By Valerie Baldowski
Some residents in the Dutchtown High School area have 30 days to decide whether their community should be designated as part of an "activity center," as the county seeks to plan for future land use and development.
The Henry County Planning and Zoning Department held a Dutchtown School Node Activity Center Master Plan meeting, on Tuesday, at Dutchtown High School. The proposed "activity center" is described as a designation allowing future development appropriate for the area, such as residential, commercial and industrial development, according to Stacey Jordan, a county planner.
The boundaries for the designated area are located along Jonesboro Road, extending down Farmer Road, to North Mount Carmel Road, McCullough Road, and Flippen Road. Jordan told those in attendance that the meeting was held to inform residents of the details of determining which future development would be appropriate for the area, and to inform them of their option to vote for -- or against -- the proposal. Residents were given a ballot with the question: "Shall the Dutchtown School Node activity center master planning process begin?"
The results of the vote will mean, either the county will move forward with its plans, or choose some other type of development for the area, Jordan said. The deadline to vote "yes" or "no" will be 5 p.m,. on June 25, he said. Votes can be sent to the Planning and Zoning Department online, faxed, mailed in, or delivered in person. Jordan said the decision on what to do next will be made by the residents. "If 51 percent of the people want it, we'll begin it in August. It'll be great," he said. "If they choose 'no,' then we need to decide what to do. We could send it to the Zoning Board, [or] we could just accept it."
Jordan explained the process, thusly: "What you have to vote on is whether we should 'master plan the Dutchtown area," he said. "If you guys vote 'yes' for the master planning process to begin, then, we'll continue that. If you vote 'no,' then the staff will not be able to master plan the activity center, unless it goes to the Zoning Advisory Board, and the Zoning Advisory Board has a public hearing."
Jordan said that if the board chooses not to have a master planning process, "What I would suggest we do as a staff, is simply take that activity center off the map."
The master planning process involves drafting an existing-conditions report, followed by a statement of needs, an amended Land Use Map, and an "overlay district," he continued. In addition to residential, other types of development in the activity center could include office, retail, and mixed-use, said Jordan. "Right now, there is about 83 percent residential," he said. "If we go through the master planning process, we're only planning for 50 percent residential. We're looking for a guideline of 15 percent non-residential, which is going to end up being commercial, industrial, some sort of retail, or office."
Several of the McDonough residents were wary of the proposal. "My family's been here about 13 years," said Jeff Carver. "You guys did a great job with this master plan activity center, but I didn't hear a single thing that actually addressed what we're getting out of this. You conveniently missed 15 percent in your Land Use Map. Honestly, I didn't hear anything on what we would want out of this. All I could hear is zoning."
One benefit for residents is "principally the opportunity to help shape and determine how this area's going to develop," said Michael Harris, director of the Henry County Planning and Zoning Services division. "Not everyone gets that opportunity. It gives individuals an opportunity to have a voice, prior to it coming up for rezoning," Harris said.
Another resident, Bart Royston, said he is satisfied with the level of development currently in the area. "Right now, we're at low-density, with the Land Use Plan," Royston said. "It took us 25 years to get one; we got it in place now. The reason we got in trouble before in the county is because we went against the Land Use Map. Right now, I don't know how anyone else is, [but] I'm content. I don't see the benefits, because, right now, if we voted it 'no,' I don't see the commissioners changing anything."
Harris told Royston the plan is long-term. "It's not just for today, it's not just for next year or the next two or three years," he said. "We're having to look beyond, all the way out to the next 20 years, to see how this area's going to develop."
Ann McCullough, who owns property on McCullough Road and Mitchell Road, said she was concerned about how the proposed activity center designation would affect her property.
"I've been in Henry County for 35 years, I have seen a lot of damage," said McCullough. "I'll tell you what, so far, I've not gotten any input on any of the changes that have affected my quality of life."
After the meeting, McCullough, Royston and Carver shared their thoughts. "My concern is a whole different story," said McCullough, pointing to a map of the area. "The issue here is, they're going to straighten McCullough Road. Then the state's going to come in and take this little corner, leaving this land right here absolutely worthless. That's my land."
"The major concerns are, obviously, they know there are more people coming to the county, and this is an area that they think they can stuff more people," Carver said. "He [Jordan] mentioned 1,500 houses in an area that currently has 250 to 300. All of us here are concerned about high-density housing. Your crime rates are higher when you get into high-density housing."
"I think it wasn't explained right," said Royston. "I think we may have an opportunity here, I'm not sure. We may be able to control, like they were talking about, but I want to know just how much input they're going to have from the public. If we were to vote 'yes,' how much control would we have on deciding what's in there?"
Harris said he was not surprised at residents' strong feelings about the project. "Any time you're talking about their property, their home, their life and where they live, people are always that passionate, and we've come to expect that," he said. "Our goal is to let them know we're here to provide them information. Some people have a natural distrust for the government, and we understand that."