Growing pains of county evident

Published 10:56 pm Saturday, November 11, 2006

The debate on managing growth in Pearl River County grew contentious at times Thursday night as county planning and development personnel sought input on the county’s Smart Growth Master Plan.

In what was billed as the first of several public meetings on the issue, it became apparent as the evening progressed that managing county growth may not be an easy road to travel.

Pearl River County, already experiencing steady population growth prior to hurricane Katrina, saw a 14 percent jump in population immediately after the storm, said David Spector, project manager with the Pearl River County Planning and Development Department.

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Further projections out to 2010 show the county growing by 30.5 percent, he said. In an attempt to stay apace of that growth and better prepare for it, the county enlisted the engineering-consulting firm CDM to study and present its findings on the issue. The study is funded through a $300,000 grant from the state, Spector said. The Smart Growth concept grew out of the earlier Strategic Planning process, he said. All that has been done so far is to collect information and make an assessment of that information, he said. The next step is public input in a series of public forums.

“We want to promote good economic opportunity for the county, but we want to preserve what makes us special here,” Spector said. “We want to preserve the reason why lots of us choose to move here and why lots of us choose to stay here.

“I maintain that we’re at a turning point here. That we have an opportunity to get out ahead of this growth and to begin to more responsibly manage it. I want to know where you want to see your community in the future,” he said

In a pamphlet presented at the meeting and further outlined by Spector, “The objective is to preserve the community’s sense of place, rural character, and environmental resources while promoting economic opportunities.”

Spector said the challenge is to create a framework for smart growth that balanced all aspects of the growth that was adaptable to changing conditions. Central to the concept, he said, was use of land in the county.

It was at that point that the evening’s debate began, spurred by a question from Poplarville Realtor Hudson Holliday on who would determine how land would be used, which then led to many comments from the group about excessive government regulation.

Holliday said, “Water is a necessary ingredient for use to live, for you to be healthy … but you know, you can drown in it,” in drawing a comparison to government regulation, “and that’s what these people are concerned about.”

He asked what was it about Pearl River County that has attracted people here.

“It wasn’t the big government bureaucracy, the increased regulation buying a permit for everything you wanted to do… that is not what drew them to the county,” Holliday said. “It was that sense of freedom come out here and buy you a piece of land… We’re trying to place big city rules in a rural area. That’s the problem. That’s what these people are upset about.”

Spector directly asked Holliday what his vision was for the growth issue.

“We need to be concentrating on infrastructure problems,” Holliday said. It was later pointed out that studies indicate upwards of 30,000 people come into the Picayune area in a day’s time.

Woody Spiers, Realtor and former Picayune mayor, said there were two distinct areas to the county and what the Poplarville area doesn’t want and necessarily need in the way of regulation, the Picayune area does.

Realtor Elaine Sones said it has gotten to the point in some people’s minds that the government cannot be trusted.

“County government is at the point where everybody that has lived here for a length of time does not trust anyone in public office, whether they are appointed or elected … and mostly the appointed ones. Because its the elected ones passing the buck, …

“We’re not against regulation,” she said. “I don’t think anybody in here is against growth. We want better supermarkets, we want better health facilities, we want better schools … but we don’t want more regulations crammed down our throats.

“I want them (the children) to have the opportunity to be able to do what they want to do with the two or three hundred acres of land that I decide to leave to them…”

Spector said that regulations such as traditional zoning “has problems and it’s not the solution for the county. All this discussion about rules and regulations is getting way ahead of where we are (in the process).”

This point was stressed by Bill Cesanek, vice-president with the consulting firm CDM.

“Looking at the kind of tools that you can use in an area like this to help manage growth … (but) frankly, as a professional planner … traditional zoning stinks,” he said. “It leads to a lot of regulation and confusion and that approach was not being seriously considered.”

He said the “Smart Growth” approach addressed problems in advance by planning for them. He echoed Spector’s earlier assessment that not having a plan creates problems, especially for infrastructure.

“We’re here tonight to hear about what the plan should be,” Cesanek said.

In response to fears expressed by several that a plan was already in place without public input he stressed that there was not a plan and that the purpose of the meeting was to begin finding one.

He said one idea being studied was a form-based code structure that allowed for a mixed land use approach.

“The point of form-based codes is to allow it to be flexible enough and adaptable enough so that you don’t have the same zones … everywhere in the county,” he said. “You tailor what you want to the area that you’re looking at, that its adapted to the land and to the uses there.

“That’s what we’re trying to achieve here,” Cesanek said. “The goal is not oppressive regulation.”

He said changes were coming, and that they could be regulated, unregulated, or partially regulated. He said it appeared that people didn’t want heavy regulation, but neither did they want a cookie-cutter approach. He said agriculture is important in the county and there are ways to protect that by encouraging development to move to other locations, to focus the growth.

“The county is green; it is a gorgeous county,” Cesanek said. “If we can move development, if we can encourage developers to invest in specific areas of the county … this is about preserving the natural environment, but its also about encouraging growth.”

Spector kept trying to return to the issue of the meeting, trying to determine what people visions were for managing the changes that were coming. He said the purpose of this meeting and others to come was to get input on the assessment produced in the Smart Growth Plan. The plan has not started, he said.

Planning and Development director Harold Holmes said county meetings were planned as part of the process.