COVINGTON — More than 100 Newton County residents came out for the first in a series of public hearings on the 2050 Plan Monday, but not one of the half-dozen or so who spoke was in favor of the proposal.
Residents gathered at Live Oak Elementary raised questions and concerns ranging from specific issues with their properties to broader concerns about increasing the density in the already developed western side of the county. Several residents also expressed a general mistrust of government’s ability to better handle planning than it has done in the past and called for the plan to be put to a public vote.
Hunter Hall, president of the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce, provided an overview of the planning process that led to the 2050 Plan and encouraged residents to express their opinions and concerns.
Hall and Caleb Racicot, who created the baseline ordinances designed to carry out the 2050 Plan, emphasized that the proposed ordinances are just the first version of the plan and that community input will be needed to customize the ordinances to suit Newton County.
Racicot said the objective was to combine zoning regulations, subdivision regulations and development regulations from different jurisdictions in the county to draft a unified development ordinance that would “remove contradictions and create a level playing field for development activity throughout the county.”
Racicot said that he understood some of the more controversial components in the plan would draw concerns from the community, and that was “somewhat intentional.”
“One of the best ways to get people really involved in making decisions on what is going to be important to the future of their community is to give them something to respond to,” said Racicot.
The framework of the 2050 Plan calls for the placement of town centers in the Covington, Almon, Salem, Oak Hill and Hub Junction communities where population density would be greatest. The plan also includes a proposed Bear Creek Reservoir and an airport business park; a conservation zone in the eastern part of the county that contains large agricultural parcels and a watershed and would be occupied by 5 percent of the population; compact community zones throughout the western and central part of the county occupied by 80 percent of the population; and rural zones in Oxford and along the Yellow River with 15 percent of the population.
Two of the more controversial points in the proposed baseline ordinances are minimum lot size requirements in two districts proposed in the 2050 Plan. In the conservation district, which is mostly farmland, the plan calls for a minimum lot size of 20 acres. The proposed minimum lot size in the rural district is 10 acres. To offset the potential financial loss created by those lot sizes, the plan calls for a Transferrable Development Rights program, which allows developers to buy development rights from landowners and transfer that growth to an area earmarked for higher density.
Consultant Royce Hanson, who implemented a similar TDR plan in Montgomery County, Md., explained that TDRs allow development to be concentrated on a smaller amount of land while preserving greenspace in other areas. He said the plan has worked well at controlling sprawl in Montgomery County.
Planners listened to landowners’ concerns about being able to give farmland to children in order to build homes and about the process of selling TDRs and the accompanying tax and easement issues. Racicot said they were aware of the concerns about lots sizes and “willing to work with you on the 10 and 20.”
Covington attorney Phil Johnson, who has studied the baseline ordinances, said he was encouraged to hear that modifications could be made to the mandatory minimum lot sizes in the conservation and rural zones.
“I think the first thing you’ve got to look at in this plan are densities in the rural and conservation districts,” Johnson said. “These are really earth-changing for people who own land there.”
Johnson also criticized the TDR program, noting that the value of the TDRs would be established on the free market, which doesn’t yet exist. “Until we have a demand for bonus density in receiving areas, TDRs are not going to have a market value,” he said.
But Hanson said he believes the TDR program is necessary to achieve population density low enough to protect the conservation and rural districts.
“My experience has been if you don’t have a low enough density, you ultimately end up with scattered development that fragments the land and makes it very difficult to farm and also creates pollution that endangers your water supply and the quality of water in a river like the Alcovy,” Hanson said.
Resident Ricky Mock, who lives in District 1 where the conservation zone would be designated, but who said he owns land all over the county, criticized the proposal to drive higher-density growth to the western side of the county.
“If I lived on the west side, I wouldn’t want another 200,000 people being crowded in on the west side,” Mock said to applause from the audience.
“The question is, can government handle our business better than we can handle our business?” Mock added. “Do we want them being able to control the color of our houses and how many windows, how many porches, how many doors, or do we want to control it ourselves with zoning we already have?”
Racicot and Hanson said that population growth and development are inevitable for the county; the question will be how the county responds.
“With or without this plan, your county is going to have about 400,000 people by 2050, and the choice is not to shut the door,” said Racicot. “You cannot shut the door. You name one county in the United States that has successfully shut the door. So we have prepared a code that we believe reflects the 2050 Plan vision of how to deal with that population that is coming.”
Hanson said it is up to residents and lawmakers to “guide development in a better way than it has been in the past, or you can decide not to do that and let it rip.”
“If you think there’s a better way, then it makes sense to try and do the better way,” Hanson added. “Planning and development are not something that is frozen in amber; you would expect over time to make improvements or corrections.”
The next public hearing on the 2050 Plan baseline ordinances is set for Thursday, July 17, 6:30 p.m., at Mansfield Elementary, 45 East Third Ave., Mansfield. Other meetings are scheduled as follows:
• July 24, 6:30 p.m., at Flint Hill Elementary, 1300 Airport Road, Oxford;
• July 29, 6:30 p.m., at Eastside High School, 10245 Eagle Drive, Covington; and
• Aug. 7, 6:30 p.m., at Oak Hill Elementary, 6243 Ga. Highway 212, Covington.