Effingham County’s part of the comprehensive plan is done, and county commissioners are expected to approve it at their December meeting to send to the Coastal Georgia Regional Development Center and the state Department of Community Affairs.
But not before the plan came under fire one last time during the final public hearing on it. Effingham residents questioned the intent and impact of the plan in a two-hour-long hearing on the comp plan during Tuesday’s commissioners’ meeting.
“More than anything else, it’s a road map or guide for the future and helping us to go forward for the next 10 years,” county planner George Shaw said. “The (community) agenda is our guide to the future.”
But comp plan critics questioned whether the existence of comp plans wasn’t just a power grab by the state or if the plan constitutes one itself.
Attorney Mickey Kicklighter said the state’s goal is to reduce the power and influence of local governments through its review process. Kicklighter also said he asked the county’s legislative delegation to ask its legislative counsel about the constitutionality of the comp plan process. He hasn’t heard back.
He also posed a concern that the county’s and cities’ plan may not wind up being its own work once it gets in
the hands of the CGRDC and the state.
“The RDC has the authority to change our plan,” he said. “They can force you to take things they consider of regional importance to be in your plan.”
Kicklighter pointed to the state’s insistence of a regional water plan as an indication of the reduction of the influence of local authority.
“You see a clear pattern of their trying to take away your governance of us,” he said.
“We are not that far from saying the state saying your zoning decisions have to follow that plan.”
He also noted that the state can withhold funding and grants from local governments if they are not deemed qualified — comprehensive plans are part of the process to earn that designation.
“The comp plan can be amended, but it comes at a significantly higher financial burden,” Kicklighter said. “And it may not be as easy in the future to change the plan as it is now.”
Kicklighter asked the commissioners to stop the comp plan in its tracks and also requested they ask the state legislators and the legal counsel for the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia to be involved.
“To engage in this process at this point is a mistake,” he said.
Kicklighter maintained that he wasn’t against having a plan and that one is needed.
“I think planning is a good thing,” he said. “I’m not opposed to a land use map to make future decisions.”
But a recent state Supreme Court ruling that overturned a county commission’s zoning decision because it was not in accordance with the county’s comp plan has Kicklighter worried that future litigation may wind up being too costly for Effingham County.
Shaw and Denise Grabowski of Lott and Barber also attempted to erase the notion that the plan was subject to approval by the CGRDC and the DCA. Lott and Barber has been working with county staff on its part of the comp plan, while the CGRDC has been assisting the county’s three cities on their portions of the plan.
“The RDC is responsible for checking the plan,” Grabowski said. “(The DCA) does not approve Effingham County’s comprehensive plan. They will provide comments and recommendations.”
Shaw and Grabowski countered that the RDC and DCA only review, not approve, the plan. Both agencies make recommendations and check the plan for completeness.
“This is clearly not intended to usurp the power of local governments to govern,” Shaw said. “If we’re missing something, (the RDC) lets us know.”
The county’s comp plan isn’t due until 2012. The last one was completed in 1997 and it is out of date and even more restrictive than the one currently being developed.
“We are exploding with growth,” county commission Chairwoman Verna Phillips said. “But we need a plan.”
Carolyn Collins, a vocal opponent of the comp plan, issued her objections to how the plan has been put together.
“Most people are simply unaware of the comprehensive plan and what it really means to the quality of life in Effingham and in Georgia,” she said.
But Phillips responded that several meetings, some more well attended than others, have been held on the comp plan and that the technical and steering committees were open to the public.
“I thought we were doing this in the open,” Phillips said, “and to get as much public input as possible.”
Said developer Murray Marshall: “This thing has not been done in a vacuum.”
Marshall also praised the commissioners for responding to pleas from the building community for inclusion.
“A year ago, we asked you to slow the process down and open the door, and I think it’s been very beneficial,” he said.
In her statement to commissioners on her objections on the comp plan, Collins cited the removal and later re-insertion of a line running parallel to Highway 119 that called for the area north of it to remain primarily agricultural.
“The purpose of the line is we don’t have the services up there,” Shaw said, adding it may be some time before roads, water and sewer are as prevalent there as there in southern sections of the county.
Shaw also said several people from the northern area didn’t want the kind of intensive development that has occurred throughout the southern half.
Collins also believes the current zoning laws don’t need to be strengthened. She also called the comp plan an example of inverse condemnation and it also increases the size and power of local government.
She called upon commissioners and state lawmakers to stop the plan.
Shaw rebutted by saying the future use map does not dictate what could be done with specific parcels of property but offers suggestions as to what could go there. Shaw said the county intends to review its current zoning ordinances to see what’s out of date.
The plan also includes sections on housing, transportation and economic development.
“This plan includes the unincorporated areas and the three municipalities, so it is a long plan,” Grabowski said. “We wanted to have one unified document.”