Cordial working session on county growth pays off
SPRINGFIELD — Thursday’s public work session at the Effingham County Administrative Complex proved quite productive.
Effingham County residents and stakeholders gave the Effingham County Board of Commissioners exactly what it wanted during a 2.5 hour discussion – a helpful input on managing growth and its impact on maintaining a high quality of life. It appeared that each of the approximately 50 participants who wished to speak did so.
“It really was a breath of fresh air,” District 2 Commissioner Roger Burdette said Friday. “Everyone had good comments. They were constructive. No one was there just angry which is not constructive.
“We had some very good suggestions that made a lot of sense. I was impressed. I think that was a good start for what we’re trying to do here.
Effingham County ranks in the top three percent nationally in population growth.
“Ten years ago we were at about 52,700 people here in Effingham County,” County Executive Tim Callanan said during the working session. “The most recent update, which was in March the year after the census (2020), we were at 66,741. That’s a growth of 27%, or 15,000 people, in just about 10 years.
Nearly half of Effingham County’s 30,923 employees are employed in Chatham County. Only 9,592 remain in the county for work, making poor traffic and road safety major concerns among crowds. The loss of trees to residential developments and warehouses was also a major concern.
The council adopted Rita Diaz’s suggestion to make green space a standalone category for the county’s overall master plan.
“I never really thought of green space that way,” Burdette said. “I don’t know how many other municipalities or counties do this kind of thing, but it’s a great idea to filter this out categorically and have your own set of more environmentally friendly principles.
“I think it’s a great idea.”
Currently, green spaces are a small feature of master plans being created or updated in the following categories:
— Transport infrastructure
— Water, sewer and reuse infrastructure
— Storm water distribution system
— Condition and use of facilities
— Park facilities
— Solid waste
— Revision and modernization of the land use planning and zoning code
— Update of the overall county plan
Green space is a concern as housing developments gobble up large chunks of property in the county, especially in the Burdette neighborhood. 680 building permits were issued in fiscal year 2022, which is close to the record total of 2009.
“Obviously we don’t have an even distribution of population across the county,” Callanan said. “Most of it is closer to I-95 and the Chatham County line.”
Despite the housing boom in the county, residential land use is only 13,031 acres.
“There are 10 times more agricultural properties than residential or industrial properties,” Callanan said.
The board’s efforts to keep up with growth have been hampered by a lack of funds. The tax summary ($2,504,458,101) did not reflect population growth. It has risen 24% since 2009, but has remained below the 2009 level for almost a decade following the Great Recession.
“We had a massive drop in income even though the population continued to grow,” Callanan said. “Because we were in a recession, (the council) didn’t respond by increasing mileage rates and so as a result we had to cut things, mainly deferred maintenance and those kinds of items during those low years , and we’re still coming out of a little hole when it comes to upgrading our infrastructure, but we’re getting there.
Effingham County Government responsibilities include provision of emergency medical service, 911 emergency dispatch, emergency preparedness, parks and recreation, infrastructure and road maintenance , water and sewer utility, county correctional facility, animal shelter, development services (planning, zoning, code enforcement, permitting and inspections), sheriff’s office and jail, assessor, commissioner tax, judicial system, justice, coroner and voter registration and elections.
Callanan noted that tax revenue hasn’t increased 24% since 2009 like the digest. This is because of mileage rate reductions.
“…we’re now behind the eight ball, so this relatively new board is here and we’re looking at all the future, the rapid growth that we have, and we have to figure out how to respond to that,” said Wesley Corbitt, president of the board, during the working session. “That’s why we need your help and input. You can throw a rock at us tonight – that’s OK, we can handle it – but we want to hear what we need to hear, not what you think we want to hear.
“We can make better decisions when we hear what we’re meant to hear.”
Voters recently bolstered the council’s ability to meet transportation needs by passing TSPLOST, a 1% sales tax that can be used for transportation purposes only. It is expected to generate $45 million over the next three years.
“We chose to go out and get the bonds so we could get the money, get the contracts, complete the walk (Effingham), complete the security, the roundabouts. You’re going to see a lot of work there,” Corbitt said.
Road safety is one reason Burdette thinks a moratorium should be considered in parts of the county, including the “bottleneck” in Hodgeville Road/Kolic Helmy Road/Ga. Highway 30 area.
“It’s getting to the point where people can’t get out of their driveway anymore,” Burdette said Thursday. “Now it’s a matter of safety rather than just an obstacle or worsening traffic, that’s when I came up with the idea of a moratorium.”
At the start of the work session, Corbitt predicted that the 680 active building permits would translate to about 4,500 more cars on Effingham County roads. There are 1,700 lots available for homes in District 2, Burdette said.
“We have a big problem now and it’s coming,” added Burdette.
At a minimum, Burdette thinks the council should find a way to slow the growth of “pressure points” until all county master plans and some key road projects are completed.
Some of the commissioners expressed distrust of the term “moratorium”, but agreed that there might be a way to slow growth in growth hotspots. Burdette noted that only one audience member spoke out against a moratorium.
On Friday, Burdette voiced support for a three-year hiatus in development.
“I’ll be the first to get up and end it early if we can see some light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.
Another immediate county problem is water and sewer capacity. A water shortage recently prevented her from accessing a Gallo wine processing site, costing her a major contributory industry.
“It would have been wonderful jobs for some people, probably a very clean business in our area…” Corbitt said.
The county’s sewage treatment plant is limited to 500,000 gallons due to spray field discharge capacity. Expansion of spray field capacity could increase water treatment capacity to 1 million gallons per day.
At the end of the work session, Corbitt promised residents would have additional opportunities to share their thoughts and ideas.
“A lot of times we don’t have all the answers,” Burdette said Friday. “I’ll be the first to admit it. We are not supposed to have all the answers.
“We are supposed to work with people.”