Moratoriums have become a popular government action.

When Covid hit, moratoriums were issued to prevent renters from being evicted from their homes due to non-payment of rent.

Mortgage moratoriums were also enacted to prevent foreclosures on those who didn't pay their home mortgage during Covid.

Those things helped to prop up the economy during Covid, but are now ending. 

Still, moratoriums are popular ways governments attempt to impact economic decisions. Once considered a drastic action, moratoriums have become commonplace.

In May, the Banks County Board of Commissioners put a 90-day moratorium on all new subdivisions in the county, then in August, extended the moratorium until Nov. 9.

In mid-August, the Jackson County Board of Commissioners put a 45-day housing moratorium in place with a hearing slated Sept. 20 to possibly extend the moratorium longer.

What does this say about these how these communities handle growth?

•••

There are two common threads in both the Banks and Jackson housing moratoriums.

Both counties are starting to feel growth pressures more than at any time in their history. That's hit Jackson more than Banks simply because Jackson is closer to Metro Atlanta and has a lot more interstate miles.

But Banks is feeling growth pressure, too. The recent sale of large tracts of undeveloped land amid a speculation boom has some officials concerned. The county has few traditional subdivisions outside of the Chimney Oaks development in Homer, a project that will have around 250 houses when completed.

But for the most part, housing in Banks County is on larger tracts of land, or in small large-lot developments.

Banks leaders are currently trying to update the county's subdivision codes and ordinances, hence the moratorium. 

It's a little different in Jackson County where large-scale, suburban subdivisions are more common. Jackson has well-established subdivision codes and regulations. 

The problem in Jackson hasn't been a lack of codes, it's been a boom in new subdivisions that has impacted traffic and schools.

In both counties, the public has become more anti-growth and vocal in recent months, turning out at planning commission and county government meetings. 

The moratoriums are largely a result of that public pressure, but will they work?

•••

The one thing that the moratoriums won't do is stop growth inside local municipalities. Each town controls its own zoning, so the county moratoriums won't stop development there.

That may not matter too much, however. Commerce has its own anti-growth pressures to deal with. Jefferson has vowed to not annex more land for residential projects, although it has a lot of undeveloped land already in place. Homer is the only town fully inside Banks County and while it's growing, infrastructure constraints may keep its development in check.

Still, moratoriums can have unintended consequences. With fewer new houses coming to market, existing home prices will rise, at least for a time. That might be great if you want to sell your house, but terrible if you're looking to buy.

On the other end, moratoriums depress the value of raw land. If you want to sell your large tract, good luck. Spooked developers won't pursue deals amid a moratorium threat. If your retirement is your property, perhaps inherited from parents or grandparents, you may have to delay for a while. Land that can't be developed won't usually sell.

The moratorium may also squeeze the smaller developers out of a market, opening the door for bigger, mega-developers. The big developers know moratoriums are only temporary and they have the capital to buy and hold land for a while, especially if they're convinced the market is going to grow.

So the end result could be that raw land prices fall and big developers scoop up those acres, shutting out smaller, more local developers.

•••

But moratoriums also send another, unintended signal — failure.

Both Jackson and Banks counties have extensive development codes and zoning codes. Both have comprehensive plans.

But apparently, not comprehensive enough since a moratorium has become necessary.

Where did the counties go wrong? Why aren't their existing codes and planning documents enough to deal with the growth?

Maybe because it really isn't possible for governments to "plan for growth."

That thought is an outlier view.

There is a popular thought that communities can methodically and logically plan all the elements of growth that will protect existing communities.

But what if that's wrong? What if growth, like a wildfire, creates its own weather dynamics?

We'd all like to believe that a community can have "planned" growth that won't impact traffic, or fill up classrooms, or stress existing infrastructure.

Perhaps that's a myth. We live in a market-driven economy where demand drives development, not government agencies. 

The myth is that governments can control growth like pieces in a Monopoly game. For example, members of the public often complain about wanting more restaurants in a community — but governments don't build restaurants —  those come from the private sector.

That's not to say that governments don't affect growth. The decision by local governments  and the state to induce the SK Battery plant in Commerce is the underlying factor that is driving much of the development speculation happing in the area.

And governments can do the opposite, too. In turning down several large proposed warehouse projects, the Braselton area has sent a message that it no longer wants those kinds of developments. The result has been for industrial projects to move further up I-85 to Jefferson and Commerce.

Banks County has also nixed some large-scale projects in recent months, as has Commerce. 

But simply turning down projects isn't a sustainable plan for a community and it isn't "planning for growth." It is, at best, an admission that a government doesn't have a plan  to begin with.

•••

One of the key concerns about the area's growth is the impact of residential developments on local school systems.

You can see that issue in the West Jackson area where a booming population is swamping some schools.

But it's a myth to think that the problem is just the result of growth. A more honest view would have to say that it was poor planning by the county school system 20 years ago. The system's decision to build new school facilities in East Jackson rather than West Jackson is a major factor in the shortage of classrooms on the west side of the county. That decision wasn't made by the current school board or administration, but they have had to live with the consequences and catch the flak.

Likewise in Commerce, many in the community are concerned about growth on the town's small city school system. To hear some tell it, the system is being swamped.

Well, not really.

While it's certainly true that the system has grown a lot in recent years, historically it hasn't grown very much at all.

Here's a fact: The Commerce School System this year has about the same amount of students as it did in 1955.

On the 10th day of school this year, Commerce had 1,785 students enrolled. In 1955, it had 1,795 students.

How could that be?

Between the mid-1950s and late 1970s, Commerce educated most middle and high school students from the east side of the county under a contract with the Jackson County School System, which bused county students into city schools. When that contract ended in 1979 and the busing stopped, enrollment at Commerce collapsed, sending student population numbers down overnight by 28% in the city.

The upshot of that is this: If Commerce could handle 1,795 students in 1955 when it was a much smaller town, it can handle 1,785 students today. Claims that the system is being overrun are an exaggeration. The sky is not falling as some have claimed.

•••

While the moratoriums in Banks and Jackson counties are similar in many ways, they're also different.

In Banks County, the moratorium is in place for a limited time to give county officials a chance to create new subdivision ordinances. But in Jackson County, the moratorium appears to be a desperation move. Officials don't know what else to do to manage residential growth, so they're just going to shut it down.

Maybe that's a good thing, but only if those officials use this time to reevaluate the county's subdivision ordinances and how they might be updated to better regulate an influx of subdivision developments.

Moratoriums alone won't fix the problems; it will only delay them.

Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers. He can be reached at mike@mainstreetnews.com.

(1) comment

Adam Ledbetter

Great article

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