I remember before the housing crash in 2008, there were two groups in Madison County with differing views on the future of the county. One was Property Owners for Common Sense Growth (POCSG), and the other was MCCEC (I can’t recall the exact name and didn’t find it in a quick search of files, but maybe someone can help me, something with Madison County and economic). In short, POCSG was primarily concerned with rural integrity, and MCCEC included developers and didn’t want to see projects stifled by “not-in-my-backyard” sentiments.
There was an update to the county comprehensive land use plan around this time, and it included crowded public hearings with people primarily speaking about the need to maintain the rural character of the county.
Growth anxieties were real. The housing market was booming. Anybody could get a loan for a house. Of course, we all know the story. The mortgage house of cards collapsed, and the economy tanked, wiping away growth worries in this county for years. Comprehensive land use updates in Madison County have been snooze-fests ever since.
But that has changed. The eastward drift of Atlanta is getting closer, and anxiety about the county losing its rural character is evident in the renewed emphasis on the county’s comprehensive land use plan.
The process of updating that plan is revving up, and there will be plenty to report in coming months.
I look at this process with two things in mind, the actual plan and the politics that will come after it.
Land use planning is necessary and important. If you travel, you can sometimes see where there has been forethought and where there hasn’t. If land is not treated with a big-picture objective, then growth is completely scattershot and you lose a lot, particularly the overall feel of a place, which ends up hurting values and making people not want to be there. That’s why zoning is important. And that’s why a land use plan, a blueprint, is necessary, too. You want to be able to say what areas of the county are appropriate for particular uses. It’s hard to maintain agriculture without that sort of thinking when growth pressures arise.
County leaders and citizens will soon get busy trying to map the particulars of this vision. Decisions will be made on allowable density in certain areas. Lines will be drawn and colors assigned for industrial, agriculture and residential areas. There may be disputes on where the lines are drawn, or there may be indifference from many that only turns to emotion when actual projects are proposed near them.
This comprehensive planning process exists within the “in theory” or “in principle” realm. And some pragmatic people among us might scoff at “in theory” or “in principle,” but you need that kind of thought. Without it, you are a lot closer to “in disgust” than with it.
But there’s a reason a lot of comprehensive plans in counties have ended up on shelves gathering dust and never used as a blueprint for growth. And it is the friction that inevitably happens when theory meets the practical.
A county plan is a nice thing to have for land. But any plan comes up against a formidable foe, a land market. This can be controlled until it can’t. People want money. And if they are offered substantial money to sell, a lot (not all) will do it. If that scattering of sales turns into a wave, then all the economic forces — the land values rising, the hardship of paying taxes on such land, the desire to help out the family — these things overpower government land-use planning. That’s happened in many counties surrounding Atlanta over the years. Many property owners sell when they are presented with a sweet deal. And farming areas are transformed into something else.
Of course, a plan is important. But what matters more than that is the continued alliance of at least three people at the county commissioners’ table in enforcing a plan once it’s set.
This seems pretty easy to maintain at the start when the people at the table were instrumental in establishing the plan. There’s the initial feeling of this is truly “our plan.”
But as divisions arise on proposals, which they inevitably do, then candidates are born. Somebody will be ticked about what happened at the BOC table, about how sticking to the plan wasn’t actually the right decision. That person may get a seat at the table. Or, a commissioner who is committed to the plan might leave the position for one reason or another, or get defeated by someone who doesn’t have strong feelings about the plan and can be more easily swayed to break it.
Basically, time and contentious issues can begin to act against a plan that starts off feeling really solid. A BOC that is devoted to a plan can lose two or three members and then be against that same plan within an election cycle.
That’s why it’s actually citizens who make the difference. And they have to do so politically. They have to repeatedly make it clear that they want a plan enforced. There has to be a political consequence for a board member who breaks from the plan (as in losing the next election). If a plan is going to work, it has to be a hard rule, not a suggested guide for what is allowable, but an actual tool of enforcement by county leaders. And at least three board members must believe this at all times, or else it falls apart.
Beyond the politics, those supporting the plan must also hope their neighbors aren’t swept up in any selling wave if the money gets too good.
Yes, the upcoming land use planning process is important, but its political aftermath will determine whether there’s a real plan on the table or just more paper.
Oh yes, POCSG and MCCEC. I humored myself by thinking of it as Madison County’s Hatfield and McCoys at the time. Maybe I just wanted to use that as a headline. But I never remember the debates getting fierce enough to call it such a thing.
Let’s keep it that way going forward, whatever debates we have on local growth.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.