There's a small farm in Commerce near the Banks County line that is almost picture-perfect. The house is well-kept, mature foundation plants abound and all the barns and outbuildings are in great shape.

If you imagine how a small farm and old farmhouse should look, this place would be a Norman Rockwell version of it.

I don't know who owns the farm, but I'm worried about its future — and the future of many other small farms just like it in the area.

Just across the road from this idyllic farm sits the massive SK Battery plant. All around this farm — and its neighbors — is property destined to become industrial. Up the road is the Atlanta Dragway, a large tract of land that is bound to become a warehouse or other commercial/industrial facility.

If you live anywhere along the I-85 corridor in Jackson or Banks counties, a massive amount of development is about to steamroll you. Given the roads, water and sewer infrastructure, that area is going to develop with high-density projects of one kind or another. There's no escape. The train has left the station and it's not turning back.

•••

I've never felt too sorry for those who move into a high-growth area, then complain about it. I've seen it hundreds of times at local government meetings where someone stands up and says, "I moved here to get away from Gwinnett County growth!"

Well, if you move to a new subdivision in an area that is obviously booming, like West Jackson or I-85 near Commerce, then what did you expect?

Nobody can move to a community, then expect the door to be slammed behind them, shutting out everyone else. In fact, it is the exodus from Gwinnett County that is driving a lot of growth up I-85 into Jackson, Banks, Barrow and Hall counties.

While I don't feel too sorry for newcomers who create growth, then complain about it, I do feel sorry for those who've lived on family farms for decades — but who, through no fault of their own, suddenly find themselves surrounded by this onslaught of development. In many cases, those old farms predate I-85. Sometimes, they predate the modern industrial age.

•••

Maybe I shouldn't feel too sorry for all farm owners.

All the growth is making those old farmlands highly-valuable. If you're a second or third generation landowner who doesn't actually farm, or particularly want to work the land, now's a helluva time to cash out.

Large landowners can get a whopping price for their property if they're in the right location near roads, water and sewer. 

That's what's happening all around the area; old tracts of farmland are being sold for development because prices are high, driven even higher by speculation surrounding the SK Battery plant. 

We've seen that recently with proposed subdivisions in the Commerce area. One family-farm owner recently spoke in opposition to a proposed subdivision just outside the Commerce city limits, saying he plans to farm for a long time: "I'm 58, but my family lives into the 90s, so I plan to be there a long time," he said of his family farm that would abut the development. He doesn't want to look at the backside of subdivision houses across his pasture — I don't blame him.

In Banks County, a rising tide of opposition to growth has swelled with people showing up at various county government meetings to encourage leaders to keep the county mostly rural farmland. One person said the county is "pristine" and should be kept that way.

In Jefferson, one city leader was even more blunt. In voting against a subdivision, councilman Cody Cain said the way to stop farms from being developed into subdivisions is for people to stop selling their farms in the first place,

“If you really want to stop it (growth), don’t let it come down to five people,” he said, referring to the five-member city council. “What you need to do is not sell your farms.”

He's right in a technical sense.

But if you're a landowner — especially an older landowner whose children have moved away — and someone offers you a check with a lot of zeros on the end, selling the family farm becomes an easy way to fund retirement. 

If you can make more money selling than you can keeping the property, and jettison having to pay property taxes on land you may no longer really farm, then the logical course is to sell to the highest bidder.

•••

All of this isn't just an academic issue to me.

A couple of years ago, Alex and I bought an old 1880s homestead in northern Banks County, a small farm surrounded by larger farms and empty tracts of land. While not far from the 4-lane Hwy. 441, it's on a dead-end dirt road, emerging from a canopy of trees.

The Christmas song that goes "over the river and through the woods to grandmaw's house we go" pretty well describes it.

At one time, the owners of this farm had assembled over 400 acres of land. But over the decades, it got passed down to children and divided. Our plot of the original homestead is just six acres, much smaller than what the original owners had in 1880.

We've spent the last couple of years trying to wrestle the little farm from the brambles that had engulfed the house and barns, remodeling the house into a livable home and clearing the land for a small farm.

We did all of that for many reasons, one of which was to escape the creeping suburbanization and development coming up I-85. 

And yet, there is no real escape from all of it.

A 5-acre tract around the corner was recently rezoned for a commercial business. A couple of miles down the road, another tract is currently proposed to be rezoned for a car dealership.

You can't hide from the creeping growth.

•••

Perhaps even of more concern for Banks County is the recent sale of a huge tract of over 1,700 acres in the middle of the county.

That tract fronts Hwy. 441 near Hwy. 51, just north of Homer. It abuts the Chambers R&B Landfill on its backside. It also abuts a 700+ acre tract on Bennett Rd. that was controversial last year when owners attempted to have it rezoned for an industrial park.

The 1,700-acre tract was marketed for industrial or residential development and undoubtedly, the new owners will want to develop it to payback their investment (the asking price was over $6 million.)

Currently, there's not a lot of other very large tracts for sale in Banks County, but if that mega-tract gets development approval, it could open the door for other large-tracts to hit the market, too.

Development is a cascade where one action ripples outward creating new pressures of growth; and sometimes, creating unintended consequences.

•••

There is no easy solution to all of this.

On the one hand, living in a community that has growth is better than living in a place where the community is dying from a lack of growth. Go to Nebraska or other areas of the Midwest where communities are wasting away as people leave for more opportunities elsewhere.

But growth that is too fast and too big is like an astroid hitting land, obliterating the area and spraying mayhem far beyond the impact zone.

That's what Northeast Georgia, especially Jackson and Banks counties, is facing.

The impact of SK Battery is spreading far beyond its ground zero in Commerce, creating a land-rush as speculators buy up large tracts in hopes of future development.

That is leading many in the public to turn to their local government officials to put the brakes on this development. Rezoning hearings are going to get louder and more contentious as the public demands governments "control" the growth.

But the reality is this: Government agencies can only do so much to regulate development. Landowners have the right to sell their property; developers have legal rights to development it within the parameters of the law.

This is the way capitalism works. The free market decides what happens to undeveloped land, not the government.

Jefferson's Cody Cain is right: If you don't want growth, don't sell the farm to developers.

If you do, the end result may be a wealthier local economy, but there's a price to be paid in the loss of old farms and the aesthetics of a rural environment.

And once gone, it's gone forever.

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

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