When Columbia County's Planning and Zoning Commission said no this past month to an Evans rezoning that would have allowed construction of yet another townhome complex, they should have been drawing a line in the sand.
Enough is enough, and in the case of townhome construction, it's too much.
Builders and developers have figured out a profitable niche with attached homes, as nearly 1,000 of them have popped up in the past five years. The county's planning director, Jeff Browning, says townhomes are aimed at new residents who can't afford the county's $175,000 average new-home price, but who don't want to buy a mobile home.
Wonderful. Townhome complexes are becoming Columbia County's modern versions of trailer parks. So find a 30-year-old trailer park and you'll see the blighted future of these townhome complexes -- only with more asphalt and fewer trees.
"We need to make sure that we have affordable housing, and the town homes do allow for that,'' says County Commissioner Diane Ford. "But I think we're just about to be maxed out."
One of the greatest problems created by townhomes is the extra burden on the school system. Unfortunately, not all county officials see it that way, and rely on a faulty reading of a consultant's report to shore up their views.
An Athens professor told commissioners recently that townhomes and apartments, per unit, don't produce as many children for the school system as single-family homes. Commissioners have taken to parroting this comment as an endorsement of high-density housing.
While it is accurate to say fewer children live in townhomes and apartments per unit than in single-family homes, the difference is that it takes only a few acres to cram the same number of children into a high-density complex as would be housed in a major subdivision of single homes.
Just look at Bel Air Elementary, which now has about two additional classrooms full of students from new apartment complexes nearby. The new River Ridge Elementary, built to relieve overcrowding at three other schools, will see its rolls swell with dozens of students from two new postage-stamp-sized townhome developments in Evans. The rezoning rejected by the planning commission would have added a third such development to the new school's zone.
Needless to say, an $80,000 townhome isn't going to bring in quite as much tax revenue to pay for all those new classrooms as the average $175,000 single-family home, either.
Is the issue, as Browning says, simply that there's a need for affordable housing? That's part of it, but the rest of the story is that demand is strong for cheap homes for residents who want to get into Columbia County's highly desirable school zones.
State lawmakers this year failed to move forward on a proposal to allow school systems to levy impact fees for classroom construction. They should follow through with the initiative next year, andcounty officials should quit trying to justify cramming more cheap housing into the community.
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