2050 Plan causes concern among property owners

COVINGTON — As the 2050 Plan, a strategy designed to guide Newton County’s future growth, moves closer to implementation, some residents are raising concerns about the details that support the plan’s broader concepts.

The 2050 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 projects 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.

It’s those baseline ordinances that have raised concerns among residents who feel that the ordinances are overreaching and too restrictive.

Covington attorney Phil Johnson said he has read the 100-plus pages of the ordinances twice and, as with most things, “The devil is in the details.”

“I think that if you ask anyone are the goals of the 2050 Plan something we’d like to see achieved, everyone would say ‘yes,’” said Johnson. “The Center and the Leadership Collaborative did a great job of marketing the name brand, but you didn’t see the product until now.”

The framework of 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.

One key objection to the baseline ordinances deals with minimum lot size requirements for the conservation district and in the rural district. 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.

“Of course, most of the property owners feel that that takes away a lot of marketability of their property,” Johnson said. “They won’t be able to develop subdivisions or sell to developers for subdivisions.”

The restrictions won’t affect just owners of large tracts of land, Johnson said.

“If you are someone who owns 15 acres and you have two sons and you want to give each one 5 acres to build a home on, you can’t do that,” he said.

To mitigate the financial impact on those property owners, Johnson said the ordinances call for a Transfer of Development Rights program, which allows for the transfer of growth from the conservation and rural areas to a “receiving area,” where higher-density growth is planned.

Under a TDR plan, land owners are assigned a number of TDR units based on their acreage that they can sell to developers who want increased density in a receiving area.

Johnson said there’s no evidence to show that a TDR plan would work, and a market for the TDR units does not yet exist. “If the developers are satisfied with the base density in the receiving areas, then they won’t buy the transferable development rights, so there won’t be a thriving market in these things,” he said.

Secondly, Johnson said, the ordinances also allow developers to pay a penalty to the county in order to exceed the base density, thereby avoiding the need to purchase TDRs.

Julia Wilson, who owns about 250 acres of family land in the Newborn area, said she is in favor of conservation, “but I also want the freedom to responsibly work with my property,” she said.

Wilson said she’s concerned that the consultant hired by The Center to develop the baseline ordinances used a model that doesn’t reflect Newton County. The ordinances were based on those in place in Montgomery County, Md., an affluent bedroom community for Washington, D.C.

With so much farmland in counties surrounding Newton County, Wilson said the proposed ordinance restrictions would make her property unmarketable, even as farmland.

“I’m for farmland if there is parity, but there is no parity here,” she said.

The use of TDRs to push development toward the western side of the county is also a concern, she said, because she believes that area is already overburdened with traffic and higher population density.

The Center is planning a series of public meetings to get citizen input on the baseline ordinances. Newton County Commissioner John Douglas, who represents District 1 on the eastern side of the county, said those discussions, as well as the ensuing debate among commissioners, will likely result in a very different document.

“The message that I have on the 2050 Plan is that this is the very first draft to come out, and the Board of Commissioners hasn’t even — as we would say — put a fingerprint on it yet,” Douglas said. “So there are going to be significant changes along the way.”

Douglas said he does not support the proposed minimum lot size of 20 acres in his district.

“I can tell you right now, that is not going to survive,” he said. “That’s just out of the question.”

Douglas, who said he has heard from “a lot” of constituents who are upset about the 2050 Plan, asked that residents participate in the discussion process before raising the alarm.

“Before people get upset about the 2050 Plan, give us, the Board of Commissioners, a chance to work on it,” Douglas said. “They’ll have opportunities to have input, the public will, and we will take into consideration a number of different ideas before we finally decide to do something with it or even come up with a near final plan. And then we’ll vote on whether to pass it or not. There is a lot of work still to go into the 2050 Plan before a final plan is submitted.”

Johnson said he believes the baseline ordinances in the 2050 Plan are so revolutionizing that they require more than a normal public hearing process. He said there should be public debate on the issue and a referendum.

“This will have the most significant impact of any local law in my lifetime, and that is not hyperbole,” Johnson said. “I have been involved in local politics and local issues for 40 years. This is impactful because it affects everybody in that eastern end of the county and everybody in the receiving area because they are the ones that will get all this excess density if this works.”

Public meetings on the baseline ordinances are scheduled as follows:

• July 14, 6:30 p.m., at Live Oak Elementary, 500 Kirkland Road, Covington;

• July 17, 6:30 p.m., at Mansfield Elementary, 45 East Third Ave., Mansfield;

• 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.