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Georgia’s communities may lose ground in planning for their future

Since when has planning become a dirty word?

An effort is underway in the Georgia legislature to remove a state requirement on local governments to develop comprehensive plans for their communities.

If passed, this legislation — Senate Bill 86 — could send Georgia back decades to a time when growth could occur in a totally haphazard way with few guideposts on what is the best way to grow a community.

Unfortunately, two organizations that should know better — the Georgia Municipal Association and the Association County Commissioners of Georgia — have endorsed this legislation, presumably pushed by some of their members who would rather not have to answer to state guidelines.

The closest analogy I can think of is that I don’t like stopping at red lights. But I know that if red lights didn’t exist, total chaos would ensue. We have laws because they give order to our society and structure to our lives.

It was in that spirit that former Gov. Joe Frank Harris, a conservative Democrat from Cartersville, established the Growth Strategies Commission in the late 1980s. Legislation requirement communities to develop comprehensive plans grew out of that commission. Again, the idea was that Georgia was enjoying unprecedented growth, and it made sense to plan that growth in a way that was best for local communities, for their regions and for the state.

Joel Cowan, a visionary developer who was campaign chairman in Harris’ two gubernatorial elections, served as chairman of the Growth Strategies Commission. (It was no accident that Cowan also was the founding chairman of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, a body that can link transportation investments with land-use and development plans).

Cowan is understandably upset that the state is considering dismantling one of its most valuable tools to make sure that Georgia grows in a rational way.

“I think it is a severe step backwards,” Cowan wrote me in an email Sunday. As he explained, the state law was a way to protect communities from having to bear the brunt of developments of regional impact, otherwise known as DRIs.

If a major development in located in area, the surrounding communities end up being impacted by traffic, water pollution and other consequences of growth. Having a comprehensive plan for a region actually help communities make sure their own quality of life is not lost.

“For instance, look at the large Georgia Power plant that is on the Chattahoochee River between Coweta and Carroll counties,” Cowan wrote. “There is an enormous revenue impact on simply which side of the river they choose to build. Both get jobs. But the negative impacts affect many downstream counties. So that is one example of why it is an important procedure.”

Another key player in the Growth Strategies Commission was John Sibley, who served as its director. Sibley went on to become president of the Georgia Conservancy and has worked with several environmental efforts. He also is one of the few founding GRTA board members.

As Sibley sees it, the Georgia Planning Act of 1989 “was meant to advance regional thinking — by building regional plans from local plans.” It’s hard to find a reason why a regional approach to growth is not in our best interest.

Sibley said the planning act was the “first critical step” in Georgia’s “long, slow progress toward thinking about transportation investments and land use in a coordinated way.” Study after study has shown that if metro Atlanta ever wants to really address its traffic problems, it needs to strategically link its transportation plans with its land use development plans.

“A process was created for every local government — large and small — to have a plan, looking five years out at a comprehensive set of elements, instead of having only short-term, ad hoc considerations to inform decisions,” Sibley said.

“Perhaps the most innovative aspect of this new approach was that a land-use plan was a necessary element of a comprehensive plan,” Sibley continued. “Land use would be considered right along with transportation and other elements. Up until that time, most local governments in Georgia had not given any attention to land-use planning or to the relationship between transportation investments and land development patterns.”

Sibley said the state provided local communities a carrot of “several pots of state money” that was only available to communities that had a “qualified local government status,” including the development of a comprehensive plan.

Georgia became a national leader when the bill was passed, and Gov. Harris even won the annual award of the American Planning Association for his leadership.

“Even though the Georgia Planning Act was on the leading edge at the time, it was supported by a broad and clear consensus,” Sibley recalled. “

That included local government associations, including both the Georgia Municipal Association and the Association County Commissioners of Georgia.

“In the decades since, the Act has become routine practice,” Sibley said. “Every local government has been through the process. It has been refined over time in the recognition that not every small locality can be expected to plan with the same rigor as a large metropolitan city or county.”

Sibley also believes that the act has saved taxpayer dollars because it has helped communities better understand developments can have long term impacts.

“As our understanding has evolved in Georgia, the benefits of coordinated planning, particularly with respect to transportation and land use, have increasingly been reflected in state policy,” Sibley said. “We have come a long way since the state first encouraged local governments to think in a comprehensive and coordinated way.”

By telling local communities that comprehensive planning is now optional would be a major step backwards for Georgia — a state that still anticipates major growth and development for decades to come.

Planning is the one way we can make sure our state and our communities grow in a coordinated way that is best for everyone.

Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.



  1. “Sibley said the state provided local communities a carrot of “several pots of state money” that was only available to communities that had a “qualified local government status,” including the development of a comprehensive plan.”

    The key phrase is “SEVERAL POTS OF STATE MONEY”. It’s no secret that state government is running exceptionally low on cash right now (along with the federal government and nearly every other state and local gov’t in the union). This legislation just looks to be a byproduct of the financial morass that the state finds itself in at the moment, especially since it probably no longer has the money to incentivize local governments to layout these plans along with a prevailing mood under the Gold Dome that is starting to turn decisively against state government handing down unfunded mandates to local communities. The state having no money to offer as an incentive to go along with the rule would in effect make this an unfunded mandate, hence the seemingly misguided legislation. Rural communities would look to be the most adversely affected by the legislative as there are fewer people, development and industry to have to plan for in those areas, but the effect on the state as a whole would look to be negative as local governments, especially on the fringes of urban areas, wouldn’t be required to have comprehensively plan by law and would no longer be motivated by state money to consider how those plans, or lack thereof, would have to fit into the surrounding region as a whole.Report

  2. chris February 22, 2011 8:01 am

    As someone who has worked very closely with the comp plan process for 12 years, I am very much in support of SB 86. The comp plan process is a one size fits all top down approach to planning. It is DCA’s version of planning. Small communities in rural Ga with populations less than 1,000 are spending upwards of $10,000 to prepare a comp plan every ten years, which immediately goes on the shelf and is never used. At a time when local governments are furloughing public safety officers, there has to be a better approach. The bill, by the way, does require that DCA provide planning assistance to local governments, so it is not as if planning is going away. However, this bill would do good to kill the overly bureaucratic, DCA’s way or no way, unfunded mandate that is the comp plan requirement.Report

  3. Tom February 22, 2011 8:17 am

    The Georgia planning requirements are a joke. As any practitioner will tell you, doing a comp plan every 20 years that only serves to cost money and collect dust is ridiculous. Local governments do not need the State to dictate local matters. We can handel developers just fine without the department of Community Affairs, thank you. Pass the BillReport

  4. Tim February 22, 2011 10:23 am

    There is a purpose for planning when it comes to community development. I have worked with many Metro Atlanta area cities and counties to obtain development approvals for my clients. The largest obstacle I have found is many of the well-meaning planners have an “anti-development” attitude. It would be better if they were less resistant to development and promoted smarter sustainable development. I studied land use and city planning in college and most of the people from that program either went on to teach or entered into the public sector. I believe that is why they believe in “public sector” development and oppose private development by default. My development client’s are willing to follow reasonable guidelines for sustainable development. The overbearing bureaucracy of the future land use maps and uniform land development codes make that process more complicated than necessary. I have established good working relationships with many of these resistant planners over time because we exceed their expectations on the finished product. At this point I favor SB 86 and I will continue to follow it and learn more about it. However, I am concerned about the requirement for DCA to “provide assistance in planning to local governments” as that may be code for demanding state tax dollars to implement a chosen plan. We will have to see how it shapes up. Thanks for writing this article!Report

  5. Debbie February 22, 2011 4:15 pm

    Once again, our elected officials at the capitol are taking a short sighted view of the future of our state in considering the passage of SB 86. Georgia has been one of the fasting growing areas in the country and has earned the reputation of having well planned, well developed cities.
    As a former Councilmember of the City of Alpharetta for nine years, I relied on our Comprehensive Land Use plan to help ensure the protection of property values through the criteria based within our plan. A successful city requires planning and planning requires forethought. If Georgia cities are not required to do planning for the future, what prospects of future success can the state expect to see. Potential businesses, pondering a move to Georgia, will look elsewhere when they discover that our elected officials have no plan for our future. Property values will fall as schools become more and more crowded due to unhampered growth.
    One of the more disturbing aspects of SB 86 is the removal of the requirement for Developments of Regional Impact (DRI) to have to submit their plan to the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) for review in advance of seeking City Council approval of their plan. DRI are large scale developments which will have a significant impact on, not only the jurisdiction in which they are sought, but on surrounding communities. These impacts may include traffic, environmental issues, water resources, quality of life, and school systems. ARC does a comprehensive review of the project and makes recommendation to local government as to whether to approve or deny or modify the plans based on the impact to the greater number of people. How insane is it not to have this process in place before building a development that could be detrimental to thousands of people. Local governments use ARC recommendations to ensure quality development that enhances, rather than destroys the quality of life for Georgia taxpayers.
    I understand the concerns of smaller cities in trying to fund the completion of these plans but hope that they look at the bigger picture with respect to future planning in our state.Report

  6. Jonathan February 22, 2011 9:48 pm

    I have to agree with Debbie, if you want unrestrained growth move to Houston. We have serious problems in Georgia and need to continue planning for our state’s future as a whole, regardless of the size of the municipality. Haphazard growth leads to increased long term costs, like the multi-billion dollar sewer overhaul, we recently experienced here in Atlanta. When you have sprawling uncontrolled growth, you tend to have have less density to absorb the costs of infrastructure on a per-capita basis. I cringe to think of how LA will raise the funds to afford the costs of replacing their sewer system when it wears out in 100 years.

    We have too many bean counters in the world today worrying about $ instead of the unquantifiable, but not negligible intangibles like: quality of life, social capital, or negative externalities. Maybe if plans were done properly, we wouldn’t be in the financial hole we’re in now. But if you’re going to cut, don’t cut the Georgia Planning Act.Report

  7. harry February 24, 2011 1:10 pm

    Have we so soon forgotten that Alabama, then Florida used the accusation of runaway growth and lack of planning in Georgia as the justification for limiting our water supply?

    So let’s now celebrate the begining of Georgia’s appeal in the Circuit Court of Appeals of the “draconian” decision to take away Lake Lanier water by passing SB 86 and declaring we have no need for local governments to plan.Report

  8. Jamie March 2, 2011 6:26 am

    After having attending a committee hearing on the bill, communicating my opposition to the bill, and talking with one of the bill’s authors on the phone as he explained his reasoning for filing the bill, I’m pretty sure now that Georgia is doomed. And this from a fairly optimistic person. The bill was filed because the author was trying to make his local government buddies (ACCG and GMA) look good in the eyes of the public. He didn’t want local officials from jurisdictions who didn’t comply with the GA Planning Act have “a black eye” – no matter than his/her constituents were impacted by this foolish action not to plan. That’s it – we’re going to throw planning out in GA because we’re worried about the delicate little egos of some local elected officials who might (rightfully) be considered backward. This state is doomed.Report

  9. D. J. April 22, 2011 5:04 pm

    This sorry piece of… legislation passed the General Assembly and is now awaiting the Governor’s signature. The Republican bubba’s that run this state really do not want local government to be effective when it comes to regulating the developer Mafia which of course is who put most them in office. And the Democrats got rolled on it — many even voted for it. That is a great example of bi-partisan prostitution. My view is, if you can’t do a land use / transportation plan every 10 years, you don’t need to exist as a local government. Hell,why not make doing a budget optional?Report


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