Smart Growth Management in Suburbanizing Jackson County, Georgia

By Jerry Weitz, FAICP, Toni Smith, and Joel Logan

After decades of critiques about zoning's effectiveness and another decade or more of interest in "smart growth," we have momentum and force driving a national planning fever that emphasizes form and character over function and land use. Many local governments, particularly those in exurban, rural, and suburban areas, still rely on conventional land-use programs that base the comprehensive plan and regulations on single-function land use and zoning districts. Many local governments have improved their land-use planning and regulatory programs by introducing new principles about building communities based on character and sense of place. That observation is demonstrated by the growing popularity of form-based codes and the declining pursuit locally of conventional zoning codes.

Ironically, with the national fever over smart growth, growth management seems to have lost its foothold as the guiding force of local planning and regulation. The greater emphasis on form and character in land-use planning is fortunate and welcome, because it has added another important tool to help localities build better places. The emphasis on character and form alone, however, is not comprehensive. It is unfortunate that localities are beginning to overlook growth management in their excitement to pursue smart growth.

Local land-use planners would be wise to remember that smart growth evolved from growth management, and that the tools of growth management remain at the roots of smart growth. Localities also would be smart to apply proven growth management techniques in addition to form-based, character approaches, if they want to fully influence the future form of the entire locality. A new model, one of smart growth management, is needed (see Figure 1).

Smart Growth Management
Figure 1    
Smart Growth Management.

This case illustrates how Jackson County, Georgia, combined multiple growth management tools in its comprehensive plan, including character delineation, growth boundaries, growth phasing, consistency, and concurrency. The emphasis of the case is to demonstrate how the concept of growth phasing was applied in the county. The story is couched in the context of Georgia's statewide coordinated planning program, which has evolved over the past two decades. State rules in Georgia reflect the national trend of emphasizing character in the land-use planning process, but those same rules have confounded the pursuit of growth management objectives other than character and form.

The lessons of this case are relevant to all land-use analysts, growth managers, and GIS specialists, but they are especially important for those facing rapid conversion of resource lands to suburban residential subdivisions. Retaining agricultural lands, historic resources, rural settlement patterns, and small-town character are frequent goals of such localities. Character planning can help, but without growth management, planners stand less of a chance of fully implementing the visions and planning goals of localities.


Growth Management

Before the planning profession latched on to principles of the smart growth movement, there was growth management (see Figure 1). Planners have long recognized that the rather elementary system of comprehensive planning, followed by zoning ordinances, subdivision and land development regulations, capital improvement programs, and (maybe) design guidelines and controls, is usually not enough to effectively manage growth. In addition to regulating and guiding the type of land uses and character of land development, proper growth management also includes overseeing its timing.

Since the 1960s and 1970s, planners have sought more sophisticated mechanisms to help manage growth. These have included rate of growth ordinances, urban growth boundaries, growth phasing, better coordination mechanisms between cities and counties, impact fees, transferable development rights (TDR) programs, adequate public facilities requirements, and many others.

In Georgia, even though localities have been guided by a state coordinated planning program (see Figure 2 and description below) for two decades now, few local governments have succeeded in using anything but those most basic land-use regulatory tools to manage development patterns. There is much room in Georgia and elsewhere to practice more sophisticated growth management. As this case shows, the state emphasized character and form as the most important dimension of managing growth. In Jackson County, it took some innovation to introduce other growth management techniques like growth phasing while still meeting the state rules that emphasize character area delineation.

Georgia's Bottom Up Program Design
Figure 2    
Georgia's Bottom Up Program Design.

The Georgia Planning Act of 1989

In 1989, pursuant to the Georgia Planning Act, Georgia put in place legislation coordinating planning at the local, regional, and state levels. Georgia's 1989 legislation did not actually mandate the preparation of comprehensive plans by localities, but it put in place a strong disincentive if local governments failed to adopt comprehensive plans – a "stigma" of sorts – or getting marked off the list of "qualified" local governments eligible to receive certain state grants and loans. Planning was required for the "area planning and development commissions" that were renamed "regional development centers" under the 1989 act. They were renamed "regional commissions" under more recent legislation.

The state was supposed to follow local and regional plans by preparing a statewide comprehensive plan. In devising this state program design, Georgia followed a "bottom up" approach (see Figure 2), or in other words, a building block strategy. Local governments would prepare local comprehensive plans first, with appropriate regional and state assistance. Then, the state-sponsored regional plans prepared by the (then) 18 regional development centers would follow. Ultimately, though it has never done so, the state through its planning agency, the Georgia Department of Community Affairs (DCA), would synthesize the regional plans into a single, statewide comprehensive plan.

Georgia used Florida's growth management program as a structural basis and point of departure, but state policymakers generally used less restrictive approaches with regard to Florida's "top down" planning directives. Georgia did not enact "consistency" and "concurrency" mandates as Florida did. A set of administrative rules, prepared by DCA and approved by its board, provided the regulations for the content and process of preparing comprehensive plans at both the local and regional levels.

The administrative rules for local comprehensive planning were subsequently overhauled, as described in this case, which had a significant bearing on the outcomes in this case and which posed one of the land-use "design" challenges that formed a basis for many of the lessons presented here.

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