By Justin Boron
Ernest Powell was in the cattle and hay business for 20 years before suburban growth boomed in Clayton County and created enough commuter traffic to sideline his tractors for good.
Two years ago, he gave up his agrarian livelihood with the hope he could retire in solitude on his 12-acre farm in the panhandle.
Now, a proposed 332-unit subdivision on Inman Road threatens to speed up the pace of life on the county's south side and effectively smother his retirement plans.
But a county Zoning Advisory Group decision Monday gave Powell a reason for optimism.
A rezoning to increase density for the planned 138-acre neighborhood, called the Estates at Victoria Meadows, was tripped up by the Advisory Group Monday after it recommended that the Clayton County Board of Commissioners deny the zoning. The county commission will have the final say over the issue on Nov. 18.
Facing about 65 disgruntled homeowners, the Advisory Group pushed aside a request by Blackhawk Development that the zoning density be changed from 1 housing unit per acre to 2.42 units per acre.
Group member Walter Stanley ridiculed Mike Norbeck, who represented the developer.
In an incisive tone, he asked, "Why is our current land use plan wrong?"
Norbeck responded by saying the more dense development would have more open space within the same amount of property.
But Stanley was immovable.
"If you have an acre lot, you don't need (open space) to play softball," he said.
When the group voted unanimously on its recommendation, members of the audience gave resounding applause.
The recommendation to deny came amid several development conflicts in the county's last stronghold of rural and semi-rural property.
Despite the semblance of victory for the residents, the county commission vote could still decide the fate of an uneasy faction of homeowners worried that an increase in residences could devalue their property while stretching thin the transportation and educational resources of the area.
More than 60 residents united this past weekend at the home of Margie Trawick, who along with Powell has spearheaded resistance to development.
Passing out fliers and putting in dozens of phone calls, she has prepared her neighbors for a fight against residential expansion that she says denies their property rights.
When told that developers own their property and have a right to use it as they please, she asked, "What rights do we have then?"
The resilience of homeowners has met with reality, however, as more and more developers have shown an interest in the area.
Creeping defeatism amid several intractable developers has seeped into the spirit of many panhandle homeowners, Trawick said.
Last month, a proposal similar to the Blackhawk one was defeated after the group of gritty homeowners demonstrated their opposition in front of the Zoning Advisory Group.
But hope that their struggles might result in maintaining the panhandle's integrity is dim, she said.
Norbeck reminded them of the looming wave of development after the meeting, when he said, "Development is coming."
The residents, some of whom have lived in the area their entire lives, feel they have no place to turn to stop the incoming slew of subdivisions, Trawick said.
Despite repeated frustrations with the county government, they have found an advocate in County Commissioner-elect Wole Ralph, who will represent the district when he takes office in January.
"I'd like to see us push forward to some higher-priced homes," he said.
Many of the residents agree, saying they are willing to meet developers halfway in a compromise that would allow for low-density subdivisions, with houses priced in the $250,000 range.
The Blackhawk proposal, as it stands, could reduce the density to at least 2 units per acre and as much as 4 units per acre, said Dawn Dickerson, the supervisor at the county planning and zoning office.
The residents would be satisfied with a single unit per acre, Trawick said.
Ralph says the fermenting conflict in the panhandle has put residential growth at a crossroads in the county.
It can diverge from typical Clayton County developments. Or, it can continue down the path of medium-density homes that sell for about $150,000 and that he says strain resources like roads, schools and emergency services.
"There's a lot of money in (the smaller lots)," Ralph said. "Clayton County has proven it can sell property in that price range.
"The county, in developers' minds, hasn't proven that we have a market for high-end housing," he said.
A county commission denial of the rezoning proposal for the Estates at Victoria Meadows would be a win for the residents, Trawick said.
But even if the commission knocks it down 10 days from now, a constitutional challenge may take the matter out of county control.
The property owner for Blackhawk Development issued a letter delineating a challenge that says a denial of any reasonable use and development of the property "constitutes taking the (property owner's) private property without just compensation."
After the recommendation to deny passed, a disappointed Norbeck said the chance of a court challenge was always possible.
"We thought we had a great product," he said. "We thought it was a perfect fit for the area."
Norbeck also left open the possibility of a compromise between the residents and Blackhawk, but was not hopeful.
"It's not entirely up to me," he said. "It requires compromise on both sides."