While county commissioners have a partial rezoning moratorium in effect for southeastern Bulloch County and staff members propose to amend the Smart Bulloch 2040 plan to allow for a few areas of concentrated residential growth, a citizens group has started a petition seeking to repeal any such changes.
“Their resolution, which included the moratorium, was clearly designed to end the protections that the current system provides for agricultural land, so we want to repeal that lessening of the protections,” Paul Abel, one of the creators of the petition, said Friday.
However, officials such as County Manager Tom Couch say the moratorium and new planning are meant to protect the rural character of Bulloch County as much as possible while accommodating an influx of new residents. That influx is expected to accelerate as Hyundai Motor Group builds its announced 8,100-employee electric vehicle and battery manufacturing complex at the Joint Development Authority mega site in northern Bryan County about five miles from the Bulloch line.
Rules for the existing AG-5 agricultural zoning that still covers much of Bulloch County allow for division into tracts as small as five acres. Without the moratorium, the commissioners and their appointed planning and zoning board would still be hearing landowners’ applications for residential rezoning to allow for smaller lot sizes, especially in the southeastern quadrant.
“The whole county is going to feel some kind of population growth, but we think it’s going to be more profound in the Southeast Bulloch area, and we realize that there’s a tremendous amount of prime agricultural, farm and forestry land that needs to be protected. …,” Couch said.
“The question becomes would you rather have the growth in a more centralized or contained area or would you rather have leapfrog development or what I call a measles map of subdivisions.”
That was during a public hearing county staff members held at 5 p.m. last Monday to launch the process for revising the county comprehensive plan. It was neither a Board of Commissioners meeting – in fact, none of the seven commissioners attended – nor a meeting of the steering committee named to help guide the comprehensive plan revision during the moratorium.
The 180-day moratorium temporarily bars processing of landowners or developers’ requests to rezone tracts in the southeastern area to any residential classification other than R-80, or in other words, for lots smaller than about 1.8 acres. It will expire Feb. 10, unless the commissioners act to extend it.
Meanwhile, the “stakeholders” steering committee, county staff members and a consulting firm are expected to move forward with drafting the proposed changes.
Couch proposes creating Bulloch’s first county-operated water and sewer services as a lure to concentrate residential development in certain areas of the southeastern quadrant.
This would expand on a multi-county proposal to have Bulloch County host four large wells – two to be Bulloch government property and two that would be owned by Bryan County although located it Bulloch – to provide water to the Hyundai plant. This has been proposed because Bulloch is not subject to some groundwater use restrictions affecting Bryan County.
To facilitate residential and some commercial growth in areas served by the future county water and sewer systems, local officials could amend the Future Land Use Map in the comprehensive plan. In its most recent overhaul, adopted in 2019 and originally meant to supply guidelines for 20 years, the plan is called Smart Bulloch 2040.
A state law requires every local government to have a comprehensive plan, and Georgia Department of Community Affairs rules require holding public hearings to amend the plan, noted county Planning and Development Director James Pope. Monday’s hearing at the county’s North Main Annex was the first, and another is proposed to be held sometime in January at the Honey Bowen Building.
Meanwhile, the first of three interim public reports on the process is slated to be released next Friday, Sept. 30, with others to follow Oct. 28 and Dec. 20.
The nine-member steering committee consists of Board of Commissioners Chairman Roy Thompson, Commissioner Curt Deal, Commissioner Anthony Simmons, Planning and Zoning Commission Chair Jeanne Anne Marsh and member Charles Chandler, farmer and landowner Will Groover, farmer and landowner Wade McElveen, Development Authority of Bulloch County CEO Benjy Thompson and county schools Superintendent Charles Wilson.
The county is posting info on the process at https://bullochcounty.net/comprehensive-plan-amendment.
The water and sewer service zones for the unincorporated southeastern area could be meshed with changes in “character areas” defined in the plan and shown on the map, Couch and Pope have said. In particular, they suggest expanding “suburban corridors” or creating new “suburban neighborhood” areas.
But from the about 30 county residents – other than staff members – who attended Monday’s hearing, several spoke expressing a preference for leaving the character areas as they were drawn in the 2019 version of the plan.
“We don’t think any amendment to Smart Bulloch 2040 is necessary at this time,” Abel said. “We think you did a very good job three years ago when you created the plan. We think it sets forth a logical and rational approach for economic growth in Bulloch County for the foreseeable future.”
He called for a referendum “on the future of Bulloch County.”
Kerrie Mason, a resident of Old River Road South who recently moved to Bulloch County from Massachusetts, said she agreed that there should be a public vote.
“There are only two farmers on that board that you have created, in total nine people,” she said. “In Bulloch County there’s 80,000 people. That is not a fair display of what the community wants; that’s a tiny, tiny, tiny percentage.”
Michael Bailey, who lives on a road off Old River Road, not far from Mason and Abel, said he became concerned after the county received rezoning requests for a subdivision containing 89 homes and another for 97 homes, and other developments all in the immediate area.
“I appreciate the fact that you’re not developing them,” Bailey said to the county staff. “It’s individuals trying to develop these tracts. I understand that, that’s the American way, it’s capitalism, right? … But we believe that if you’re doing something that’s going to impact my lifestyle, these people’s lifestyle, we should have a say in it.”
These speakers drew applause from others who attended, most being petition supporters.
The petition, which can be found by searching for Bulloch County Public Referendum on Facebook, proposes to bring a referendum to keep in place the “Natural Open Space” and “Rural Open Space” areas of the Future Development Map.
If legally possible and approved by voters, the referendum would also prohibit rezoning of any tracts of 10 or more acres in the “Open Space” of AG-5 districts unless each change is approved by 67% of property owners within a one-mile radius. Even with neighbors’ approval, the wording would further restrict rezoning to only the R-80 lot sizes. The petition method is stated to be based in the home rule provisions of Article IX of the Georgia Constitution.
But County Attorney Jeff Akins expressed doubt that such a referendum by petition is legally tenable for a county ordinance or resolution. This will be explored in a story next week.
Abel said that the petition currently has “hundreds” of signatures but about 5,000 confirmed signatures of Bulloch County registered voters would be required to place a referendum on a ballot under Article IX.