In face of panhandle growth, resident looks to preserve neighborhood

By Justin Boron

Roy Moore lives around something close to the wilderness in Clayton County.

When he describes the area of his home, it sounds more like an Australian nature preserve than a neighborhood in one of the most densely populated counties in the state.

He said it is “quiet” and “serene” with pastures, emus, and cows.

If it is hard to believe that this area could exist in Clayton County, it's because it almost doesn't. The neighborhood composed of residential lots mostly ranging from around 3 to 20 acres is near the border of Henry and Spalding counties - so close that a planned subdivision there, which Moore calls “a calamity,” will eventually use sewer from the Henry County Water and Sewerage Authority.

The 275-home subdivision will be what Moore considers the first encroachment on the area he and his neighbors aim to preserve.

What makes their fight even more difficult though is they are defending one of the last largely undeveloped swaths of property in a mostly built-out county. It is one that has caught the eye of developers as nearby commercial districts continue to grow.

The residents also are facing a Board of Commissioners that led the county into urbanity in the 1990s and now is struggling to revamp its zoning ordinances to protect neighborhoods like Moore's. At the very least, commissioners say the board is trying to ensure that the remaining available land produces high-quality, high-value developments.

Left untouched by the past decade's major growth in places like Riverdale and Jonesboro, the county's southern panhandle region has reached a crossroads, residents living there say. All around it, commercial and residential growth is exploding.

But as stalwart as the people who inhabit the panhandle are, they may not have the power to prevent suburban development much longer.

Lovejoy, the growing city northeast of the panhandle, has pulled in several major retailers and chain restaurants during the past year and has seen a surge in interest in residential development. Officials there have indicated they don't intend to slow growth anytime soon.

Also, the courts have ruled that public “outcry alone” is insufficient grounds for denying a zoning, County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell said.

A more recent lawsuit filed by a developer reinforced how little the county can do to stop contentious growth.

Blackhawk Development sued the county after the board in November 2004 declined its rezoning application for a subdivision on Sams and Woolsey roads in the panhandle.

Two weeks ago, the board reached a settlement and granted the zoning that included the following stipulations as well as others, according to Michael Smith, the county's chief staff attorney.

é 275 lots down from originally proposed 332 lots

é minimum 2,000 square feet for homes, 15 percent of homes will be 3,000 square feet

é 15 percent of homes will have four-sided masonry, none will have vinyl siding

é Lots will be on sewer, have underground utilities, and will have no water runoff onto Sams Road.

é Clubhouse, street lights and sidewalks throughout

é Landscape berm on Woolsey Road

The situation could have been worse if the board didn't settle and a judge awarded the developer a zoning without stipulations. That would have builders to pursue homes with lower aesthetic standards.

“You probably can call what we did the lesser of two evils,” Bell said.

Unsure of what a judge would rule, he said the commission needed to do something. Bell said it granted the zoning in a way that would maintain the value of homes in the area.

“Hopefully, this will be the last one that we'll get down there,” he said.

Michael Collier, the president and CEO for the subdivision's likely builder, said the subdivision would improve the area.

“I think the commissioners made a wise choice,” he said.

Bell also said the county's recently imposed six-month moratorium on residential zoning applications should give officials time to hash out laws more protective of the lifestyles of existing residents.

But Moore said the tide may have already turned.

Almost a full year before the commission granted the Blackhawk zoning, residents worried that the fight represented a turning point.

Moore said it still does mean that.

“By doing this they're setting a precedent,” he said. “It's almost like the county doesn't care.

“In essence, this was the chairman's first opportunity to do what he said he was going to do. He broke his promise,” Moore said, referring to campaign initiatives of Bell, who took office in January.

Ralph, who voted against the final settlement, said the county does care about development in that region. He added he didn't believe the Blackhawk development would necessarily open the floodgates for development in that area.

While he recognized that the commission had to take some action, he criticized Bell's method of negotiation in the Blackhawk case, which he said excluded and misled residents.

“He gave them a lot of hope,” Ralph said. “The builders were willing to build much higher value homes, but the chairman let them off the hook.”

Bell said residents have had the opportunity to be involved but wished that they would show more willingness to participate in land-use planning processes.

“I want what they want, but it has to be codified,” he said.

Ralph and Bell both called on citizens to give input on zoning code decisions during the moratorium.

Moore said he doesn't plan to leave or stop the fight.

“I don't plan to leave I wouldn't give them the satisfaction.”