For the last several years, growth has been the overriding issue in Columbia County, which has increasingly spread out and bulked up to become a legitimate economic player in the state. Whether it has blossomed into that role or exploded into it depends on where you’re standing. If you’re out by Riverwood, things seem to be unfolding easily and orderly, like the petals of a flower. If you’re riding the brakes in Martinez, surrounded by car lots and pizza joints and all those signs, it definitely looks more like an explosion. Therefore, the county is gathering just about everyone they can find to work on a new Growth Management Plan that will attempt to keep the explosiveness contained.
“Columbia County started as a bedroom community, and it’s not that anymore,” says Jean Garniewicz, who is the vice chair of the Growth Management Plan’s steering committee and the former chair of the county’s Planning Commission. “It’s a community unto itself.”
With two cities — Grovetown and Harlem — and three additional urban areas — Appling, Evans and Martinez — it’s a county that is quickly losing its bedroom feeling, and that shift hasn’t always come easily.
“A lot of people wanted to close the doors,” says Ron Cross, who as chairman of the Columbia County Commission for the last 12 years has guided the county through most of the growth. “But you can’t just maintain. You’re either moving forward or you’re regressing.”
While the desirability of growth might once have been up for debate, those days are long gone. Growth is a certainty now, and with December’s announcement that Fort Gordon is going to be the new home for the Army’s Cyber Command, its continuation is an inevitability. The only thing left to debate is how to control the explosion in a way that allows less of the sprawl of Martinez and more of the order that other parts of the community enjoy.
Sitting in a meeting room just outside his cluttered office in Building B at the Government Center off Ronald Regan Road in Evans — a spot that was once considered the frontier — planner Andrew Strickland projects a calm demeanor in the face of all the upcoming decisions, but he makes it clear that he appreciates the uniqueness of his position.
“As a planner, all through school they tell you you’ll make these plans now and affect development 20 or 30 or 40 years in the future,” he says. “Maybe by the end of your career you can realize what you’ve done and find out if it worked. But in Columbia County, you can just about see that in real time.”
While that growth comes with unique demands on resources, Strickland says the quick pace allows them to adjust to the growth better, which ultimately saves money and minimizes headaches for everyone.
“It’s less expensive to build a road in an undeveloped area than it is to go back and build one, so it’s important for all the departments involved that we work together to make sure that we’re spending money where we need to spend money and we’re getting the biggest bang for our buck,” he says. “We don’t want to have to build something new down the road because something we built first wasn’t adequate enough.”
Older, more established communities like Augusta don’t have the luxury of this kind of fresh development, and Columbia County officials have to look no further than the clutter of Martinez to realize it.
“Martinez was a bedroom community and nobody thought it was going to be what it is,” Garniewicz says. “It’s Automobile Row. Nobody realized this was going to happen.”
Richard Harmon, the former Development Services director, once referred to Martinez as an area to get a “tattoo and a pizza.”
Though many of the major car dealers have certainly spruced up over the last couple of years, Garniewicz says redevelopment is tough because it almost always comes at a cost. Making an area like the Martinez corridor look more appealing with additional trees or bushes doesn’t just cost property owners additional money, it often takes away from a business’ parking area.
“That’s a very tough sell,” Garniewicz says.
In order to try to control this kind of growth, the county uses a node and corridor system, where they assign certain kinds of zoning to allow for certain kinds of uses. This attempts to impose a kind of reason to the growth so that residential isn’t butted right up against commercial the way it can be in certain places. However, even that kind of attention can only do so much.
For several years, people wondered what was going to occupy the open lot at the corner of Washington Road and Bobby Jones Expressway across from Stanton Optical. It was a prime location with an incredible traffic count, and many were surprised when Discount Tire popped up.
Was that the best the county could do?
“It’s commercial,” Garniewicz says of the area. “I guess a restaurant would have been nice, but when somebody tells you what they want to put there — as long as it fits within the guidelines of the Growth Management Plan, which it certainly did — how are you going to say no? I don’t think you can go and tell somebody, ‘No — we don’t want you here.’ I don’t think that’s right.”
Strickland agrees. For him, a building is more important than its use.
“We can control pretty well what a business looks like, and really that’s what people see,” he says. “They’re not necessarily seeing a tire store, they’re seeing a giant sign, the roll up doors on the side and things like that. But you can work with that. You can work with each business to make it attractive and make it fit more into the landscape.”
Strickland admits that it’s not always easy.
“We don’t want to make things so restrictive that businesses don’t want to be here,” he says. “But at the same time, we want to make sure they fit in the community’s vision.”
A good example of that is the Marshall Square development, which has long been billed as downtown Evans, the so-called heart of Columbia County. Originally planned whole cloth, the economic downturn played havoc with the original design, and a lawsuit left the area to be developed piecemeal, which Strickland says makes it tough to keep the vision intact. As a result, there is a lack of unity in the architectural styles. While the permitted uses might be compatible and each building is fundamentally attractive, the buildings don’t always look like they belong next to each other.
Even keeping the uses straight isn’t always easy, Cross says.
“We discovered six years or so ago that you could put a slaughterhouse in Evans Towne Center and all sorts of other crap,” he says. “Why it was in there, nobody knows. But it was put in, so we spent two weeks with the commission and staff redoing it.”
While no one other than a meat processor wants a slaughterhouse in the Evans Towne Center area, Cross maintains it’s important to remain flexible.
“It’s a very fluid process, and to try to get static with growth is when you really start messing up,” he says. “The Growth Management Plan is pretty much a standard. You try to maintain a certain standard, but not necessarily down to the minute points.”
The Growth Management Plan county officials are starting to work on is a 20-year plan required by the Department of Community Affairs. The full plan must be adopted by the Board of Commissioners by Feb. 28, 2016, and given the amount of growth anticipated from the addition of the Cyber Command to Fort Gordon, it is coming at a perfect time.
“The Cyber Command stuff has certainly surprised the region,” Strickland says. “It kind of kicked everybody in the pants and got us to say that this is something important that we really need to plan for.”
By 2019, Army officials say Fort Gordon will have a Cyber Command headquarters, the Cyber Center of Excellence and a Cyber Mission Unit. With that will come nearly 4,000 military and civilian jobs.
“The good thing about the Cyber Command and the Cyber School of Excellence is that they’re not going to dump 4,000 people tomorrow,” Cross says. “So we’ve got time.”
Though the first 50 soldiers are anticipated to move into the area by summer, full strength isn’t expected until 2019.
“The big thing that’s good about it — they’re good paying jobs,” Cross says. “Unlike Richmond County, we’ve not pursued call centers. If someone wants to come, that’s fine, but as far as going and trying to run down somebody that needs rezoning and all kinds of incentives to come and give you 200-300 minimum-wage jobs, I don’t think that’s going to help our situation at all.”
Given the scope of the project and the time needed to prepare, Cross admits the infrastructure issues aren’t going to be easy to resolve.
“A lot of things that we’ve been doing have been geared toward growth, but we just can’t turn them around,” he says.
A prime example is the three years it took to get the permit for the extension of William Few because of a bridge that crossed over a swamp area.
“We had to do a noise impact study, and there’s nothing in the damn place but frogs,” he says.
Frogs or not, the county was told it had to do a study based on what might happen out there. They went to the private landowners, who didn’t have immediate plans, and submitted letters to that effect.
“By the time we got that in and $50,000 later, they said they no longer required that,” Cross says.
Three times the county has made submissions to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to have an exchange at Louisville Road based on future growth, but Cross says the agency wouldn’t allow them to do it.
“They said you can’t base it on future growth, you have to base it on what’s there today,” Cross says.
Given the extent of the growth predicted by the arrival of Cyber Command, Cross hopes their argument will be looked at with fresh eyes, particularly in light of Fort Gordon’s consideration of moving the gate to an area between Grovetown and Harlem.
Cross also says he hopes the current delegation, which he describes as more rational and level headed than delegations in the past, will help move things along in Atlanta.
While the Board of Education is handcuffed because they can’t build until they’re overloaded, Cross says the TSPLOST has proven to be a good source of money that will help them stay a little closer to the growth curve.
“But on a multi-billion dollar project like they’re talking about, we’re pretty much frozen,” he says. “We can’t tackle that big a project with 132,000 people, and neither can Richmond County with 200,000 people. That’s got to come from way up high.”
Though Cross says he sees the value in a long-term plan and in the work the steering committee is doing to make sure the Growth Management Plan looks at all the aspects necessary, he says something else also needs to be done.
“My complaint is that we keep talking, but to the wrong people,” he says. “We need to get FHWA, the Department of Defense, the Army, Georgia Department of Transportation, Columbia County and Richmond County to sit down in the same room, because we’re not going to fund anything unless we know what’s going on with everything. We’ve got to know what FHWA is going to do, what the Department of Defense is going to do and how it’s going to be routed.”
He says such meetings are in the works.
According to Strickland, the certainty and relative permanence of the Cyber Command mission makes committing to the growth a little less of a gamble.
“It’s a lot more stable for the long term, so I think we can commit some resources for providing that growth,” he says. “At the same time, the Fort Gordon growth is going to attract growth in neighboring sectors, so I think we need to do a better job of accounting for that growth as well. It will be very important for us to keep a dialog between all the affected counties. A lot of folks think we’re competing with those counties, but we’re not. There is plenty to go around.”
While most of the additional people are anticipated to make their homes in Columbia County because of the quality of the schools and the ease of movement a proper growth plan should allow, that ease of movement doesn’t necessarily exist right now, especially in Grovetown. Backups on Robinson Avenue (toward Fort Gordon) and on Wrightsboro Road easily rival the Martinez stretch of Washington Road.
Cross and Grovetown Mayor George James speak frequently by phone about growth and other issues, and though both admit the relationship between the two governing bodies has been strained in the past, Cross says it’s gotten better because of the need to collaborate on the growth issue.
Harlem, however, wants no part of the growth, Cross says.
“Harlem has decided they’re just a little Mayberry, and they’ve got enough people that don’t want to change it, so it will stay like it is,” he says.
Grovetown, on the other hand, is experiencing growth on a scale equal to the growth experienced by much of the rest of the county. The Gateway area off I-20 is about to get more retail and eventually around 300 previously zoned apartments next to the already established Walmart shopping area, which also includes medical offices, restaurants, the Family Y/Exhibition Hall and a lot of room for additional expansion.
The steering committee for the Growth Management Plan is made up of representatives from different county divisions, the Construction Board, the Engineering Board, Fort Gordon, the Board of Education, the Historical Society, Harlem, Grovetown and the CSRA Alliance for Fort Gordon. They will be holding a public meeting on Thursday, April 24 at 6 p.m. at the Board of Commissioner’s conference room at the Columbia County Government Center. In addition, a request for proposals went out Wednesday for a consultant to manage the Growth Management Pan. Strickland says that while the consultant will take over and move everyone through the process, the steering committee will continue to remain active.
Everyone involved hopes the public takes advantage of the public meetings and participates along the way, especially Garniewicz, who has been down this road before.
“Public attendance was my big problem with the last Growth Management Plan,” she says. “We had a committee meeting at the Building A Auditorium in the Government Center and I think eight people came. I was devastated. They should all be here voicing their opinion. This is going to affect everybody.”