Courts, annexation could decide fate of panhandle

By Justin Boron

The Clayton County Board of Commissioners has turned down an offer to settle a land use lawsuit with the McDonough-based Blackhawk Development and will allow the courts to decide whether a planned, 332-lot subdivision in the county's mostly rural panhandle region can move forward amid clear opposition from current residents in the area.

The previous county commission, led by former Chairman Crandle Bray, denied a rezoning request that would have allowed the development to proceed with an average density of more than two houses per acre. The rejection drew a lawsuit filed by the development company in November and has carried over into the administration of Chairman Eldrin Bell, who has promised to guard against over-development in the lower part of the county.

The county commission's stance on Blackhawk's plans illustrates the pivotal, developmental stage in which the southern tip of the county exists, residents and county officials say.

Margie Trawick, a panhandle resident who helped organize a core of resistance to development, said she worries that the Blackhawk neighborhood could be the tumbling block that would foster the type of development that has occurred to the northeast in Lovejoy.

Drawn by medium density housing tracts, Lovejoy has been suffused with new retail anchored by a Wal-Mart Supercenter, which opened in January.

Residents have cautioned county officials against rezonings and development that they say would threaten the way of life and value of the county's last bastion of undeveloped land.

At a recent commission meeting, Ernest Powell stated the position of the panhandle homeowners alliance, saying increased development would ultimately lower property values and possibly bring south the infrastructure problems, such as sewer and traffic, that the northern part of the county currently faces.

Aware of the tenuous political climate hanging over development in the area, county officials say they will not waver amid the threat of litigation.

"The people, I think, have spoken with a strong voice for what they want to see in that region," Bell said.

Blackhawk preemptively filed a legal challenge with its application for rezoning, which said a denial of any reasonable use and development of the property "constitutes taking the (property owner's) private property without just compensation."

But the past commission did not back down and the current one will not likely do so either, said County Commissioner Wole Ralph, whose district contains the planned neighborhood.

The recently elected commissioner, who made high-end residential development a platform in his campaign, said he cited the strong opposition to the project as a reason for refusing to settle the lawsuit.

"It's exciting to see that the community is so actively involved and engaged in shaping what their community is going to look like," he said.

Disagreements over the impact of Blackhawk's plans even circulated within the company.

Moises Perez, a home inspector and former employee of the development company, told the county commission that the development company was cutting corners that would endanger the integrity of the area.

Mike Norbeck, a representative for Blackhawk Development, declined to comment.

When the rezoning was first denied by the Zoning Advisory Board, Norbeck said the company had worked to create plans that would fit with the area.

Even if the lawsuit is defeated in Superior Court, the panhandle faces an uphill battle with encroaching growth from areas like Lovejoy and Hampton.

Lovejoy is considering the possibility of annexing 50 acres on the west side of the city for 160-lot development, said Joe Murphy, the city's mayor.

The city has annexed 150 acres in the last four years and looks to grab more land in the future, he said.

"The more land the city annexes in, the more powerful it is," he said.

Aside from environmental obstacles like wetlands, Murphy said growth in the panhandle is inevitable given rising land value in the area.

"I don't look at the panhandle area of the county to stand where it is," he said.