Stephens Co. Commission Passes Land Use Ordinance

March 12, 2014

Land use is coming to Stephens County.

County commissioners approved the land use ordinance by a vote of 4-1 during their meeting Tuesday morning.

Stephens County Commission Chairman Dean Scarborough said that while the ordinance may not be perfect, he feels it is needed.

“I could not be more certain that we have the need and this is the time,” said Scarborough.  “I will be able to sleep at night without one iota of concern that I am making the wrong decision.”

Stanley London was the lone commissioner to vote against the ordinance.

He called the land use ordinance a double-edged sword, saying it is not a cure-all and could cause problems down the road despite what may be good intentions.

“Think about it,” said London.  “Let’s not make a hasty decision.  Yes, this has been going on for 30 years, but something this delicate that is going to face and affect every citizen in this county, we need to know what we are doing before we jump into it.”

Prior to the motion to pass the land use ordinance, London made a motion to postpone the vote, create a moratorium on certain developments, and put the issue on the ballot for the county’s voters to have a say.  It failed for lack of a second.

As part of the motion to approve land use, county commissioners agreed to have a quarterly review of the ordinance to work on it and consider changes.

That was put forward by Commissioner Dennis Bell.

He voted for the ordinance, saying that while he was very split on this, he feels this is needed to protect the citizens of the county and help with economic development.

At the same time, Bell said he also hears and understands those that have concerns and feels the meetings to review the ordinance are crucial.

“When we meet on this, we need to take it to heart and make sure it is done the correct way to make sure our citizens are taken care of out there,” said Bell.

Approval came after a 90-minute public hearing on the ordinance that brought out both sides of the issue.

Speaking as a private citizen, Toccoa Mayor Gail Fry said the community needs to protect itself from things that might have a negative impact on the whole community.

Fry said that Wilbros’ owner Joe Wilbanks said in court he came to Stephens County because there was no zoning.

“If we have no zoning, other Joe Wilbanks are out there and they are going to do what they want to do,” said Fry.

However, opponents point out that Wilbros is grandfathered in and say that businesses with enough money can still figure out a way around the ordinance.

Former State Representative Michael Harden said he also worries about loosely defined language in the ordinance.

“We cannot write ordinances for this commission or the next commission,” said Harden.  “When we write laws, we have to assume that they are going to be interpreted by the worst commission.  Although I have confidence in you guys that you would interpret a lot of this language well, I do not have confidence in the worst commission to come, whether it be next year or 20 years from now.”

Harden also said he feels the ordinance unfairly puts stricter rules on trailers and mobile home parks.

Supporters point out that the ordinance is a document that can be changed and amended later to fix problems or unintended consequences.

Also, Stephens County Attorney Brian Ranck pointed out that existing uses on properties are all grandfathered in.

“Nothing will stop those uses,” said Ranck.  “You can expand those uses on the existing lot.  You can sell to a third party.”

The only limitation, Ranck said, is if someone expands on to a separate lot, that lot would fall under the ordinance.

Some people also suggested that the issue should be decided by a public referendum and not the commissioners.

However, Ranck said a referendum could not be binding and could only serve as a “straw poll,” with the commission still needing to make the final decision.

After approving the land use ordinance, commissioners also voted 4-1 to approve the county’s zoning map, with London again serving as the lone opposing vote.

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