Let me acknowledge that I am the spouse of Jeri Whitworth, the founder of CHANGE, which Barry Paschal has dubbed the watchdog agency for responsible growth in Columbia County. I have watched CHANGE grow both in popularity and influence over the last year as citizens of Columbia County realize the potential damage to the quality of life that can be caused by unbridled growth in the county.
Within the past week I have attended two county meetings conducted by the consultants chosen by the county to assist in the development of the Growth Management Plan. These meetings were designed to provide citizen input to the current Growth Management Plan. While I was disappointed in the citizen participation in the Harlem area, the Evans area meeting was standing-room only. I was encouraged by the comments provided by the citizens who participated in both meetings.
Most of these citizens had praise for the growth management planning process the county had undertaken. Many had exceptionally innovative and creative suggestions for inclusion in the planning process. While I was impressed with this input and enthusiasm for the quality of life in Columbia County, I became concerned with the concept of implementation.
You see, all of the planning and citizen input in the world is moot if the county commissioners choose to ignore the plan. This plan, required by the state, has cost the county (actually the taxpayers) several hundred thousand dollars and has involved 30 private citizens, designated by the commissioners, in a one-year commitment to develop a five-year plan to govern growth in the county. Yet, the county commissioners want to use the plan as a guide, not as policy.
I have been present in a number of County Commission meetings where zoning and land use was to be determined. I have seen our commissioners virtually ignore the Growth Management Plan currently in place, as well as the recommendations of our Planning Commission Board (also appointed by our commissioners) in favor of developers who wish to shoehorn commercial development into established neighborhoods.
Frequently, these accommodations for developers are made without the required setback provisions designed to buffer the transition between commercial enterprise and residential neighborhoods. This allows the developer to utilize the entire property, butting it up to established neighborhoods as opposed to providing transitional step-down development from single-family housing, to multi-family housing, to professional, to commercial, as called for in the Growth Management Plan.
The point I would like to make is, if the county is required to go to the expense of developing and garnering citizen input to a Growth Management Plan in the county, where then are the policy requirements (or citizen outrage) that demand the commissioners comply with this plan? Yes, I am fully aware the state allows the plan to be only a guide and not law, but who will hold the commissioners accountable to comply with the citizens and Steering Committees direction and guidance if there is no policy or pledge from the commissioners to abide by the plan?
Maybe it is time we develop policy that ensures the commissioners comply with the citizens expressed direction for growth in the county.
In the most recent citizen input meeting to the Growth Management Plan, held in Evans on June 28, the citizens overwhelmingly identified mitigating traffic congestion and the preservation of single-family neighborhoods (from intrusion of commercial development) as their primary concerns.
While these may not have been in the same order of priority as those identified by the current Growth Management Planning Steering Committee, it would appear the citizens have spoken. Are the commissioners listening?
Charles W. Whitworth
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