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The recession was good for something

Posted: August 13, 2013 - 11:03pm

BRUNSWICK, Ga. — As devastating as the last recession was, at least one state agency drew a little benefit from it in the form of breathing room.

The dizzying pre-recession growth along Georgia’s coast, as development crept northward from Florida, was at a pace that challenged state and local regulators. Developers were proposing major new projects before policymakers had a chance to consider the ramifications of the last one, much less design ordinances and rules to manage the growth.

So, when the recession dried up financing for new construction, officials with Georgia’s Coastal Resources Division of the Department of Natural Resources took advantage of what they call “The Lull.”

The now hope The Lull is over and the economy is reviving. After all, their neighbors and friends depend on the private economy, and their agency has suffered proportionally more budget cuts because of the recession than any other in state government.

The Lull is giving them a chance to get ahead of the growth.

Exhibit A is completion of the Coastal Stormwater Supplement to the state’s Stormwater Management handbook. The inland version, known as “the blue book,” guides urban planners, county commissioners and other local policymakers on managing runoff, such as requiring developments capture the first inch of each rainfall in an on-site retention pond. That’s because the first inch carries away spilled oil and other automotive fluids, pesticides and lawn chemicals and the polluted mixture can seep back into the ground as the soil naturally filters out the toxins before they reach the groundwater.

On the coast, the rain is different, and the soil is different than the red clay found in places such as Athens and Rome. That’s why the Coastal Supplement calls for more aggressive efforts to reduce hard surfaces that prevent natural filtration, such as requiring narrower sidewalks than what inland cities specify.

Coastal Resources staffers Kelly Hill and Jennifer Kline are using the pause in development to encourage the six coastal counties to incorporate the supplement’s prescriptions into their local land-use ordinances.

“Especially while we’re in a bit of a lull because we know that rush is going to return,” Hill said.

Kline is also using The Lull to do long-range planning with the Georgia Emergency Management Agency and its local counterparts. File it under the heading of Never Waste a Disaster because the goal is to design improvements in any rebuilding efforts following a major hurricane, fire or flood like Super Storm Sandy that caused widespread destruction in the Northeast.

“It’s kind of what New Jersey and New York are working on after the fact,” she said. “We’re tooting our own horn because we’re thinking about it before the fact.”

Part of the effort includes transferring sea-level projections collected since 1935 onto digital maps based on data about the rise in the high-tide lines. The projection warns of a 1-meter rise in the next 100 years, not such a distant horizon when picking locations for schools, roads, hospitals and other structures.

Coastal Resources employees talk about “green growth” and “sustainable development” rather than halting growth outright. Although they have science backgrounds, they rarely utter the disparaging words for developers, commercial fishermen or politicians that frequently pepper conversations with environmental activists.

Still, they’re trying to make the most of The Lull. Of course, like anyone, they want to stay kept-up with their work loads, but they point to other states like Florida and Mississippi as examples of poorly managed growth that have resulted in avoidable environmental damage that has negative consequences on people and the economy.

In a sense, the Coastal Resources Division plays a role in the state’s economic development by protecting the assets vital to tourism, fishing and other industries as well as the quality-of-life factors helpful in luring corporate executives and entrepreneurs. The work it is trying to do during The Lull will take some bumps out of the road when development resumes its racing pace.

(Walter Jones, the Atlanta bureau chief for Morris News, has been covering Georgia politics since 1998. Follow him on Twitter @MorrisNews and Facebook or contact him at walter.jones@morris.com and (404) 589-8424.)

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