County forms 2050 panel
After four public hearings and scores of pointed questions about the 2050 Plan, the Newton County Board of Commissioners is calling for help. County Chairman Keith Ellis told the Covington Rotary Club Tuesday afternoon that a citizens’ panel will soon be formed to delve into the intricacies of the plan.
The panel will include 13 members. Each county commissioner will appoint one person to the panel, as will each city or town, plus the water and sewer authority and school board.
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“We’re trying to find the middle ground, we really are,” Ellis said. “Common ground can be found.”
Criticism about the plan has generally been from opponents arguing that it is too restrictive, particularly in its limit of one house per 20 acres in the proposed “conservation district” comprising much of the county’s east side. Ellis has said that acreage limit won’t work, but has said he wants public comments on what limit might. The panel is an extension of that wish.
“We gotta have a plan,” he told the Rotary Club. “We need to raise the bar in Newton County, but it’s up to the people how high the bar is raised.”
He said the commissioners will be “patient” with the plan and not rush its passage.
“We’re going to be careful with who we appoint to the panel,” he said.
Prior to Ellis’ announcement of the new panel, the Rotary Club heard a half-hour presentation from 2050 Plan critic Phillip Johnson. The week before, the club had heard a similar presentation from proponent John Paschal.
Johnson said a comprehensive plan is needed, but the plan as presented is flawed. It tries to protect 62 percent of the county with unrealistic land-use minimums, far out of kilter with market demand. The idea of preserving the Alcovy River is sound, he said, but it’s also “under control” already. With three-acre minimum lot sizes in place and the federal government approving a reservoir along the river, the 2050 plan is excessive.
The plan also calls for the creation of “compact communities” where people can walk to work and shop. That’s not a bad idea, Johnson said, but shouldn’t be forced on anyone. If homebuyers want to live in large communities with large lots, the mar- ket should rule.
He said proponents’ third objective (clean water, company communities, interconnectivity and consolidation of public investment are the plan’s four stated goals) is “disingenuous,” as eastern Newtown County has plenty of good roads already. “They do exist, they’re state highways and we wouldn’t have to build them again.”
As for the fourth objective, public investment, Johnson told Rotary Club members that people will need sewers and schools wherever the market demands growth occur.
For Johnson, the plan seems a tool proponents are using to push Newton County toward the world of Norman Rockwell.
“That is great, but that is not the way we live our lives today,” he said. “If people want that type (of) life the market will provide the opportunity. This is the most important piece of local legislation that I’ve seen in my 40 years of public life in Newton County. Nothing compares to this.”
“This plan, we ought to take the time necessary to get it right before we pass it.”
Last week, Paschal painted a much more positive picture of the plan – arguing in favor of its four pillars, that the plan would save $3.3 billion in public infrastructure costs if it is adopted and the estimated 300,000 people move to the county by 2050. The plan and its accompanying baseline ordinances are designed to be “developer friendly,” he said, by simplifying myriad county and town zoning laws and consolidating everything into one overall ordinance.
He said there’s no hurry to adopt the plan. One public hearing remains, after which planners will take everything they’ve heard, rewrite the plan as “version two,” present it again to the public for input and come back, in time, with version three. That will then be handed to the county and municipalities for review, after which each governmental body will be able to modify the plan to fit its local needs.
There is no timeline for the plan or any of its versions, Paschal said.