spent, a correct number that it really has cost us. We are at a point where it seems reasonable to pause and to take inventory – which is one reason for the work session – and determine if we will continue with this group or go in a different direction.”

For instance, Ellis said, the county has had a productive relationship with the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission based in Athens that has assisted with planning efforts in the past.

“The BOC realizes that the people’s trust is not as high as we would like, but we will work hard to regain their trust and I think Tuesday will go a long way toward that,” he said.

At the same time, Ellis said he does not want to diminish the value of the work done by the Leadership Collaborative or The Center.

“I want to commend all the individuals serving on the Leadership Collaborative. We have had many good things and good relationships come out of this,” he said.

Ellis said the primary issues he sees are not with the original intent of the 2050 Plan itself, but with the ordinances that have developed as a result. He said the BOC recognizes that this is a “pivotal point in the process” and he suggests that the work continues at a slower pace “to let citizens continue to feel like they are part of the process.”

“There has been an awful lot of work going into one plan and commissioners are not going to just cast it aside,” Ellis said. “It is a building block for Newton County.”

This is also the position of the Water and Sewerage Authority, which, according to Director Mike Hopkins, has contributed approximately $100,000 toward the development of the 2050 Plan.

Hopkins said the Leadership Collaborative has been instrumental in helping Newton County manage the explosive growth it experienced in the early 2000s.

“When all this started, the lack of communication between the entities was causing problems, particularly during that high-growth period,” he said. “The Leadership Collaborative got us to the same table so we all knew what direction we were going – the city, the county, the Board of Education.”

Hopkins said that the Water and Sewerage Authority, in particular, is always planning years ahead, and with the sprawl that was beginning to occur in the early 2000s, it was becoming critical to plan for sufficient wastewater treatment. He said that they were looking at having to build anywhere from seven to 10 wastewater treatment plants, which can cost between $15 million and $20 million apiece.

“But through the planning process, we were able to narrow that need down to three or four at the most, which is huge for future savings,” Hopkins said.

Likewise, he said, as a result of the planning through the Leadership Collaborative, the county was prepared to quickly construct sewer lines out to Baxter International, which is locating a billion dollar facility at Stanton Springs Industrial Park.

So when the 2050 Plan and baseline ordinances were presented to the public, Hopkins said he was a little surprised at the level of negativity that arose.

“I did not expect people to be that upset or bothered by it, but overall, I’m glad,” he said.

He said that the plan presented over the summer was never intended to be the final product.

“After a decade of work, it needed public input and we need a plan everybody can agree to. But I was hoping the discussion would be a little more civil. … I am hoping we can take the comments and we can come up with a version two that will still need to go back to the public,” Hopkins said.

He did say that the premise of the 2050 Plan – that the population in Newton County will be 400,000 by the year 2050 – probably should be adjusted, since that projection was made at the height of the growth period.

“It doesn’t look like there will be that same kind of growth, but there will be growth here,” he said.

The benefit of the Leadership Collaborative is that, because it meets monthly, it can make adjustments in the plan as circumstances change.

The bottom line, Hopkins said, is that the money has been spent for the 2050 Plan and the public deserves to have a finished product.

“We have spent a good bit of money and I’m not in favor of saying it didn’t work because some people got upset,” he said. “We need to go back and finish the job, and take the concerns and incorporate those ideas into the plan. If we stop now, that would be a disservice for the time, effort and monies spent on this. I’m not in favor of that.”