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Macon County asks for public input, take three

After two unsuccessful attempts at creating a comprehensive land-use plan, Macon County’s commissioners have directed staff to take another bite of the apple.

As County Planner Derek Roland travels from community to community asking the public for input on what amounts to a visioning document that will guide the county’s growth for the next 20 years, he’s had to contend with the community’s sense of mistrust.

“Einstein defined insanity as repeating the same operation over and over again and expecting a different result. How are we to expect a different result this time?” said Larry Starr, a resident.

Roland appeared at a forum in Franklin last Thursday sponsored by the League of Women Voters as part of a public outreach effort aimed at encouraging citizens to submit their opinions in survey form to the county’s Comprehensive Plan Committee.

Accompanied by Macon County Planning Board members Susan Ervin and Larry Stenger, Roland’s visit had another purpose, too –– to convince people that their voices matter.

Ervin urged the crowd of 20 or so people gathered at the luncheon meeting to speak freely with Roland, who has the task of managing the public input program and will ultimately administer any ordinances that affect zoning.

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“I realize that many of you are highly skeptical, including me in some ways, and I encourage you to take this opportunity to put aside your skepticism and ask difficult questions,” Ervin said.

But the crowd gathered in Tartan Hall also wanted Roland to know that he had inherited a credibility issue, because of the county commissioners perceived unwillingness to act on constituents’ wishes.

“Most of the people in my community don’t know who’s on the board, and furthermore, they don’t care because they know their voices won’t be heard,” said Betty Wallace, a resident of south Macon County.

Others in the crowd were plainly skeptical that the county’s leadership had changed its tune since it conducted its last comprehensive plan, which the board of commissioners ultimately did not adopt. Since that time the county has seen a number of high-profile development issues that the planning efforts were aimed at avoiding, namely the failure of the road system at Wildflower, a mountainside megadevelopment, and the construction of an asphalt plant near residential property just outside of Franklin.

“I trusted a lot of people in this county, and they put an asphalt plant in my front door,” said Joyce Starr, after the meeting in Franklin last week. “I just felt absolutely betrayed.”

Roland delivered a PowerPoint presentation, fielded questions, and listened to recriminations. Then, he asked people to buy into the new process, and by the end of the meeting he was answering substantive questions, a testament either to the fact that people who care about issues will always care about those issues or to Roland’s own willingness to take punches without firing back.

“Talking to some people, they feel in the past the county government has ignored their concerns and largely disregarded their feelings concerning planning,” Roland said. “It’s important to know that we have a commission at this point that cares about what the citizens think. This board believes the voice of Macon County needs to be included in the planning process. The past is the past and those plans didn’t work, but this is different and this one will work.”

Roland said commissioners asked him to create a public input model — so surely they intend to use it.

A finished plan is more than a year away. Five subcommittees have been created to work on various components of the plan. Meanwhile, public opinions are being collected through surveys and at community meetings to guide the subcommittee’s work.

“I’ve looked at a lot of comprehensive plans, and this is the most extensive public input process I’ve seen,” Roland said. “We’re giving people a number opportunities to provide input to the plan.”


A New Balance

Stenger, who has served on the planning board for the past six years, said he has seen a change in the mindset of residents about planning. In the past, a stark divide separated long-time natives who craved economic development and transplants favoring environmental stewardship.

“There is some commonality. The reason the heritage people are here and the reason people move here is the beauty, so we have to protect that,” Stenger said.

In part, Stenger said the change of heart in the community is a result of the harrowing facts of the situation. Macon County had 23,499 people in 1990, 33,005 in 2009, and projections show the county could have more than 46,000 people by 2029.

With a water hungry metropolis to its south in Atlanta, and Cherokee’s booming casino –– which attracted over 4 million visitors last year –– to the north, Macon County can no longer avoid the issue of how to cope with development.

“Density drives the issue, and I see that now there seems to be a willingness on the part of the planning board and county government to entertain the opinions of the people,” said Stenger.

Roland, who grew up in Macon County, agrees.

“I think people realize that future growth has implications and can have negative effects,” Roland said. “They want to be able to have input rather than having the dollar determine that for them.”

The comprehensive plan will ultimately be hammered out in five committees, each using information gathered during the public input process to inform its decisions. The committees are to address a range of issues from affordable housing, to planning and zoning, to transportation and public services.

But at last week’s meeting the crowd was most interested in determining how serious Roland and the board are about controlling development.

“One of the things that worries me about the county is the old 1950s mindset that growth is good at any cost,” said Franklin Alderman Bob Scott.

Wallace showed that farmers are just as concerned as second-homers about the nature of Macon’s growth.

“Our efforts in planning since the 1950s have been geared to commercial interests, not rural interests,” Wallace said. “I’d like the planning board to decide how many more tourists we want in Macon County? Do we want 1,000? 10,000? 100,000?”

Ervin, who acted as a mediator during the session, said the county’s population has never been as growth-obsessed as its leaders.

“I think there has overall, in the general population, been a lot less infatuation with growth than there has been among the county commissioners,” Ervin said.

Roland has already visited more than eight community groups in similar forums across the county to talk about the plan and encourage residents to fill out the surveys the committees will use as feedback. He has plans to visit at least five more in coming months.

So far, he said he has heard people express the need for a balanced approach to planning.

“I think the thing I’m seeing the most is we have to find a balance between fostering economic development and preserving the land that makes Macon County unique,” said Roland.

Figuring out the measure of the balance will be where the rubber hits the road in the planning process. Roland said he wants to see the results of the process before he draws conclusions.

“We’ll just have to see the results before we make conclusions about how the vision has changed,” said Roland.

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