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Editorial: A development worthy of a green light
While traffic worries are valid, adult community on Dawsonville Highway offers sensible growth
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The Gainesville City Council members vote to approve development by Oak Hall Companies LLC during a meeting Tuesday . Oak Hall Companies LLC is looking to develop an 880 home, active adult community. Each proposal discussed was approved. - photo by David Barnes

There are great benefits to living in a county with a robust economy and quality of life that lures more people to move here, but also a price to pay at times. That push and pull of progress in our area now is playing out on Dawsonville Highway and plans for an 860-home active-adult community.

After weeks of debate, the Gainesville City Council last week gave initial approval to the project, which would create 535 single homes and a 325-unit structure for independent- and assisted-living residents on a 234-acre site.

Opposing the plan are residents concerned any development will bring more congestion to a highway already choked with traffic and strain other public services, increasing the tax burden. It’s a problem common to a Gainesville metro area whose population and commercial growth have boomed beyond what its roads can handle, with city and county planners still struggling to keep pace.

City officials and the developers are aware of those worries, though, and have sought to address them. Developer Oak Hall has offered to contribute $425,000 toward roadway improvements on that busy stretch of Dawsonville Highway between Alahuna and McEver Road, a promise key to the council’s approval.

“They’re willing to invest potentially millions of dollars here, and I think I have the responsibility to take this tax burden off the taxpayer and place it on these guys, who are willing to take it,” Councilman Zack Thompson said.

Will it be enough? Those who oppose the plan don’t think so, and take exception to the traffic study Oak Hall offered, saying gridlock on the busy thoroughfare is already overdue for attention.

One issue they raise is how traffic counts are done as part of evaluation process in determining whether such projects should be approved. The required standards for obtaining such data may well need to be updated to allow for better and more accurate information.

While these concerns are valid, there are several other factors that made it hard for the council to turn down the project. The need to manage the area’s growth is vital, and why planners and elected officials need to follow the negative examples from some neighboring counties to remember what happens when runaway development isn’t controlled properly.

But other than the traffic worries that already are on the city’s radar, and with money offered by the developer to ease it, this project seems to meet the standards of managed growth in a reasonable way. To wit:

• A community mostly of seniors doesn’t burden all public services, particularly the need to build more schools. When large, single-home subdivisions sprout like dandelions, they draw families with young children and obligate cities and counties to build pricey new schools and teachers and staff to fill them. That means higher school taxes for local taxpayers. But a community of older adults doesn’t spark such a need.

 Though traffic is indeed a worry, senior communities don’t fill roads as often, with fewer drivers overall and retirees less likely to clog roads during rush-hour peaks.

 While any new residents do add the need for services like water, sewer and public safety, they will be paying property taxes and carrying their share of the weight.

 Communities of older residents are attracted to the area for several reasons: the weather, the natural beauty of the lake and mountains and the proximity to health care at Northeast Georgia Medical Center and its satellite services. They are, for the most part, self-sufficient, law-abiding and well-to-do, and offer new paying customers for local businesses.

They also can spend more hours volunteering and serving in the community than those who work full schedules. In many ways, they make our community better and should be welcomed.

But there’s another principle at work here: Freedom to do business. As much as growth needs to be controlled and residents’ concerns considered, there’s only so much governments can or should do to limit what someone can legally do on purchased land.

In this case, the area is zoned for residential use, and the number of homes planned fits within that standard. There simply isn’t a valid reason to deny it beyond the fact that some people don’t want it.

Municipalities need to work hard on their zoning plans to maintain the balance between residential and commercial areas and keep their tax digests in sync, easing the burden on homeowners and providing jobs close to home. Too much of one or the other can tilt that equilibrium the wrong way. Yet when a residential developer wants to build homes in a reasonable fashion, in an area already zoned for them, what can a city do but vote yes?

It is encouraging to see a developer agree to help fund traffic improvements, and more should help share that burden. But the hard truth is that managing traffic remains a government function, and private landowners should not be punished due to a city’s or county’s failure to do so effectively.

Like council members, we’d like to ensure Oak Hall will live up to its agreement to pay for traffic lights and other needs to ease residents’ angst over road congestion. If they come through, there’s no way to justify anything but a thumbs-up vote for a development that appears to meet the criteria for carefully managed growth.

There is a tendency in growing communities for those who arrive first to try and “close the gate” behind them to keep others out. But doing so in a way that tramples on legitimate and reasonable property rights is neither legal nor right.

Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a a letter to the editor; you can use this form or email to The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.