Coweta’s commissioners have soundly rejected the high-density Newnan Ring Infill District plan, but want to move forward with adding higher density development near cities.
Local attorney George Rosenzweig came up with the Newnan Ring plan, which would have allowed 2.5 homes per acre in a district created by drawing a circle around the city of Newnan. The current maximum is 1.6 acres per house.
Though the commissioners acknowledged a need to have higher density development around the cities – particularly as a way to reduce annexation by the city of Newnan – they don’t think the “ring” is the best way to achieve it.
“I really am not a fan of the circle,” said Commissioner Rodney Brooks. It makes some areas high density that really don’t need to be, he said.
The ring was drawn around the geographical center of the city and picked up a large swath of property south and east of the city.
“There are some areas in this circle that there is no way in this world I would consider … suited for a change to a high-density area,” said Commissioner Tim Lassetter – particularly Gordon Road.
A multiyear discussion of the county’s rural character led to last year’s land development guidance system. Before the LDGS, all residential land in Coweta was under the same rules. The LDGS creates different zones, where allowable density is based on a point system. Points are assigned to property based on proximity to services, infrastructure and denser development, and three tiers were proposed. Rules for the two lower density areas were approved in March, but phase II, for the higher density, hasn’t been presented yet.
Community Development Director Jon Amason gave the county staff report on Rosenzweig’s proposal.
The county’s proposed higher density in Phase II would have required some sort of commission approval for each higher density development. But The Newnan Ring would allow higher density development “by right” for any property within the ring, with no need for commission approval. It would also allow large, dense developments to be built along small roads, Amason said.
A plea for public outreach
There was no public outreach when crafting the Newnan Ring. Moving to higher density residential is a big step and needs an involved and thorough planning effort, Amason said.
The county has just begun working on the 2021 update to the comprehensive plan and comprehensive transportation plan, and the draft plan is due by July, Amason said. The comprehensive plan update process will incorporate several public outreach efforts.
Amason asked the commissioners to allow the staff to develop the high-density plan during the comprehensive plan process.
The challenges of COVID-19 slowed the department’s process of putting together Phase II of the land development guidance system, Amason said. But staff have now begun to explore a framework for a “planned development program” overlay district.
That PDP overlay would provide for high-density residential and high-density, mixed-use developments that align with the current point map. It would allow for some flexibility by allowing high-density development in “locations that make sense,” Amason said.
“Staff would respectfully ask the board for the opportunity to expand on this Phase II project,” he said. Staff like to have a work session with the commissioners and incorporate the project into the public outreach meetings for the comprehensive plan update. The work session would be a chance for public input and a way for county staff to fully understand what the goals of the commissioners and the county will be, he said.
Study – or act
Coweta County has been studying growth for a long time, Rosenzweig said. The county can’t control growth through annexations. And techniques to slow the growth such as requiring large lot sizes and not allowing residential sewer aren’t working, he said.
“In fact they’ve been counterproductive.”
Rosenzweig said he felt his plan was very well thought out and that it’s time for the county to do something – not just talk about doing something.
“We’ve studied and studied and studied and studied. We’ve had committees and plan proposals and ideas, and nothing’s been adopted,” he said.
Competing with annexation
Several people, most connected to the development industry, spoke in favor of the plan. Some expressed concern about the county losing tax revenue from annexation. However, contrary to popular belief, the county doesn’t lose out on property tax revenue when land is annexed. Land continues to be taxed by the county whether or not it is located in a city. City population growth, however, does impact the distribution of sales tax revenues.
Density will help the county compete with Newnan’s annexations, said Rusty Russell. “If there is any plan that we can come up with that can compete with annexations, that’s what I’m for. The growth is going to come anyway.”
Engineer George Harper said many of the other counties he works in have planned development zoning options which allow more flexibly for designers and builders. Smaller lots allow more opportunities for open space and protection of streams and wetlands. They also mean fewer streets need to be built.
Emily Ray, who owns a small business, spoke in favor of a controlled increase in density. Different density options increase housing choices and can make home ownership easier to obtain.
“Resisting growth does not protect our county; it harms it,” she said. Not everyone can afford or maintain a large piece of property. And allowing more density in some areas helps keep development away from more rural areas, she said.
Craig Jackson is a real estate agent and said his customers want smaller lot sizes – and they often want smaller home sizes. Many don’t want a septic system.
For land that is near the city limits, “it would make sense to try to match what the city is offering,” he said.
Commissioner Elect John Reidelbach said that he moved to Coweta from California, where he had a zero-lot line front yard and could touch his neighbor’s house.
“I don’t want that kind of growth,” he said. But “we as a community, as developers, as citizens, need to come together with a plan. We’ve got to get a plan to smartly grow this county. I’m not against high density as much as I am against chaotic high density,” he said. But if the county doesn’t come up with a plan, there will be so much annexation.
“So let’s figure out how to make high density work in our county,” Reidelbach said.
People move to Coweta because they like it
Several Cowetans also spoke in opposition.
Aubrey Hester said that the county has already spent a lot of money on road projects, and higher density will mean more traffic. “When you start putting two houses-plus on one-acre lots and you put them in an area that’s already got a traffic problem – a growing traffic problem – you’re asking for trouble. And I don’t think we want to do that,” he said.
And apparently, people like what Coweta County is offering, because “we are building houses as fast as we can build them, and they seem to be selling as fast as we can build them.”
Bianca Baxter also opposed the high-density development on the southern portion of the ring. The infrastructure is not sufficient, she said.
Baxter said she moved to Coweta from Marietta and wanted a more rural feel. And that’s what a lot of people want when they move to Coweta.
“They don’t want to be sitting on top of each other; they want something different. They want space. If they wanted to move to Marietta, they can move to Marietta,” she said.
“Do we want to be just an extension of the greater city of Atlanta? Or do we want to maintain our rural feel?” she asked.
Jill Daniel said she doesn’t want Coweta to be like Atlanta. “Let’s make a good plan, and let’s fix the roads,” she said.
A plan in place by summer?
After public comment, Brooks said he would like to see the county expand the point system, including adding two points for tracts that touch the city limits. Land with the highest point values could qualify for “enhanced density” with homes on quarter-acre lots. But those developments would require board approval – because every piece of land is unique.
Lassetter said he’d like to have county staff start working on a plan that could be ready by the second quarter of 2021, at the latest.
Commissioner Bob Blackburn said he doesn’t want Coweta to become “little Gwinnett.”
“This is exactly the road they went down to become Gwinnett,” he said.
Georgia law makes it very difficult for counties to stop annexation by their cities, but this year Coweta objected for the first time since that law was put in place. The objection was because a high-density development in Newnan would impact intersections on Parks Road – which are the county’s responsibility. The county had asked the developers to contribute $300,000 toward two needed roundabouts. The developers offered $60,000.
“You can’t even do a turn lane for $60,000,” Poole said. “I don’t like high density at all. But the way the law is set up right now, we can’t stop it,” he said of annexation.
There have been very few major transportation projects in the past several years, but that’s not slowing annexation, Poole said.
“We’ve got to do something to slow the cities down,” he said.
Traffic problems are growing, and will only get worse with higher population. But Coweta residents overwhelmingly struck down a proposed 1 percent sales tax that would have funded many needed road projects.
The failure of the Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax “really set us back,” Poole said. “I understand it was y’all’s will, but we need that one penny to help pay for these roads.”
Residential development doesn’t pay for itself – it costs the county money. “The houses we build here in the county basically don’t pay for what they cost for roads and everything else,” Poole said.
The commissioners voted to deny the Newnan Ring plan but to ask staff to continue working on another plan for higher density, incorporating the ideas and comments from the commissioners and the public.