In 2007, Newton County was already in the top ten fastest growing counties in the country and struggling to serve 60,000 people, but its existing zoning allowed over 350,000 people. This shocking statistic was the spark that accelerated the 2050 Comprehensive Land Use Plan, and it was delivered by an undergraduate student.
Newton County, a suburban/rural county outside of Atlanta, has an aggressive growth management strategy. Most briefly, the strategy could be described with three parts:
A place: The Center for Community Preservation and Planning is a neutral place for community leaders to come together.
A process: The Leadership Collaborative, the elected and appointed officials in the county’s agencies, meet regularly to assess their ideas and goals. Through the Center, this group developed a comprehensive growth plan for 2050.
A plan: The 2050 plan designates new compact communities that will accommodate 88 percent of future residents in quality communities on just 30 percent of the land. The rest of the undeveloped county will be preserved as farmland or conservation areas.
Public agencies are working together to limit new infrastructure to these compact communities. The water and sewer authority alone expects to save tens of millions of dollars by focusing system expansion. A program to allow rural landowners to unbundle and sell their development rights, increasing density in designated areas and preserving open spaces, is in the works. The cities and county are working with the school system to identify and acquire sites for schools in these future neighborhoods, circumventing a process that usually leaves schools on the cheapest most distant land available.
Newton County is one of the few communities to voluntarily embark on the process of developing a comprehensive plan. A good comprehensive plan doesn’t just catalog existing zoning, but prescribes land use patterns that will create and protect communities over decades. Creating and implementing a good comprehensive plan is also expensive. On top of hundreds of hours of policy, technical, and legal analysis, coordinating infrastructure across jurisdictions requires enormous political capital. Effective comprehensive planning is a daunting challenge.
The rapid housing growth around Atlanta in the late 1990s and early 2000s provided ample motivation. Newton County is three counties away from Atlanta, and watched as small town after small town fell, seemingly overnight, into strip malls and congested county roads. When the unbridled growth began seeping into the western edge of Newton County, eventually earning it a spot in the top five fastest growing counties in the Unites States, decision-makers began asking what they could do to manage the growth:
Can growth be managed? How can we grow as a community but preserve our quality of life? How do we create new neighbors, instead of just importing new residents?
To plan, the county needed planners. Without the expertise to even describe what was happening or what they wanted, community leaders invited landscape architecture and city planning students to join the effort.
Does it make sense to pay a consultant to perform a fiscal impact analysis? Have a student do a rudimentary analysis for less than a tenth the cost. If the study looks promising, then pursue a more formal study. Summer, fall, and spring research interns cycled through the Center.
Randy Vinson, Director of Planning for the countyseat city Covington, worked with the University of Georgia (UGA) to create the Metropolitan Design Studio and dormitory in a new traditional neighborhood development blocks away from the Center. Since 2005, about a dozen UGA Landscape Architecture students have come to live and work in Newton County each spring.
In their first semester, the students developed a master plan for the City of Oxford. Impressed community leaders invited a new class, and the Center divided the standard comprehensive planning process into semester-long projects. In the following years, each group of students received a task – an overlay district, a master plan, or a connectivity study – that fit into the county’s larger process.
In addition to the UGA Metropolitan Design Studio, students from Georgia Tech used GIS to identify parcels for conservation. A class from Oxford College documented dozens of historic and cultural landmarks. These presentations will be a wide presentation on the comprehensive plan called Celebrate Our Home. Right now, students from the UGA law school are researching the ordinances that will implement the comprehensive plan. Even a few MIT students travel to Newton County during each winter break to share and observe strategic planning and community engagement best practices.
The student work is rarely final or authoritative. Professional consultants are brought in to complete final critical analysis, but the Center has built a strong relationship with academic planners and designers. Professor Emeritus of the Georgia Tech College of Architecture, Randy Roak, lent his credibility to Newton County’s plans. Four interns have returned to the Center to consult on specific projects. One alumni of the UGA studio, Adam Kirk, is now a full time GIS analyst for the Center. If a bunch of maps in this small town can attract some of the best minds in the country, new and old elected officials are that much more willing to keep coming back to the table.
What do the students get out of it? In addition to real experience in collaborative planning and the occasional lesson in home canning, students see the public process at its most sincere. Many officials in Newton County have almost ten years of planning experience, and most new leaders are keen to get up to speed. Absent (most) politics, the county’s leaders are ready to listen. Ideas are welcomed here.
What began with an instinct to preserve a small town feel has grown into a plan that will focus 88 percent of the county’s future population into quality communities on just 30 percent of the county’s land. How did this plan get to where it is today, and why does it have the support of every municipality, the county, the water and sewer authority, the school board, the Chamber of Commerce, and several other agencies and organizations?
The plan started a decade ago, but it gained significant momentum in 2007 with a student analysis and a game. In full disclosure, I was that student. In 2007, I, a sleep-deprived and stressed out MIT undergraduate in my final semester, ran a quick build out scenario with ESRI ArcMap, a common spatial analysis software. Stepping through the maximum allowable population that could fit into each zoning type with all the existing water and sewer service, I estimated the maximum population currently allowed in the county. The Center flew me to the annual meeting of the Leadership Collaborative, the assembled elected and appointed county leadership, to present my findings: this rapidly developing county struggling to serve 60,000 people has zoned itself to accept over 350,000 people.
That afternoon, the leaders broke out into groups to play a game of “allocate the density”. A consensus quickly appeared: without concentrating some density, the all unique characteristics of the county would be eroded into one monotonous suburb. Three working groups, with members from all jurisdictions and agencies, had already been meeting regularly since 2006, but the results of the game gave these groups a new sense of agency and expediency.
These groups continue to meet at the Center once a month, implementing the decisions and goals of the Leadership Collaborative.
• The finance group worked with the stakeholder agencies to align every public fiscal calendar in the county. This seemingly small modification enables agencies to compete together for externally funded projects and partner more effectively on internal county projects.
• The communications group created a process that allows multiple jurisdictions to speak as a united community. When a state or regional plan conflicts with local strategic growth policies, the collective county can issue its response and recommendation.
• The development group is working its way through the county’s infrastructure, finding efficiencies in collaboration and a long view. After reigning in sewer and water line expansion, the group moved on to school siting. The school system legally can’t buy land for schools until the student population exists in the county. Schools need to buy land that is cheap. These conditions force school construction away from urban areas, driving development into undeveloped land and exacerbating sprawl. The School System needs support from other public agencies to identify and set aside prospective school sites in advance.
The development group realized it shouldn’t stop with schools — almost any form of public infrastructure drives development. Working from the game boards created at the Leadership Collaborative, where should new density and infrastructure be focused? The development group designed a refinement process, and the Center used students to conduct the necessary analyses. Continuously increasing the fidelity of the density maps, the development group created a final map, which the Leadership Collaborative resolved to enact in early 2010.
Today, the 2050 Comprehensive Plan identifies five new compact communities that will need to be zoned to allow more growth, and large areas of timber and farmland to be conserved. The participating agencies have already committed to coordinate new infrastructure, including schools, libraries, and sewer service, to these areas. Next, the Leadership Collaborative and the Center are preparing to widely promote the full plan through a series of community town halls called Celebrate Our Home.
As more people hear about the 2050 Plan, the Center anticipates more members of the public will stop by and ask questions, just as elected officials began doing a decade ago. The Center is preparing its illustrative main room for a new audience and readying its staff and volunteers to answer more drop-in questions. The general feeling among the Center’s staff is unchanged: welcome to the table, let’s get started.
Ruth Miller is a masters student in the UC Berkeley Department of City and Regional Planning. She grew up in Newton County, Georgia, received her undergraduate degree from the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning in 2007, and remains engaged with the Newton County Center for Community Preservation and Planning.