goes the Neighborhood!
Atlanta is the hottest city in the New South, with its population doubling in the past 30 years. But to make room for new suburbs, 50 acres of forest are felled every day. Can anything stop the sprawl?
By Fen Montaigne
Nestled in the hills of north Georgia is the 20-acre farm of Herb and Kathy Epperson, a swath of pasture and forest that has been in his family for 165 years. Downtown Atlanta is just 40 miles to the south, but when you visit the Epperson spread it feels a world away. A cedar home sits in a grove of tall pines, and out back, behind a meadow, are two 400-foot-long poultry houses in which the family raises about 250,000 chickens a year. Woods and fields and chicken coops surround the property. n The Eppersons knew that Atlanta was heading their way. They just didn’t realize how fast it was coming. Living in central Cherokee County, they had watched as the fields, farms, and forests in the southern part of the county became subdivisions, strip shopping centers, and superstores. Then, in the fall of 1998, Atlanta came knocking on their front door. n A neighbor gave them the news: A developer had secured an option on a 300-acre property across the road and was rushing to rezone it for 1,200 houses and apartments. The development, the Eppersons realized, would turn the quiet community of Buffington on its head. Torrey Homes’ several thousand new residents would more than double the town’s population. The narrow country roads and the tiny Buffington Elementary School would be swamped.
"The heart of our community would be tore out, and for what?" says Herb Epperson, a rangy 50-year-old with a neatly trimmed beard who teaches drafting at a nearby high school. "We think we’re very fortunate to be able to live here, and we don’t want such drastic change."
"We were at a meeting, and the developers were trying to sell us on how wonderful this would be and how we’d be able to ride our bikes on their sidewalks," recalls Kathy Epperson in her fast-moving Georgia twang. "That was ridiculous. I said to their lawyer, ‘This is going to ruin our way of life.’ And he said, ‘Well, you can sell out and move to Florida.’ That made me sick. I was fuming for a few days. Then we started making calls."
Buffington’s residents had only a few weeks before county officials would consider the rezoning request for Torrey Homes. But a shift in the public mood had taken place in Cherokee County, and it would work in the community’s favor. Just a few months earlier, fed up with the unrestrained growth that had clogged the roads and schools of southern Cherokee and erased much of its rural character, voters had turned against the pro-growth chairman of the county commission and elected in his place Emily M. Lemcke, a relative newcomer who had campaigned on a platform of slow growth.
A series of bureaucratic delays allowed the Buffington residents to postpone a vote on the development until January 1999, after the new five-member county commission had taken office. In one of its first acts, the commission, led by Lemcke, voted against the Torrey Homes project.
But what once seemed to be a clear-cut victory has become a murky conflict that illustrates the relentless development pressure in Atlanta’s exurbs. After the vote, D. R. Horton-Torrey took the county to court, and a judge ordered the commission to take another look at the rezoning request. Last December, over Lemcke’s objections, the county commission voted 3-2 to allow Torrey to build one house per acre on 250 acres and to develop the remaining 50 acres commercially. That’s a far less dense development than Torrey had sought, but it nonetheless means that yet another Cherokee County pasture could vanish.
D. R. Horton-Torrey is now deciding whether it’s economical to proceed with the scaled-down project. For his part, Herb Epperson says he could live with one house per acre. But the experience has left him uneasy. "The people don’t want this county to be overrun by development," he says. "Growth can be good, but let’s control it. I just feel like we’re growing too fast."
The eppersons are on the front lines of a battle over sprawl that has
taken center stage in the Atlanta area and in much of the country. And
as recent events in Cherokee County show, Americans are at last beginning
to question what a half-century flood of suburban expansion has wrought.
Distressed about traffic jams, deteriorating air quality, and the loss
of forests and rural lands to cookie-cutter suburbs, residents in places
like Cherokee County are saying enough is enough—and electing politicians
who will heed their call. America is starting to witness "the beginning
of the end of sprawl," says Christopher B. Leinberger, a
If such a change is indeed on the way, it’s happening none too soon
for places like Atlanta. The metropolitan area has become the poster child
for a helter-skelter pattern of growth that has done grievous harm to the
environment and eroded a
Since 1973 the Atlanta area has lost nearly 25 percent of its tree cover, or roughly 350,000 acres, satellite photographs show. Every day 50 acres of trees fall to development. Tens of thousands of acres of pasture have been transformed into homes and stores. Such habitat loss and fragmentation have taken a heavy toll on the region’s bird populations, as many nesting and breeding grounds have either been destroyed or whittled down so drastically that predators can easily kill avian species. Deep-woodland nesters and grassland species have been particularly hard-hit. In north Georgia and the western Carolinas—the Piedmont—development has hurt species such as the bobwhite quail, Bachman’s sparrow, loggerhead shrike, eastern meadowlark, and prairie warbler, all of which have shown steady declines over the past two decades.
"The entire Piedmont is heading toward one big area of sprawl, and when you lose habitat outright you lose birds. Period," says Chuck Hunter, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Southeast coordinator for non-gamebird species. "You did not start out with the healthiest environment here, because of cotton farming and logging earlier in the century. The difference is that with farming or logging you can always restore it. But once you’ve got houses and Wal-Marts, there’s no return. It’s the final nail in the coffin."
As trees are felled and hillsides flattened, rivers such as Cherokee County’s Etowah are becoming choked with silt. Chemicals and pesticides flow into the water from new parking lots and lawns, harming rare species of darters and mussels. The region’s air quality has deteriorated so much that Washington has cut off federal highway funds to the 13-county metropolitan area.
But if Atlanta has become a symbol of out-of-control growth, its leaders are now moving to turn their region into an example of how sprawl can be contained. In 1998 Georgia’s newly elected governor, Roy E. Barnes, persuaded the legislature to approve the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA), an antisprawl superagency. The GRTA can issue up to $2 billion in bonds for mass transit and land preservation, block road projects that encourage sprawl, and control important land-use decisions throughout the region. Barnes is now pushing for a requirement that counties preserve 20 percent of their land as open space or risk a cutoff in state funds.
Local developers, sensing that the public is weary of endlessly metastasizing tract homes, are at last beginning to embrace in-town development and "conservation subdivisions," which preserve large areas of common green space. The population of Atlanta proper, after falling from 495,000 in 1970 to 384,000 in 1990, has leveled off and is now climbing back toward 400,000. Last year 1,752 new housing units were built within the city limits.
"Georgia has always sold itself on cheap land, cheap labor, cheap gasoline," says Rand Wentworth, the director of the Atlanta office of the Trust for Public Land, which is working to create a 180-mile "green" corridor along the Chattahoochee River. "We’re now realizing that we don’t want to lead the race to the bottom. In the next century the important race is the race to the top, and the top is defined by quality of life."
Driving past rolling meadows on highway 20, emily lemcke—tall, 48, with blond hair that falls to her shoulders—surveys the scene and says, "Isn’t this land pretty? I love it. And it was rezoned commercial under the last commission. Doesn’t it make you sick to think it’s going to be developed?"
Hardly Chamber of Commerce patter. But if her predecessor saw the landscape and thought economic development, Lemcke looks at Cherokee’s open spaces and wonders how she can keep them that way.
"Cherokee County is not destroyed," says Lemcke. "We still have a lot
of beautiful land. I know there’s going to be more growth. To deny that
is foolish. But what we have to have now is quality growth . . . that is
considerate of the topography and
A native of Maryland, Lemcke moved to Atlanta 20 years ago to work as a banker. In 1982, seeking a more tranquil life, she moved to Cherokee County, a rural community of 464 square miles whose lifeblood was farming, poultry, and textiles. For decades the county’s population had held steady at fewer than 20,000, but by 1982 it had climbed to about 52,000.
In the mid-1990s, southern Cherokee County was becoming as heavily developed
as its densely populated neighbor to the south, Cobb County. And the county
commission, led by one Hollis Lathem, was rezoning land and approving new
"People felt like they were helpless, that the developers were more important to the county commissioners than the quality of life of Cherokee’s citizens," says Ron James, a 42-year-old employee of Lockheed-Martin Aerospace, who grew up in Cobb County and moved to Cherokee County in 1985. "Folks were getting tired of moving and moving. So we wanted to draw a line in the sand."
Sharing similar concerns, Lemcke—who had no previous political experience—decided to oppose Lathem. Pledging smart growth and an end to the dominance of Cherokee’s business oligarchy, she struck a chord with the county’s 135,000 citizens, most of whom were relative newcomers. Although she spent only one-fifth as much money as Lathem did, Lemcke won, with 57 percent of the vote.
One of the first acts of the Lemcke commission was to impose a moratorium on the rezoning of land for residential use. That ban will be lifted after the county devises an impact fee on home construction to help cover the cost of providing county services. The commission has also tightened zoning laws.
But it has inherited a government that is straining to keep up with growth. The public school system, for example, is filled to bursting, with more than a third of the district’s 24,446 students spending at least part of the day in portable classrooms. School officials say the county must immediately build four elementary schools and one middle school, at a total cost of about $60 million.
Lathem, for his part, defends his record, pointing out that the majority
of residential development during his four years as chairman was approved
by previous commissions. He says he aggressively sought new commercial
development in order to create jobs and give county residents a place to
shop near home. "There’s no question that Cherokee County is a far better
place to live now," says Lathem. "It’s much better off economically." He
points out that the most vocal opponents of
Cherokee County suffers from no lack of finger-pointing, and even the current "slow growth" commission is split over the best way to handle future development. Some commissioners oppose dense residential projects; others share Lemcke’s goal of mixed-use clusters and large areas of open space.
But there’s no question that rapid growth has taken a toll on Cherokee County’s environment. Lake Allatoona, a reservoir on the Etowah that provides drinking water for 300,000 residents in Cherokee and neighboring counties, is in critical condition. A study by the A. L. Burruss Institute of Public Service at Kennesaw State University, in Marietta, Georgia, predicted that if present rates of siltation and pollution continue, Lake Allatoona will be eutrophic—essentially dead—within 10 years.
"If you took 125 million people and stood them on the shore of Lake Allatoona and they each dumped a 15-pound bag of soil and phosphorus into the lake, that’s how much sedimentation goes into Allatoona every year," says Harry McGinnis, the institute’s director.
A visit to the interchange of I-575 and Highway 92 in southwestern Cherokee
County shows why the area’s waterways are in such bad shape. There, in
a flurry of development, three enormous superstores—a "Big K" K-Mart, a
Wal-Mart, and a Home Depot—have been built. Land for a fourth project,
a Target store, is being cleared. I visited the construction site with
Keith Parsons, president of the Georgia River Network, a conservation organization.
Part of the site, which sits on a hilltop, was still laced with clear streams
that ran through ravines shaded by groves of gums, oaks, loblolly pines,
and tulip poplars. But the hill was in the process of being flattened and
the streams encased in culverts that would be covered by the store and
the parking lot. The future Target was a spreading scar of red Georgia
clay. Soon the creeks—which during my visit were still home to
"There are probably 100 developers on 100 tracts of land in the Atlanta area doing the same thing," says Parsons, a biologist who wears his graying hair in a ponytail. "This place is a classic example of the resources we’re losing. Most people drive by these strip malls and have no idea what’s been lost. These little creeks and streams are the last pristine, free-flowing systems in these counties. If you destroy them, there’s not much hope of restoring the larger river systems."
The environmental degradation caused by recent development, coupled with decades of damage from dams, mining, and pollution, have left the Etowah one of the South’s most beleaguered rivers. Fifteen of its 100 fish species have been extirpated, and 17 other species, such as the Etowah and Cherokee darters, are in danger of disappearing from the river. Scientists estimate that at least two-thirds of the river’s approximately 60 mussel species have been wiped out.
The Etowah and the larger river system to which it belongs, the Coosa, "may hold the dubious distinction of having more recent extinctions of aquatic organisms than any other equally sized river system in the United States," a team of scientists reported recently.
The state of Georgia has made some effort to protect rivers like the
Etowah, requiring that no trees be cleared within 25 feet of streams and
waterways, but a recent study by the Georgia River Network showed that
developers and state
The real estate boom threatening Cherokee County’s environment is being fed, of course, by land sales, and many of the sellers are lifelong residents of the county. For much of the 20th century, Cherokee County was a relatively poor place where farm families eked out a living. Many areas didn’t have electricity until the late 1940s. So now, with land selling for $20,000 an acre, it’s easy to understand why many families have decided to finally make a profit off their farms.
One of those families is Bernese and Albert Cagle, who, with three of their sons, operate Cagle’s Dairy, the last dairy in Georgia that still produces and processes its own milk. In 1996, for $1.1 million, the Cagles sold 56 acres of land that has now been turned into Carrington Farms, a development of moderately priced, boxy houses. swim and tennis: low 100’s, the sign reads.
The Cagles—he is 64, she is 60—still own 130 acres and lease an additional
500 acres for their 400 head of cattle. Their sons plan to continue to
run the dairy, and they say the land sale gave their parents the nest egg
they had never been able to
The Cagles do not believe that the responsibility of preserving open space in Cherokee County should fall on the shoulders of farmers and large landholders. Rather, they favor a program of transferable development rights, under which developers would essentially pay landowners to keep their land open in return for the right to build higher-density projects in designated portions of the county. The current county commission is working on such a program, but in the meantime it is seeking other ways to preserve open space, including a one-cent sales-tax increase that would fund the purchase of $5 million in land along the Etowah River.
Equally important, says Lemcke, is attracting developers who will embrace ideas such as conservation subdivisions. One such project, currently under construction, is Governor’s Preserve, a development along 3.6 miles of the Etowah that will retain 505 of its 862 acres in forests and meadows connected by nature trails. Another is Orange Shoals, a 400-acre subdivision with 100 acres in a common, forested "greenbelt" accessible to every home. Developer Chaunkee A. Venable has placed birdhouses and feeders throughout Orange Shoals, and the developers of Governor’s Preserve will build more than 200 birdhouses and nesting boxes. The Atlanta Audubon Society has certified Orange Shoals as a wildlife sanctuary and is likely to do the same with Governor’s Preserve.
Governor’s preserve and orange shoals represent an effort to bring together
what have long seemed to be irreconcilable goals: the demands of the market,
concern for the environment, and the desire of people to commune with more
than just a
Ursula Cox, whose family came to Cherokee County in the 1830s, is a
prophet of such change. She spends much of her time trying to convince
her fellow citizens that land has a value other than that fixed by real
estate appraisers. Cox, 46 and an
Sitting at an old picnic table in front of a 19th-century farmhouse splotchy with peeling white paint, Cox says that as more fields and forests are consumed by development, people are realizing that unfettered growth leaves a bleak landscape in its wake.
Gesturing toward the old cedars and magnolias that tower above her house, Cox says, "This place is the same as it’s been for decades. To me, it’s a place of shelter and inspiration. But now land has become a pure commodity. Real estate has become big business, and that shouldn’t be a county’s mainstay. People tell me I should sell my place and make a fortune. But I look at land as something you love. People say I just want to stop growth; that’s not so. I just want to see it managed. I just want to make this a nice place to live."
Veteran journalist Fen Montaigne moved to Atlanta in 1998. He and his family live in a 30-year-old house—within the city limits.
© 2000 NASI
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