New committee for zoning changes meets
The Polk County Commission embarked last week on a task that could change the entire landscape of Polk County – geographically, visually, and economically.
Whether that change will be for better or for worse depends on what revisions come out of an overhaul of the county’s zoning ordinance, a task the commission hopes to complete by June 2016.
The revision process will be conducted under the guidance of the Northwestern Georgia Regional Commission, and funding was set aside in their budget for Fiscal Year 2016 in order to help with the process
Polk County’s newly formed zoning project committee – chaired by Jason Ward and including commission chair Stefanie Drake Burford – met for the first time on Sept. 10.
Ward said what Polk County seeks in its revised ordinance is simple: an ordinance that will allow for responsible growth and an ordinance that avoids the mistakes of neighboring counties.
Ward emphasized that he doesn’t want to see the county suffer the consequences of failing to plan for growth. Those consequences, he said, are evident in the pattern of growth seen in some surrounding counties.
“We’re not against good development, but we want standards that make sense,” he said. “We don’t want to end up in a situation where commercial buildings are thrown up haphazardly and in different styles, with different road frontages,” Ward said.
Denton said he wanted four main things from the new language: provide an up-to-date document, no conflicts with state law, it must withstand legal challenges, and must fit in with what other counties in the region are doing.
The idea is to be comprehensive, Denton said, taking into account both protecting resources and Polk’s agricultural industry while at the same time recognizing that the language of the zoning ordinance needs fixes.
Barnett Chitwood, who has decades of experience with the Northwest Georgia Regional Commission (NWGARC), is also on the zoning project committee,
and will be working on the language of the changes over the next several months. He brought along community planner Ethan Calhoun from the NWGARC to help in the coming months of revisions to be done.
Money in the NWGARC budget was set aside specifically for Chitwood and Calhoun to work on the zoning ordinance changes, Denton said.
Funding for the NWGARC comes from the 15 counties that make up the organization.
Changing and cleaning up the existing zoning ordinance is going to be a lot of work, Chitwood told the committee, adding that he has questions and concerns on every page of the ordinance.
“There are things in this ordinance that I’m confused about because it isn’t exactly clear as to what is being defined, or who has authority in certain areas,” he said.
Chitwood said specific areas of concern are how the ordinance addresses special use permits, how signage is regulated, and how various property uses are defined.
His first and immediate suggestion was to construct a separate ordinance governing signage in the unincorporated parts of the county.
He said the language regarding the way signage is defined and controlled in the existing ordinance could result in legal challenges.
“There’s no reason why you should have your zoning ordinance fall under a constitutional challenge, and right now it could,” he said.
He proposed that the county also put together a free standing ordinance governing zoning procedures and standards.
Chitwood said that document could be included as an appendix to the regular zoning ordinance.
Chitwood said the reason for both moves is simple: by putting signage regulations and zoning procedures in documents separate from the body of the zoning ordinance, the committee will be able to review and focus on revisions to the real meat of the zoning ordinance.
Ward said the time spent reviewing and revising the ordinance will be time well spent.
It will ensure that local laws, including the zoning ordinance, are consistent with the county’s vision for the future.
Commissioner Ward said that as chair of the committee, his greatest concern is that the county will be able to protect its agricultural heritage and natural resources while at the same time encouraging thoughtful growth within areas of the county where growth makes sense.
“I think, in general, county residents live out in the county because they want to be left alone,” Ward said. “It’s a way of life they expect to be protected.”
He said he believes the county should continue to push for industrial development within the municipal limits, since the county’s resources for such facilities are limited.
The commissioners and Chitwood agreed that the zoning changes should include plans for overlays on currently zoned areas along highway corridors to plan for future growth.
Zoning overlays identify uses that may be permitted in the future although they are not part of the existing zoning.
The committee agreed to discuss another potential need in the future: regulations governing installation of sewer systems on private property in unincorporated parts of the county.
County manager Matt Denton made it clear that he doesn’t want zoning regulations to include septic tank use, since the county’s health department officials already regulate the installation and maintenance of those systems.
Denton said his main goal is to adopt a timetable for completing the zoning ordinance revisions and putting the revised ordinance to a vote before the full commission.
Chitwood said that all the work would have to be finished by June 30, 2016, since that would be the end of the Regional Commission’s fiscal year and no more project funds would be set aside.
“We also have to consider that along with this, we’ll be working on Polk County’s Comprehensive Plan, and Haralson’s as well,” he said.
“So we’ll be busy on a number of projects between now and next year.”
The zoning revisions will be handled separately from the comprehensive plan.
Chitwood said he expects to complete an outline of next steps sometime this week.
Along with the revisions to the ordinance, Denton said the county’s zoning maps will have to be updated and corrected.
No date was set for the next meeting of the committee, and Chitwood asked that formal meetings only be scheduled when required.
He promised to provide the committee with regular updates on the revision process.