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2050 Plan draws emotional discussion in Mansfield

MANSFIELD — Discussion of the baseline ordinances of the 2050 Plan turned contentious Thursday night as hundreds of residents gathered at Mansfield Elementary School to express their views.

For more than three hours residents asked questions and voiced reactions — ranging from skeptical to angry to emotional — about a plan many fear could devalue their property and further restrict its use.

“You feel like you live in fear of the government taking your land,” said one woman, whose family has owned farmland in the area for five generations. “I cherish my heritage.”

Residents zeroed in on 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.

The baseline ordinances are regulations designed to achieve the objectives of the 2050 Plan, which was created by the Newton County Leadership Collaborative at The Center for Community Preservation and Planning over the past 10 years. The 2050 Plan is based on four 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.

Proponents of the plan have emphasized that this is just the first of possibly four — or more — versions of the ordinances that will be written before they go before elected officials for a vote. Residents’ input is being sought in a series of public hearings in order to incorporate it into subsequent versions of the ordinances.

Consultant code writer Caleb Racicot said the objective in developing the baseline ordinances was to combine zoning regulations, subdivision regulations and development regulations from different jurisdictions in the county into a unified development ordinance. Racicot said once the baseline ordinances are finalized, each jurisdiction will have the opportunity to tailor some of the regulations to meet its individual needs.

Racicot said from the hundreds of comments received from residents so far in the discussion process, it is clear that some changes will be made in the next version of the baseline ordinances.

“We have heard extensively that there are areas where we absolutely must work on if this is ever going to proceed from version one,” said Racicot. “We know that the density issues in the western and eastern parts of the county are a major issue, and we are going to work with you.”

Much of Thursday night’s discussion was devoted to issues directly affecting the eastern side of the county — specifically TDRs and the 20-acre minimum lot size.

Royce Hanson, a planning consultant from Montgomery County, Md., said it was his recommendation to establish a minimum lot size of 20 acres in the conservation district, based on his experience in his home county.

“I learned this the hard way, because I thought in the early 1970s that we could save our countryside with 5-acre zoning,” Hanson said. “What we discovered within three years was that 5-acre zoning was a magnet for estate development that was fragmenting the farming area of the county, so it was impossible to farm next to these little pods and subdivisions.”

The lesson learned, Hanson said, was that 5-acre lots induced more sprawl, pollution and infrastructure costs.

Nonetheless, Hanson said it was clear that 20-acre lots were not acceptable to most landowners in Newton County.

“I think we’ve heard you. I won’t give any guarantee on the second version, but I didn’t fall off the turnip truck and I think that the next iteration of this probably is not going to accept my advice,” Hanson said.

The use of TDRs as an incentive to preserve farmland allows landowners in rural areas to participate in the economic development of the county while preserving their land, Hanson said. The objective of protecting farmland could be achieved through simple zoning regulations, he added, but that would involve “drastic down-zoning.”

Under a TDR program, landowners are assigned development rights based on their acreage. They can then sell these rights to developers who want to increase the allowed density in an area of the county designated for greater density. The land from which the TDRs was transferred would then be placed under a permanent development easement.

Residents have objected to the TDR program saying the same result could be achieved through existing zoning laws. Concerns have also been expressed about forcing more congestion into the already developed western side of the county, as well as devaluing Newton County property in comparison to adjacent counties.

Future public hearings on the 2050 Plan baseline ordinances 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.

The 2050 Plan calls for the placement of town centers in the Covington, Almon, Salem, Oak Hill and Hub Junction communities. 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.