How will Madison County grow over the next five-to-10 years and how can county leaders best help direct that growth?
That was the question a group of 35 or so officials from the county, city, industrial authority, school system, chamber of commerce, planning and zoning boards, along with several concerned citizens began to discuss July 13 as they met to hear a presentation from the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission (NEGRC) about performing an update on the county’s comprehensive plan, which was last updated in 2017.
But first of all, a number of the county’s representatives expressed concern over whether the NEGRC is even the organization best suited to lead them through the process, as leaders see rapid growth moving toward Madison County from surrounding counties, particularly from Jackson County, and feel that the county’s infrastructure and school system are not prepared for how quickly things may change.
County commissioner Derek Doster said while he was in full support of a meeting to kick things off, he is concerned that the NEGRC had not provided a scope of work and was not sure they were on the same page with county leaders.
NEGRC representative John Devine agreed that the last plan in 2017 was lacking in depth and scope and said he was also disappointed in it. County commission chairman Todd Higdon noted that the person who developed the previous plan was no longer with the NEGRC.
The county has until June 30, 2022, essentially a year, to put together a new plan per state requirements.
Chairman Higdon told Devine he wanted the NEGRC to “sell” what they plan to do for the county as it looks to the future.
“I don’t know that my commissioners are 100 percent sold on the regional commission doing this plan,” he said. “We need to know why we would want to sign a contract, why we would want to go through with that…we need full confidence we picked the right team.”
County commissioners discussed the upcoming update to the county comprehensive land use plan at their July 12 board meeting the night before. At that meeting, board members talked about potentially having a firm help the county develop a “Unified Development Code” (UDC), which a more detail-oriented planning process instead of simply updating the existing comprehensive plan. The UDC would be more expensive and more time-consuming than the standard comprehensive plan update through the regional commission, but commissioners talked about how it could help set clearer definitions on what is appropriate in what place. They feel this a particularly pressing need at this point.
Several members discussed how farmers, particularly those not involved in intense large-scale farming that covers large acreage, will find it more beneficial to sell their land to developers for a profit than to continue farming and they expressed concern that the county will lose its place as a leader in agriculture production in the state.
County commissioner Dennis Adams, noting how most of the people present were longtime residents of the county, pointed out that the people that will be moving into the county over the next few years will bring their own ideas about where they want to live and how they want the county to be.
“(Hwy) 72 has changed now, it’s stagnant, Jackson County in the northwest corner will bring an influx of people not related to anybody here, they’ll change the voting, change the sense of community and those things (community history/agricultural significance) won’t mean anything to them,” he said, adding that he’d like to see leaders focus not just on growth, but also on preservation.
Indeed, it was just a few years ago that county leaders focused most of their energies into working to develop a plan to handle commercial, industrial and residential growth in the southern end of the county around Hull, particularly along the four-lane Hwy. 72, which runs parallel to the CSX railway. The county had plans for sewer lines in that area which have yet to come to fruition.
These days, several new large industries currently under construction in Commerce and Jackson County, particularly the SK battery plant, are slated to bring thousands of employees into the area, with many of them likely looking to make their home in Madison County, particularly along and around Hwy. 98 in the northwest corner of the county.
Superintendent Michael Williams noted that Ila Elementary is currently the oldest school building in the system.
IDA member Josh Chandler said he did not want leaders to spend time looking back at previous missteps and mistakes, but rather he would like to see everyone focused on the county’s future.
Planning and zoning board member Conolus Scott said he didn’t feel any plan would work without a “full buy in” from everyone.
And it’s not just in that area that the county can plan to see growth, as was pointed out by Comer Mayor Jody Blackmon, who noted that his city has approved 60 new residences this year alone, which will stress the current water and sewer infrastructure currently in place.
“We are beginning to experience some of what Danielsville has been experiencing,” he said.
Scott pointed out that there is no “bad growth” because it depends on who you ask, but farmer Russell Moon disagreed, saying starter homes were “bad growth” because they can’t begin to pay for what they will cost in services.
“Homes will never support the debt that comes with it,” Higdon said, adding he could see both Scott and Moon’s sides of the issue. “It’s a Catch 22, I get it. You have to (have residents for businesses) because you can’t sell hamburgers to nobody.” He said the problem is that smaller farmers will sell their land to developers because they can make a much larger profit that they can ever make in working that small farm. In turn, the land will be rezoned from A1 (agricultural) to residential and it will meet zoning requirements so commissioners will have no choice but to approve new developments as they spring up.
“My biggest concern is the shift in where the houses are going,” Higdon added, saying he believed the growth was coming so fast that the school system is already behind the eight ball on school expansion.
“We are the bedroom community,” Higdon stressed. “There’s no way we can get around it…this (planning process) is hard, there’s a reason it takes a year or more.”
He went on to say he was impressed with the turnout and the passion of those who had shown up and he thanked Chamber Director Anna Strickland for organizing the meeting.