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Commissioners deal directly with citizens on 2050 Plan

District 1 Commissioner John Douglas talks with constituents about the proposed baseline ordinances of the 2050 Plan at a public hearing Tuesday night at Eastside High School. Douglas has said he opposes the 20-acre minimum lot size proposed for his district and has said he would support a 5-acre minimum. (Staff Photo: Alice Queen)

District 1 Commissioner John Douglas talks with constituents about the proposed baseline ordinances of the 2050 Plan at a public hearing Tuesday night at Eastside High School. Douglas has said he opposes the 20-acre minimum lot size proposed for his district and has said he would support a 5-acre minimum. (Staff Photo: Alice Queen)

COVINGTON — Citizens were given a chance to have one-on-one conversations with elected officials about the 2050 Plan baseline ordinances at a public hearing Tuesday night at Eastside High School.

Organizers changed the format for the fourth in a series of five hearings, breaking the meeting into three concurrent segments: a formal presentation of the plan in the school theatre for those who had not heard it at a previous hearing; roundtable discussions with elected officials in the cafeteria; and a “solutions” station in the central hallway where citizens could offer suggestions for changes to the plan. About 200 citizens attended the hearing.

The format change came in response to complaints from citizens that the county’s elected officials were not available to address their concerns. Instead, the proposed ordinances had been presented by the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce and consultants brought in by The Center for Community Preservation and Planning. On Tuesday night Board of Commissioners Chairman Keith Ellis, along with Commissioners Nancy Schulz, Levie Maddox, and John Douglas each met with citizens who wanted to offer critiques and concerns.

Ricky Mock, who lives in District 1 but who owns property around the county, said he felt the format change was a good move.

“I’ve been saying that really we needed the officials standing up there … I liked it better,” Mock said.

Mock, who has said he opposes the lot size requirements and architectural controls in the plan, questioned why all five of the district commissioners weren’t at the hearing.

“Where is J.C. Henderson? Where is Lanier Sims?” Mock asked. “They tax their part of the county just like they do ours. J.C. hasn’t been to one of these meetings.”

Covington resident Freddie Neely, who has been vocal in his opposition to the baseline ordinances, said he thought having discussions with elected officials was a more even-handed approach.

“It’s helped,” he said Tuesday night. “It took it away from the Chamber, and they are pushing it so hard. They are supposed to be so unbiased.”

Neely said he was able to get his questions answered Tuesday night, but the answers were “not the way I wanted.”

Chamber of Commerce President Hunter Hall has moderated the public presentations on the baseline ordinances. In response to questions about why the Chamber — and not the county — presented the plan, Hall has said it is because, of all the entities involved, the Chamber has no voting control over implementation of the plan.

As with prior hearings, much of the discussion Tuesday night centered on minimum lot size requirements of 20 acres in a proposed conservation zone on the eastern side of the county and 10 acres in a proposed rural zone in the northern part of the county and along the Yellow River in south Newton. Together those zones would encompass 62 percent of the county’s land area. Citizens have also argued against a proposed transferable development rights program that would allow land owners affected by the large lot requirements to sell their development rights in order to offset the stricter controls on their property.

District 1 Commissioner Douglas, whose district includes mostly conservation zone, reiterated his opposition Tuesday to the 20-acre minimum lot size and said he knew of no commissioner who supported that proposal.

“The County Commission has the ultimate voting authority on this plan,” Douglas said. “The Center and the bureaucrats, the urban planners, can put anything they want on paper, but the County Commission has the ultimate authority to say yes or no.”

Douglas said he would support a 5-acre minimum in both the rural and conservation zones. He also said the TDR program will “need some work if it is going to survive.”

Douglas said a 13-member citizens panel that will be appointed by the commissioners, each of the five municipalities, the Board of Education and the Water and Sewerage Authority will review the baseline ordinances and make recommendations to the County Commission. After that, Douglas said there is no sense of urgency on the part of the county to move forward, and the plan may be “put on a shelf,” at least for a time.

“Maybe it will be like fine wine and get better with age,” Douglas said. “It may not. Maybe it will be like bread and get moldy with age. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

The final hearing on the baseline ordinances is set for Aug. 7, 6:30 p.m., at Oak Hill Elementary, 6243 Ga. Highway 212, Covington.