Madison County Opinion...

JANUARY 7, 2004


Column
By Frank Gillispie
The Madison County Journal
January 7, 2004

Frankly Speaking

County needs railway overpass
The United States Census Bureau has projected that Madison County’s population will double in the next 30 years. We are expected to have a population of over 50,000 people. That means we will have twice the traffic, twice the number of homes and twice the number of kids in school. We can expect more crime, more welfare recipients and more domestic problems.
This dramatic increase in population will challenge our county planners to find places to put these people while preserving as much of the county’s rural landscape as possible.
Most of our planners and politicians have expressed the desire to direct this growth to the southwest corner of the county, the Hull/Dogsboro/Sanford area. This area is already the most heavily populated section of the county. It is located near Athens, where most county residents go for work and shopping. The newly purchased and expanded water system is the first step toward providing infrastructure needed to attract development to the area and away from the agricultural eastern sections of the county.
There are several problems with the concept of directing growth to the southwest area of Madison County. One key problem is access to the areas south of the CSX railroad. Several developments have been proposed for this area. It includes the land recently purchased by the industrial authority for water supply and an industrial park.
Traffic to this area is frequently disrupted by parked trains. CSX operates a single-track line here, and when two trains are meeting, one has to pull onto a siding to allow the other to pass. Train traffic is heavy on this line. It connects to the Port of Savannah and is used to transport containers from Savannah to Atlanta for distribution. Other trains haul coal to Savannah for their power plant. Others haul cars and trucks, chemicals, forest products and military cargoes.
Often the parked train has to wait for oncoming trains for an hour or more. Current rules require that the parked train be separated at crossings to allow traffic to flow, but that is not always done. Even when no trains are parked, the shear volume of rail traffic disrupts road traffic and creates hazards to local drivers.
For the last several years, Colbert councilman Julian Davis has called for the construction of an overpass somewhere between Colbert and Hull that would give drivers unobstructed access to the Southern part of Madison County. In my opinion, it is time to give his idea serious consideration.
If we are going to pack another 25,000 people into Madison County, especially in Southwest Madison County, we are going to have to utilize the area south of the railroad. As the population of the area grows, and if the industrial park is developed, the number of vehicles crossing the railroad will greatly increase. That will also increase the chances of collisions between trains and road vehicles, the number of people who are obstructed by parked trains and access to the area by emergency vehicles. Trying to utilize the current crossings to accommodate this kind of traffic is nothing more than a disaster waiting to happen.
Another 25,000 people will come to Madison County in the next 30 years. We have to start now getting ready for them. A railroad overpass to give unrestricted access to South Madison County is an essential part of this preparation.
Frank Gillispie is founder of The Madison County Journal. His e-mail address is frankgillispie@charter.net.

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Column
By Zach Mitcham
The Madison County Journal
January 7, 2004

In the Meantime

BOC, zoning board divided over recent proposals
Do you get the sense that our county commissioners and zoning board aren’t on the same page? (Or perhaps more appropriately, the same map?)
Consider that the BOC has reversed the planning commission’s vote on development matters for six straight months.
Here’s a brief review:
1.) In July, planners recommended approval of a proposed 30-home subdivision off Hwy. 98 next to Lord and Stephens Funderal home. The BOC voted 4-0 to deny the request the following week.
2.) In August, the industrial authority proposed rezoning approximately 33 acres off James Holcomb Road from agricultural to industrial for a proposed business park. The planning commission said “no” to the park plans; the BOC said “yes.”
3.) In September, the planning commission recommended denial of a request to keep a Black’s Creek Church Road restaurant open because it did not conform to the county zoning ordinance. The BOC voted that it could remain open.
4.) In October, the two groups tackled a truly significant county growth matter, a proposed shopping center at the intersection of Hwy. 98 and Hwy. 172, and again, they disagreed, with the planning commission voting for the development and the commissioners turning it down.
5.) In November, the zoning board voted to allow a man to upgrade and expand an existing mobile home park to approximately 40 homes on Hardman Morris Road. The BOC unanimously opposed the plans.
6.) In December, the planning commission recommended approval of a proposed 46-home subdivision on Lem Edwards Road. But the commissioners voted against the development the following week.
Zoning is not a math equation with a hard and true answer. There are certainly shades of gray, complexities, pros and cons, valid reasons to disagree. When we talk zoning, we are talking the future of our land. Each of us has our own hopes and fears in that regard, and they aren’t all the same.
So the fact that the zoning board and the BOC aren’t seeing eye-to-eye on every issue is not in itself a cause for alarm. Some would also point out that the zoning board and BOC usually agree, at least on non-controversial matters.
Likewise, you can’t pigeonhole one group as pro-growth and the other anti-development. Consider that the planning commission opposed the business park plans and voted in favor of the shopping center proposal, while the BOC favored exactly the opposite.
Nevertheless, you’d be asleep if you didn’t notice a certain rift between the two boards as evidenced in the pattern of reversals on heated matters in recent months. Commissioner Bruce Scogin even said during a recent meeting that he couldn’t understand some of the planning commission’s recent decisions.
So there is some division in the thinking between the two groups.
When contentious zoning matters come before the commissioners, I now find myself expecting the BOC to flip flop on what the zoning board recommends.
For six months in a row, the headline from the planning commission meeting is rendered inconsequential a week or two later, such as "Planners approve Hwy. 98 subdivision" (the lead head in the July 16 issue) versus "BOC shoots down subdivision plans" (the dominate headline in the July 30 issue).
I admit, I can’t pinpoint an answer for the incongruence.
I simply think it’s worth pointing out that two groups who are instrumental in determining how the county grows are struggling to find common ground on major development matters.
And as we look ahead to growth issues of 2004, it’s worth paying attention to the relationship between these two boards. Ideally, the BOC should determine the big picture, the broad scope of county growth, then the planning commission should do the homework on determining whether specific developments fit that broader plan.
If planning commission decisions are consistently reversed, don’t zoning board proceedings seem like a waste of time? Is the central purpose of the planning commission as an advisory board not undermined if the BOC simply doesn’t trust its findings?
On a related note, doesn’t it seem necessary to determine a clearer definition of the comprehensive land use plan? Is it a strict rulebook on growth or a mere guide to offer suggestions? Has it not been used as both in recent years?
I don’t mean to blow the recent trend of reversals out of proportion.
Perhaps I’m wrong. Maybe the flip flopping really signifies nothing at all.
Or perhaps the reversals are emblematic of a collective growth bipolarism, where our leaders, along with many of us, have deeply divided feelings about what’s right for the future of our land.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal.


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