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Cornelius: Creating a de facto policy to limit growth

POSTED: February 2, 2008 5:02 a.m.

This unwelcome interlude in Hall County's growth gives us an opportunity to discuss more honestly and openly the longer term problems that Hall County faces.

This interlude is of course born of the drought and mortgage and housing troubles. Yes, these immediate crises will go away. The development, real estate and mortgage industries will work through their current troubles. The drought will end, the lake will fill again. We'll fish and ski and have plenty of water for businesses and homes.

But anyone paying attention recognizes that the larger truth about water and growth will not go away: On the current path, growth will at some point outstrip what Lake Lanier can provide - we might delay it a year or so with patchwork measures, but those will not be enough.

Which means we in Hall County should be talking in detail about both growth and water: How to influence growth in ways that allow Hall County to become a greater place to live and work and go to school, with our share of better skills in the work force and, hence, better-paying jobs they can generate; and how to conserve more water and develop new sources so we'll not face shortages whenever there is a serious drought.

If Hall County gains a reputation as a place where periodic water crises hamper the operation of business and industry, a place where outsiders should think twice before buying or building a home, we will, in effect, be putting in place a powerful slow- or no-growth policy. It would be, I suspect, extremely effective.

Developers, real estate agents and most companies don't want that, nor do people who believe we can attract businesses and industries that offer better jobs and better pay, many of which would not use high volumes of water.

So what should we do? As a practical matter, what we have to do is count on leadership from elected officials and other community leaders. If we don't have leaders committed to prudent policies on growth and water, all of our talk, whatever plans and visions we come up with, will go for naught.

We have to press leaders with focused questions and more focused questions, and demand real answers to focused questions. Bumper sticker debates about whether someone is for growth or no-growth won't do.

What we can't do is let elected and other leaders bumfuzzle us with shallow sound bites and slick plans with charts, graphs and pictures that end up being watered-down or used to distract people from what is actually happening.

We have to count on The Times to press leadership, to ask questions that generate the kind of detail we all need, detail about achieving a balance between using investment in new sewer to serve residences and to attract better jobs.

Ultimately, we need to hold officials accountable, including at the polls. And while the presidential race will dominate our public life next year, those of us in Hall County need to recognize that next year's county commission races could be a turning point. Certainly, the debate and push for accountability between now and then could be a turning point.

No one expects easy answers. In fact, we will distrust easy answers; we know they are no answer at all.

Our problems are aggravated by this fact: Hall County is home to a small minority of the people and businesses that use water from Lake Lanier. So we're limited in what we can do in the big picture. But we have to do what we can do, and we need to figure out exactly what this is.

It's time to start, or at least we need to get cracking once Christmas and New Year's are past. If we don't, we will still have a policy; it will just be a de facto policy, one built on inertia and a refusal to face the basics of our situation.

Tack Cornelius is a Gainesville resident. His columns appear occasionally.


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