An online petition posted last week takes the Bryan County Board of Commissioners to task for what backers deem “irresponsible growth” and asks the county not to approve any more housing developments until infrastructure improvements are made.
Commissioners Chairman Carter Infinger, however, said the issue is more complicated than most people think it is, and that legal and jurisdictional matters impact the growth of Richmond Hill and South Bryan County.
The petition, which can be found at https://www.change.org/p/carter-infinger-stop-bryan-county-commissioners-from-approving-irresponsible-growth?source_location=minibar, had been signed by nearly 550 people as of noon Monday. Organizers plan to present the petition at the next commission meeting, which is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. on May 9 in Pembroke.
This comment, by Beverly Rogers, appears to sum up many points made by the signees: “As a lifelong resident of Richmond Hill this growth is out of control. Please stop allowing all the developing and building until the 144 is widened and the 95 exit on Belfast Keller road is in place. Also, the schools are so overcrowded they are busting at the seam now!!! Please let the citizens of Bryan County have a say so on the quality of life that we want and expect.”
Infinger said that the Georgia Department of Transportation has told the county that bids will be sought for widening Highway 144 next March. He said the money is in place, but that environmental impact studies conducted by the state over the course of the project have expired and are being redone.
The proposed interchange at Belfast Keller Road and I-95, however, is a federal project and there is no firm timeline in place for it.
“Even if we had enough money to do both projects right now, we couldn’t touch them,” Infinger said. “One is a state road and the other is a federal highway. We’re at their mercy.”
Bryan County Schools officials have said projections show an increase of about 3,500 students over the next decade, with all but 200 of that coming in South Bryan County. To that end, voters recently approved a $100 million bond and reapproved the E-SPLOST levy, which brings in about $5 million a year. The money will be used to build a new Richmond Hill High School, and discussions have also included a new elementary school and a second middle school, as well as improvements to school facilities in North Bryan County.
Other signees of the petition noted their disapproval of apartment complexes and townhomes currently under construction, but those are in the city of Richmond Hill. County commissioners only make decisions regarding the unincorporated portion of Bryan County and have no say over what occurs in the cities of Richmond Hill or Pembroke.
“There’s a lot of confusion when it comes to what the county does and what the city does,” Infinger said. “A lot of people assume that we handle everything, but we don’t.”
Other comments on the petition come from people who moved to the Richmond Hill area in the recent past but now question others’ ability to do the same.
“I want to slow or stop the over growth of RH,” commented Jennifer Bradley. “We fell in love with the area 7 years ago and hoped to make it our forever home. With so much growth and development - many of the reasons we love RH are going down the drain!”
The county’s population in 1980 was 7,000. It currently stands at about 40,000 and is expected to reach 60,000 by 2030.
The petition also calls into question the concept of “cluster” subdivisions, but Infinger defends the county’s approach there.
“The idea is to arrange subdivisions so that there is more green space and the wetlands are protected, and to have more public recreation areas available,” he said. “That to us is smart growth.”
County officials have also discussed asking voters to adopt a T-SPLOST levy to pay for road maintenance and repair, as well as implementing impact fees on new housing developments to help pay for infrastructure. Long-range planning and a comprehensive land-use plan were discussed by commissioners at a retreat they held earlier this month.
Finally, Infinger said, the county cannot unilaterally start denying rezoning applications for new neighborhoods.
“That would end up in court faster than you could turn around,” he said. “As long as they meet our ordinances, people have a legal right to do what they want with their private property.”