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Flagpole. (Athens, Ga.) 1987-current, August 09, 2000, Image 7

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GUEST EDITORIAL THE GRAND ILLUSION As the ACC Comprehensive Land-Use Plan approaches its conclusion, many Athens resi dents sense that a sellout is underway at City Hall. Concerns focus on an extremely important and essentially irrevocable decision that will soon be made by the Commission—one that will define the physical landscape of our future. During the Mayor and Commission work ses sion July 20, the citizen-government partnership characterizing earlier phases of the land-use plan process was absent as the Guiding Principles took another heavy blow. The Guiding Prin r iples are the criteria adopted by the Commission to steer the land-use plan process, and represent the commitment to incorporate the ideas and vision of a large, diverse group of citizens. Included are directives to preserve the beauty of our community and be responsible stewards of its environment; to enact land-use policies that avoid urban sprawl and conserve resources; to support policies that offer a variety of transportation alternatives; and to include the community in an open process of decision making. But at the work session, the Guiding Principles disintegrated as the Commissioners conducted a straw poll to determine preferred options for permitted density in areas to be des ignated as a rural zone, or "greenbelt." The greenbelt is a land-use concept designed to pre serve the rural character and uses of outlying areas and to redirect investment inward for urban revitalization. On that evening, Commissioners BaiTOW, Chasteen, Jordan, Kilpatrick and Sims supported a compromise rural option that provides incen tives for developers to cluster homes and pre serve green space. With expected densities of one unit per 2.5 acres, this option promises, at best, a watered-down version of the greenbelt originally proposed at one unit per 10 acres. The remaining five Commissioners—Carter, Farmer, Ford, Logan and Sheats—preferred a one-unit-per-acre option that seems certain to deliver irreversible sprawl. Far more lenient th^n our current development standard, it contains no incentives to cluster homes or to preserve nat ural features and will likely result in an expan sive and more rapid rural buildout. SMART GROWTH VS. SPRAWL GROWTH Smart growth is characterized by efficient utilization of existing infrastructure, together with preservation of diverse land uses and nat ural areas. The close proximity of places where people live, work, play and learn are a priority, and transportation alternatives are both viable and available. In contrast, sprawl growth is an extravagant and inefficient use of the land, with develop ment extending beyond existing infrastructure and resulting in a broad separation of the locales defining dai|y activity. Transportation acc' s and service delivery are critical but require increas ingly larger proportions of tax expenditures. Benefits of sprawl growth are short term and illusory, as citizens eventually pay more to get less. Since the land-use plan process began late in 1997, ACC citizens have enthusiastically endorsed smart-growth principles. Many con tinue to believe that these concepts have been incorporated in the proposed plan. Unfortunately, that is not the current reality, denying us the smart growth outcome we have anticipated. Now, with more than $500,000 in public funds invested in the plan, ACC officials stand on the brink of choosing land-use provi sions most representative of back-door discus sions that have gone largely unnoticed by the public. Unfortunately, none of the rural-zone options being considered can salvage the orig inal citizen-supported vision for the county. But if Commissioners choose the one-unit-per-acre option for the rural zone, it will unquestionably be their most damaging choice. Even the eco nomics are suspect, given that taxpayers would have to provide subsidies for infrastructure (roads, water lines, sewer systems, schools) and services (police, fire, bus) that far exceed the tax revenues generated. Add to that the negative impact on quality of life from hidden costs of compounded traffic congestion, increased pollu tion and loss of tree canopy and wildlife habi tats. In addition, the public subsidies that support new development at the outer fringes of the county will diminish incentives to direct growth inward—to rejuvenate older in-town areas like Baxter Street or to redevelop abandoned com mercial shopping centers. The transformation of pastures and forests into subdivisions is particu larly undesirable, inasmuch as it is not required for accommodation of the county's projected 40- year population growth. Indeed, urban residents have understood all along the necessary tradeoff of higher densities in their own neighborhoods in return for preservation of green spaces in out lying areas. WHY DEVELOP THE RURAL ZONE? Commissioners defend their preference for a ore-unit-per-acre greenbelt out of a genuine concern for their rural property-owning con stituents. They dismiss the notion that all prop erty in the greenbelt is in danger of sprawl development, given that it could well remain in its current agricultural use for years to come. But the reality is that time passes; people do move on, and they are often willing to sell Kgardless of the intended use. A case in point is the current rezoning petition for a 56-acre homestead along Barnett Shoals Road, gener ating neighborhood anxiety about higher den sity and increased traffic congestion, not to mention the loss of acres of tree canopy. Commissioners are also concerned about the rights of property owners and impacts on land values, particularly if arrangements for the transfer of development rights prove unfeasible. Minimized is the fact that land values are usu ally enhanced, not devalued, by nearby green space. Other, oft-expressed concerns about inequitable tax burdens are also overstated, given the availability of generous 85 percent assessment abatements granted by State Conservation-Use contracts for farmers and rural landowners. Many rural residents do, however support the greenbelt concept. Some of the most contentious rezoning requests in the past 12 months have involved greenbelt properties. Residents along Jefferson Road, for example, have recently opposed at least three major petitions, with a fourth coming up this month. If carte blanche were to be handed out by Commissioners in the form of one unit per acre, greenbelt residents will very likely be deluged with unwelcome development and will not even have their pre sent recourse to resist. DON'T SELL OUT CITIZENS Now is the time for the Commission to take stock and reflect on what makes Athens dif ferent from other communities. They should honor their commitment both to ACC citizens and to the planning process that will shape our community for years to come—to make Athens better, and not just bigger. 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