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Preserving Rural Character in Coweta County: a PlanFirst community success

In 1995 and 2006, Coweta County’s comprehensive plan updates resulted in policy changes primarily designed to manage the long term fiscal impact of development upon taxpayers. This was the first concern of county administrators and elected officials; however, when the conversation about land use in general was opened for public comment another theme surfaced. The theme of “rural character” and its disappearance from the landscape was just as important as the concern for traffic congestion.
For 125 years, agriculture was the mainstay of Coweta’s economy. Row cropping, orchards, dairying, and ranching created a pastoral landscape of open rolling land studded with barns, farmhouses, and small churches along a network of farm roads leading to small towns where formal business needs were transacted. This landscape was typical of Georgia’s Piedmont counties and typical of counties around Fulton County and the City of Atlanta where, during the 1960s, the US Interstate Commission was constructing beltways around major US cities. The agricultural value of land in Coweta had been eroding since the 1950s as competition from Midwestern farming operations and the cost of compliance with federal regulations increasingly narrowed profit margins for small farm, ranch and dairy operators. When Interstate 85 opened through Coweta late in the decade of 1970-1979, new opportunities for land owners began to emerge.
The Census Bureau reported that for the decade 1970-1979 the number of housing units had increased by 57% from the total at the end of 1969 (11,609 – 7,417 = 4,192/7,417=.565 X 100 = 57%). The housing construction boom was underway fueled by available and comparatively cheap raw land, a good school system, and easier/quicker access to Atlanta area jobs via Interstate 85. The County’s residential development policy of 1 unit to 0.8 acre with county water and onsite septic system created an attractive residential development environment, similar to other metro counties. However, as the housing boom in neighboring Fayette County and northern metro counties matured, the desired price point for land was becoming scarce and interest shifted to Coweta County. Between 1980 and 1995, most of the 930 units per year built in Coweta were in the unincorporated areas.
By the mid-1990s Coweta County was one of the fastest growing counties in the nation resulting in traffic congestion and burdens upon the public school system, public safety services, and water supply. Coweta was no longer considered Atlanta’s hinterland, and many who lived in Coweta County were recent arrivals. In early 1996, the Coweta County Commission directed county staff to develop a growth strategy ordinance to address the tremendous increase of small lot subdivisions in the unincorporated areas of the county.
The firm of Robert Charles Lesser & Co. was tasked with recommending a growth management strategy after an evaluation of the potential fiscal impact to the taxpayers if the development strategy that took root in the 1980s continued for the next twenty years. In keeping with the task, the fiscal analysis projected continuation of a predominantly entry-level to moderate priced housing mix. Assumptions were based upon case study of Gwinnett County’s housing development spike 1970-1980 and because forces driving Gwinnett’s growth and growth management policy were similar to those existing in Coweta. The analysis predicted that revenues over the twenty-year analysis period would fall short of meeting operating and capital expenditures needed to deliver services at 1996 levels. Furthermore, the County would have to deal with annual fiscal budget deficits totaling $190 million over the 20-year evaluation period. To maintain adequate service levels and control the millage rate, the consultant recommended finding a strategy to boost the average value of housing and at the same time boost the average minimum wage in the county to support demand for higher value housing.
Public input gathered in 1996 for the study expressed concerns that unplanned, uncontrolled growth over the next twenty years could result in the loss of Coweta’s rural character, historic assets, and natural resources. With this sentiment on record, and supported by the Robert, Charles, Lesser growth management recommendations, the first major steps toward a change in growth management policy were undertaken. The ordinance was calculated to slow the development of residential lots in unincorporated Coweta County. The new growth management ordinance adopted by the County was effective January 31, 1997. Prior to adoption, the County received many threats from the development community that, if the policy were adopted, law suits would be filed. The strategy was adopted in a reasonable and legal manner and legal challenges were avoided.
The two greatest changes from the 1980 policies were to increase the minimum lot size by 100% from 0.8 acre to 1.6 acres, and to increase the minimum house size by 45% from 1,000 square feet to 1,450 square feet. These actions increased the value of the minimum home to be built by approximately $50,000 per unit. All undeveloped property classified as AF, RFA, and R-1 was rezoned to a holding category called Rural Reserve (RR). Instead of permitting residential subdivision by-right, a rezoning application was required to subdivide residential lots in the RR zoning district if lots of less than a minimum of five (5) acres each were proposed.

In addition, four new single-family zoning districts were created; each requiring minimum dimensional requirements for house size, street frontage, lot size, and minimum infrastructure requirements for well water, public water, public sewer, or septic system. The AF, RFA, and R-1 districts were removed from the Zoning Ordinance. Developers desiring the old 0.8 to 0.9 acre /unit format could apply for the new R-100 Zoning District. However, the minimum house size on a one acre lot was changed from 1,000 square feet to 1,450 square feet and the unit had to be served by both public water and public sewerage which shifted this type of development into incorporated areas supporting small lots and square footage. The County received strong push-back from the development community and many law suits were threatened and averted.

By the year 2000, most of the 0.8 acre-lot subdivisions on septic systems vested in the unincorporated area had been developed and a new residential land use pattern began to emerge. The R-160 single-family zoning district and its variant, R-160 Open Space, were the most popular. The Open Space variant introduced the concept of clustering lots of 1.3 acres if 0.3 acre/unit was protected by covenant restrictions approved for that development. The required conservation area had to include environmentally sensitive land, and often developable land, to meet the requirement; typically open space formed a green-belt at the perimeter of the development tract and/or fingers of open space between lots.

By 2002, unincorporated single-family development permit activity had fallen from a high of 1,453 permits issued in 1996 to a low of 755 issued in 2001. Between 2002 and 2006, permits had stabilized to an annual average of 824. By contrast, residential building permits issued by the City of Newnan expanded from 26 in 1996 to a high of 1,053 in 2005. Between 2002 and 2006, permits for residential development in Newnan averaged at 894 per year. For the three cities offering public water and public sewer (Grantville, Newnan, and Senoia), a total of 4,808 residential building permits were issued 2002-2006; 54% of the residential construction for that period was occurring within incorporated areas of the county.

Did the 1996 growth management strategy accomplish a desired impact? Yes, the strategy reduced the number of single-family lots that might have been developed in the unincorporated county during the planning period and the median value of unincorporated housing did increase. The 2010 Census estimated the median value of homes built in Coweta from 1980 – 1989 to be $159,900 and for years built 1990 – 1999 the median value was $183,100, the median value of homes built from 2000 – 2004 was estimated at $192,700 and the median value of homes built in 2005 and thereafter was $235,600. Of course, these values are averaged from an aggregate value of all housing for incorporated and unincorporated areas and the value is expressed in current dollars. The median value of all homes in 2000 was $121,700 and by 2014 was $178,800. The median value had increased 47% or 3% a year 2000-2014.

Did changing the policy preserve rural character? To the degree that population increase and housing unit development was directed toward incorporated areas, yes, the desired impact had begun. However, citizen input during the 2005 public participation program for the 2006 comprehensive plan update indicated that this goal was not evident. A community survey and visioning meetings were used to collect citizen’s reaction to the 1996 policy change and to identify their concerns. Preservation of rural character remained prominent. The county received and processed 5,339 surveys; 81% of survey respondents wanted Coweta County to promote “programs/regulations/incentives” that would promote a “rural character” of the county; 82% liked the 1.6 acre lot size; 80% believed that housing density in the county should be lower than in the cities. When asked “if development patterns continue, Coweta will lose its uniqueness” the feeling was strong (56%) to very strong agreement (79%).

What did “rural character” mean? During the 12 visioning meetings held in 2005, folks were asked to relate what they wanted to preserve about Coweta County. Their answers ranged from “green space”, “farms”, “country feeling”, and “country roads”, to more concrete concepts like preserving the courthouse, historic buildings, the natural environment of stream corridors, and the abundance of trees. Rural character was a prominent theme in the final Vision Statement for the 2006-2026 plan – “Coweta County will foster a New Frontier of rural character. This county will consistently sustain and improve the quality of life by continuously planning for careful growth with the participation of citizens, private industry, and government. The resulting community will provide a uniquely historic sense of place that nurtures family and cultural values, commerce, education, and preservation of green space.”
Back to the drawing board, with a suggestion from the plan update consultant that the minimum lot size be changed from five to ten acres if significant rural land was to remain rural. The recommended growth management strategy was to guide at least 35% of expected residential growth into existing villages and incorporated places and to direct commercial and industrial growth to interstate and principle transportation corridors where these activities are established. Greenfield development in the unincorporated county should be encouraged to locate in an area identified as the “Infill” area where expansion of transportation, water, and sewer services could be executed most economically and where such investments would maximize service and government financial investment.
Expanding the minimum lot size from 5 to 10 acres (100%) elicited serious concern that citizen property owners as well as the development community would again threaten law suits. Between 1995 and 2005 the rate of population growth in the county ranged from 7% a year in the mid-90s to 4% a year from 2000 to 2005, so demand for residential development was strong and the R-160 development was a successful subdivision type. Between January 2003 and November 2005, the Planning Department recorded 61 projects; 49 or 80%, were R-160 or R-160 OS.
Ultimately, the County opted for a course of action to establish a maximum development density and continue the five-acre minimum lot size for homestead development and for “exempt” subdivisions (previously, 10-acre lots were exempt). The 2007 implementation ordinance replaced the RR Rural Reserve R-160, R-200, and R-350 zoning districts, with the RC Rural Conservation District which set forth an array of by right single family development types, including exempt subdivisions. When all lots in a subdivision are five acres or more, exemptions from development regulations are allowed including exemption from the Rural Design Open Space requirement (to be explained later). In addition, multiple easements may be approved with up to three large lots accessing each easement. Exceptions to the five-acre minimum lot size are allowed for family members of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd degrees only, when tracts are to be subdivided and go to heirs of the stipulated degree. When this is the case, homestead lots may be 2 acres with well and septic or 1.6 acres with public water and septic.
The RC Rural Conservation District establishes a maximum unit/acre (u/a) density for each of its development types. The Rural Estate, Rural Conservation A & B, and Equestrian A & B development types can be developed by right in the Rural Conservation District. The Single Family Residential Infill development type can be developed by right if the RC District is located within the Infill Neighborhood character area on the 2026 Future Development Map. The Rural Estate type includes a 0.4 u/a and a 0.5 u/a density. These developments are not eligible for the density bonus (explained below). If the 0.4 u/a density is selected, the lots may be 2.5 acres or larger and the development is exempt from curb and gutter and storm water facility requirements. If the 0.5 u/a density is selected, the 2-acre lot size can be developed with public water or private well and septic systems. All site development requirements apply.
Density for the Rural Conservation Subdivision type is calculated using a density of 0.5 u/a. Options within this type are for 1-acre or ½-acre lot size clusters. The 1-acre lot cluster requires 35% or more open space and can be developed on public water and individual septic systems. The 1/2 –acre lot cluster requires 50% or more open space and must be developed with public water and a decentralized wastewater management system that is publicly owned and operated. These development types are eligible for incremental density increases based upon the bonus for which they apply: recreation amenities, masonry exterior building materials, energy efficient building certification, or donation of land for a public service facility or a segment of qualifying greenway corridor. The maximum density that may be approved for the Rural Conservation Subdivision is 0.625 u/a.
The Single Family Residential Infill District development type may be approved for a density that is the average of the densities of surrounding subdivisions. Both public water and public sewer or public decentralized sewer are required. Open space is required at 40% or more and one of five development improvement options is required. This type is designed to deliver durable, energy efficient homes with options for recreation within the neighborhood.
With this array of residential development options, there was very little negative reaction to the 2006 policy which raised the bar for residential development by exchanging density for durable materials and energy efficient building, but maintained a maximum density derived from policies established in 1996.
In addition, two important 2007 ordinance requirements for residential development are delivering the desired effect of preserving rural character. The first, Rural Design Open Space (RDOS), is required in both of the Rural Conservation subdivisions, but not the Rural Estate or Equestrian-A subdivisions in the RC Rural Conservation Zoning District; nor is RDOS required of the Infill type when the RC district is in the Infill Neighborhood character area. RDOS is a portion of the open space requirement that must be designed along the county road frontage. The depth of this open space corridor must be no less than 100 feet with an average depth of 125 feet to 175 feet along county road frontages. The area can be used for required entrance landscaping. If it is wooded, at least 50% of the existing trees must be retained. The purpose of the RDOS is to minimize the view of rooftops from the road and preserve a rural view from the roadway. The effect of the RDOS is to force development of residential units away from the roadway.

The Legends subdivision is an example of how the developer incorporated landscaping into the RDOS. This development was built on what had been open pasture so the requirement to set houses back from the county road helped to minimize their impact – there being few trees existing to obscure view of houses from the road. The photo below is an aerial view of The Legends showing the arrangement of open space along the tract’s road frontages. This development was permitted for 1-acre lots clustered, for a maximum density of 1 unit per 0.625 acres.

The second policy change that has promoted rural character in a developing suburban county is the change to the front yard setback requirement. Until 2007, the front yard setback along all roads was 50 feet from the front property line. In 2007, the front yard setback was changed to 100 feet from any county road right-of-way and applied to all structures, and all types of development (exception: within subdivisions, the setback from internal subdivision roads remained 50 feet). The front yard setback from a state route was changed to 135 feet from the centerline.


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