Georgia’s communities may lose ground in planning for their future

Maria Saporta –
Since when has planning become a dirty word?
An effort is underway in the Georgia legislature to remove a state requirement on local governments to develop comprehensive plans for their communities.
If passed, this legislation — Senate Bill 86 — could send Georgia back decades to a time when growth could occur in a totally haphazard way with few guideposts on what is the best way to grow a community.
Unfortunately, two organizations that should know better — the Georgia Municipal Association and the Association County Commissioners of Georgia — have endorsed this legislation, presumably pushed by some of their members who would rather not have to answer to state guidelines.
The closest analogy I can think of is that I don’t like stopping at red lights. But I know that if red lights didn’t exist, total chaos would ensue. We have laws because they give order to our society and structure to our lives.
It was in that spirit that former Gov. Joe Frank Harris, a conservative Democrat from Cartersville, established the Growth Strategies Commission in the late 1980s. Legislation requirement communities to develop comprehensive plans grew out of that commission. Again, the idea was that Georgia was enjoying unprecedented growth, and it made sense to plan that growth in a way that was best for local communities, for their regions and for the state.
Joel Cowan, a visionary developer who was campaign chairman in Harris’ two gubernatorial elections, served as chairman of the Growth Strategies Commission. (It was no accident that Cowan also was the founding chairman of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, a body that can link transportation investments with land-use and development plans).
Cowan is understandably upset that the state is considering dismantling one of its most valuable tools to make sure that Georgia grows in a rational way.
“I think it is a severe step backwards,” Cowan wrote me in an email Sunday. As he explained, the state law was a way to protect communities from having to bear the brunt of developments of regional impact, otherwise known as DRIs.
If a major development is located in area, the surrounding communities end up being impacted by traffic, water pollution and other consequences of growth. Having a comprehensive plan for a region actually help communities make sure their own quality of life is not lost.
“For instance, look at the large Georgia Power plant that is on the Chattahoochee River between Coweta and Carroll counties,” Cowan wrote. “There is an enormous revenue impact on simply which side of the river they choose to build. Both get jobs. But the negative impacts affect many downstream counties. So that is one example of why it is an important procedure.”
Another key player in the Growth Strategies Commission was John Sibley, who served as its director. Sibley went on to become president of the Georgia Conservancy and has worked with several environmental efforts. He also is one of the few founding GRTA board members.
As Sibley sees it, the Georgia Planning Act of 1989 “was meant to advance regional thinking — by building regional plans from local plans.” It’s hard to find a reason why a regional approach to growth is not in our best interest.
Sibley said the planning act was the “first critical step” in Georgia’s “long, slow progress toward thinking about transportation investments and land use in a coordinated way.” Study after study has shown that if metro Atlanta ever wants to really address its traffic problems, it needs to strategically link its transportation plans with its land use development plans.
“A process was created for every local government — large and small — to have a plan, looking five years out at a comprehensive set of elements, instead of having only short-term, ad hoc considerations to inform decisions,” Sibley said.
“Perhaps the most innovative aspect of this new approach was that a land-use plan was a necessary element of a comprehensive plan,” Sibley continued. “Land use would be considered right along with transportation and other elements. Up until that time, most local governments in Georgia had not given any attention to land-use planning or to the relationship between transportation investments and land development patterns.”
Sibley said the state provided local communities a carrot of “several pots of state money” that was only available to communities that had a “qualified local government status,” including the development of a comprehensive plan.
Georgia became a national leader when the bill was passed, and Gov. Harris even won the annual award of the American Planning Association for his leadership.
“Even though the Georgia Planning Act was on the leading edge at the time, it was supported by a broad and clear consensus,” Sibley recalled. “
That included local government associations, including both the Georgia Municipal Association and the Association County Commissioners of Georgia.
“In the decades since, the Act has become routine practice,” Sibley said. “Every local government has been through the process. It has been refined over time in the recognition that not every small locality can be expected to plan with the same rigor as a large metropolitan city or county.”
Sibley also believes that the act has saved taxpayer dollars because it has helped communities better understand developments can have long term impacts.
“As our understanding has evolved in Georgia, the benefits of coordinated planning, particularly with respect to transportation and land use, have increasingly been reflected in state policy,” Sibley said. “We have come a long way since the state first encouraged local governments to think in a comprehensive and coordinated way.”
By telling local communities that comprehensive planning is now optional would be a major step backwards for Georgia — a state that still anticipates major growth and development for decades to come.
Planning is the one way we can make sure our state and our communities grow in a coordinated way that is best for everyone.

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