In Don Smallwood’s 21 years on the Hall County Planning Commission, the county’s population grew by almost 50 percent — growth that Smallwood was at the center of as the commission’s chairman.
He joined the commission in 1997 and was chairman for most of his time on the advisory board, which considers zoning and development proposals and votes on recommendations to the Hall County Board of Commissioners.
Smallwood presided over his last meeting Dec. 3, when he announced his retirement. He still has his business, D-Jay Petroleum, to keep him busy.
He said the job was enjoyable, although it was difficult at times.
“I’ve seen several commissioners come and go, and I’ve seen several members of the planning board come and go, but we’ve been fortunate in Hall County. We’ve had good people,” Smallwood said.
He said the county has seen much development over the last 20 years, putting the planning commission in the sometimes tough position of balancing the rights of property owners or businesses with rights of neighbors who have concerns about their changing hometown.
The debate can get emotional, he said, and he understands that people may not want to see their neighborhood change.
“You just have to look at what it is, where it is, how it is and then make your decision based on that,” Smallwood said. “You always try to be fair to the application, fair to the county and fair to the people that are already there.”
He said one memorable meeting involved the Northeast Georgia Medical Center Braselton, which opened in 2015. While the hospital’s services are appreciated now, some neighbors were opposed to the development when it was in the planning stages — a common occurrence, he said.
“One of the best decisions that we made that was highly criticized at the time was the new hospital at Braselton. … People love it now, but when they were talking about doing it and were zoning for it, they didn’t like it,” Smallwood said. “That’s what you get sometimes.”
South Hall has seen the most growth recently, but Smallwood said he sees the next area for growth as the Ga. 365 corridor, with employers like Kubota and the new Lanier Technical College campus paving the way for development.
“That’s a good corridor and we’ll see more sustained growth up there,” Smallwood said.
He said when he first started on the commission, growth was steady, but about a decade later, the economic recession hit, stalling some of the development.
“When the building boom went on, everyone was building. Then, when the economy went down, a lot of the builders and people got hurt because they couldn’t sustain it. … They went broke, and some of the stuff they had started is still sitting there and has not been developed,” Smallwood said.
Now that the economy is recovering, some developers are revisiting what had been abandoned, he said.
Gina Pilcher was appointed to the planning commission on Dec. 13 to fill the open seat, and the commission will now choose its own new chair.
“I enjoyed it. I felt like it was my way of giving back,” Smallwood said. “…It kept me in the know and it kept me involved, and I felt like somewhere along the way that maybe I made a difference. That’s what I was trying to do.”