The Bulloch County commissioners have announced they will hold a “listening session” Monday, Oct. 10, at 5:30 p.m. about the possibility of amending the county’s Smart Bulloch 2040 Comprehensive Plan.
Monday’s session is to be held in the commissioners’ boardroom in the North Main Annex.
“I guarantee you we’re going to be there for this one,” Board of Commissioners Chairman Roy Thompson said on the phone Monday.
When the commissioners, by a unanimous resolution Aug. 16, imposed a 180-day moratorium on granting rezoning requests for all but the lowest-density residential subdivisions in the southeastern part of the county, their resolution stated that it would allow time for revisions of the county’s comprehensive plan, zoning regulations and subdivision ordinance. Under rules established by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, or DCA, amending a local comprehensive plan — in this case the Smart Bulloch 2040 plan adopted in 2019 — requires at least two public hearings: one at the beginning of the process and another when revisions have been drafted.
County staff members held the first public hearing at 5 p.m. Sept. 19, but none of the six district-elected commissioners nor Thompson, who is elected countywide and votes only in case of ties, attended.
“Honestly, if you call any commissioner right now, they’ll tell you they didn’t know about it,” he said Monday. “I’m one of those.”
But when about 30 concerned citizens, including several who had launched a petition drive to call a referendum to repeal the commissioners’ resolution, showed up at the hearing, many took notice of the commissioners’ absence.
County Manager Tom Couch said the commissioners were emailed a notice about the hearing one week before it occurred, but he and other staff members made no effort to urge commissioners to attend. It was not announced as a Board of Commissioners’ meeting, and the commissioners’ presence was not specially required in DCA guidelines.
In Couch’s years in county management since the Georgia Planning Act was enacted in its current form in 1989, this was the first time he recalls that the general public turned out for a hearing on comprehensive plan amendment, he said Monday.
But Couch acknowledged that the current situation in Bulloch County is unique. Several applications by property owners and developers for rezoning of AG-5 agriculture-zoned land in the southeastern part of the county met vocal opposition from neighbors during planning and zoning board hearings and commissioners’ meetings over the summer. County officials expect the demand for new housing to accelerate as Hyundai Motor Group builds and powers up an 8,100-employee electric vehicle plant at a regional site in northern Bryan County, about five miles from the Bulloch County line.
It was with these things in mind that commissioners passed the six-month moratorium, which blocks action on rezoning applications for residential subdivisions to all classifications denser than R-80, in other words with lots measuring 1.8 acres or larger.
“In the emails we sent out, we didn’t tell them (the commissioners), ‘you need to be here,’ and … I take personal responsibility for that,” Couch said. “While on the one hand I had no way of knowing that an organized group of people would come out to the hearing, I think something as game-changing as what we’re trying to do, and the Hyundai impact, hindsight being 20-20, I should have insisted on asking commissioners to come.”
The Oct. 10 meeting will be “just to be there and listen to (citizens’) concerns,” Thompson said.
“Right now I think all of the commissioners will be there,” he added Monday.
He noted that the commissioners at this point have not discussed changing anything about the actual zoning but have only wanted to look at whether changes are needed in the regulations, conditions and ordinances applied to development. He also likes to remind people that the commissioners are not calling farmers or other property owners in the moratorium area asking them to sell land for residential or other purposes.
Instead, it is the property owners who come to the county boards seeking the changes.
“I’ve said, listen, we’d be out of the growth business if these farmers, or these landowners down there, don’t want to sell their property,” Thompson said. “Then the ones that are coming in looking to build or looking to move into the area can go to Candler County, they can go to Toombs County, to Tattnall County … and we’d have no growth. We’re only there if a person wants to sell his property, but we’re not encouraging that either.”
During hearings on rezoning applications from the Southeast Bulloch area, Thompson has received petition sheets with “probably 600-plus names” of people stating that “they don’t want growth” and “they’re not going to sell their property,” he said.
He said he would recommend denying future applications if any show up from people “who signed it against their neighbor.”
New petition drive
But those “petitions,” he confirmed, were separate from the recently launched petition drive seeking a referendum election to repeal the Aug. 16 resolution and revert the comprehensive plan to its Aug. 1 status. It also seeks to require voter approval for any future changes regarding “open space” character areas and neighborhood approval for any rezoning of AG-5 land, limited further to only R-80 zoning.
The signatures of about 4,700 Bulloch County registered voters from the November 2020 general election would be needed for that effort to have a chance at placing a referendum on a ballot.
In a letter emailed Sept. 28 to all seven commissioners, Paul Abel, a spokesman for the referendum petition group, asserted that the Sept. 19 hearing did not meet DCA requirements for a public hearing to initiate comprehensive plan changes. He argues that the county failed to post sufficient notice in the newspaper before the meeting and that commissioners should have been present.
But Abel also stated that the group does not want the process to become adversarial.
“As Mr. Couch said at the September 19 meeting, we all want the same thing — what is best for the residents of the county,” Abel wrote. “We are asking you to allow the public at large to have a more meaningful role in the current (Smart Bulloch 2040) amendment process.”
Couch said members of the group are being specifically invited to Monday’s listening session. Additionally, a further public hearing may be scheduled for Nov. 1, he said Monday, but this has yet to be decided.
“Whatever we’re doing with this stuff, I can assure everybody we’re going to operate in the sunshine with it,” Couch said. “We might get sunburnt.”