Posted December 9th 2011 at 10:56 am by
in Citizen Planning in Newton County, Georgia

Planning for Growth in a Recession

In 2007, Newton County, Georgia was one of the fastest growing counties in the country.  By 2008, it also lead in foreclosures.

It was no coincidence that this county, or any of the others like it, made both lists. In hindsight, it seems almost obvious that a housing boom overwhelming schools, roads, water lines, and other public services would not be sustainable. Millions of people across the country lost homes they bought in the housing bubble and couldn’t afford, and now cities and counties are struggling to support housing stock they can’t afford.

Unlike most of those counties sprawled and struggling in 2008, Newton County was developing an aggressive growth management plan. How has the foreclosure crisis and recession affected that planning?

As new home construction backed off its breakneck pace, overwhelmed public agencies everywhere stifled a sigh of relief. The relentless urgency to build infrastructure became an opportunity to catch up.

The silver lining of the Great Recession may be bought time. Newton County is using its bought time to implement the transferable development program ordinances and other measures to make the compact communities a reality.

Of course, as the struggle of the early 2000s fades from memory, and the desire to attract new development arises, there’s a chance the Leadership Collaborative and its process could lose momentum. The urgency is gone. Some people in public office now weren’t around in the days of overcrowded classroom trailers.

Mike Hopkins, Director of the Newton County Water and Sewerage Authority, aptly compares this to a drought. When water is scarce, the need to conserve is obvious. But when the rain returns, how do you convince people to conserve for the next dry spell?

There is also the very real possibility that the next wave of growth won’t even resemble that of the 2000s. Look at California – decades of suburban sprawl eventually forged a wave of New Urbanists willing to trade McMansions for shorter commutes. “Drive ’til you qualify” may not fly with lenders and developers looking to avoid the catastrophe of 2008. Judicious investors may prefer a community with honest character, walkable streets, and a mixture of uses – something Newton County hopes to create in its compact communities.

Surprisingly, the party politics circumventing cooperation in Washington D.C. haven’t infiltrated Newton County’s growth management planning. Jonathan Paschal, President of Newton County Smart Growth, offers an anecdote to this point:

The Leadership Collaborative, whose members are elected and appointed officials, has certainly seen its ranks change over the years – 70 percent of its members are new since the process began. But new leaders keep coming to meetings, getting involved, and leading the discussion towards growth management.

Kay Lee, Director of the Center for Community Preservation and Planning, gives credit to the caliber of local elected officials. In an arena where business experience carries a lot of weight, many politicians recognize the fiscal advantage of the compact community plan. “They realize it’s just good business sense.”

Post by Ruth Miller.

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