(Editor’s Note: This commentary was authored and submitted by Richmond Hill Mayor Russ Carpenter, Bryan County Commissioners Chairman Carter Infinger and Bryan County Schools Board of Education Chairman Eddie Warren.)
Nearly every day it seems, we hear stories about government dysfunction and the failure of elected officials to find pragmatic solutions to respond to public needs. We’ve even witnessed when our broken political system stands as the principal obstacle to economic progress and opportunity. We’re pleased to report, however, that here at the local level we’re working very cooperatively together to responsibly plan our future growth and to leverage a very unique and valuable public–private partnership we have with Rayonier, one of our largest landowners.
For many years, South Bryan County and the city of Richmond Hill have seen tremendous residential growth. We are the community of choice for numerous reasons, but our highly rated schools is chief among those. Our growing population, however, puts a strain on infrastructure and services that local government provides, including roads, water and sewer, schools and public safety services. While we don’t often think about it, more than 70 percent of our working population leaves the county every day for their employment and spends dollars in other communities while their commutes put a strain on local roads during peak driving periods.
Economic Development and Jobs
More than 10 years ago, our local government entities began to change the way we think about future land use planning and better managing our growth. It started with a commitment to the development of the Belfast Planned Unit Development District that would include the Belfast Commerce Centre, leveraging rail-served sites west of I-95 for private capital investment in non-residential land uses that cannot be homesteaded and will, over time, broaden and diversify our tax base. In addition, businesses that locate there will provide high wage jobs for current residents as well as our kids and grandkids. Why should we continue to export the talent that graduates from our highly rated public schools? We heard loud and clear from our constituents that they want their kids and grandkids to be able to live and work here, too.
Improved Land Planning
The Belfast District also will promote new urbanism principles and a master-planned compact mixed-use community that will preserve open space, provide a system of trails and promote more walkable communities while also providing the mixture of land uses that will continue to broaden and diversify our tax base and help curb the upward pressure on residential property taxes. People tell us their desire for communities where they can live, work and play and be less dependent upon an automobile. This vision is what will emerge over the next several decades at Belfast.
Infrastructure to Alleviate Existing Problems and Support Future Growth
Many of our residents are aware of the efforts that have been expended, literally over decades, to obtain a new I-95 interchange at Belfast Keller Road. We’re pleased to report that the Georgia Department of Transportation will seek bids for that project in May of this year. Once complete, the new interchange will provide a vital hurricane evacuation route for South Bryan County, relieve a significant portion of the traffic congestion during peak travel times on Highway 144, provide economic development opportunities and a new “front door” for our county to the south, and even help resolve concerns about rapid troop deployment for Fort Stewart by relieving the congestion at the Highway 144 interchange during peak travel times.
Many of our residents attended public workshops and hearings about the annexation of some 5,000 acres into the city of Richmond Hill. This was only executed after considerable due diligence and with the guiding principle that we want infrastructure to get out in front of development. With the donation of a considerable amount of right of way from Rayonier, the city of Richmond Hill will fund the construction of regional connector roads that will reduce travel time to and from Richmond Hill Middle School, future schools under development, and other destinations. The recent services agreement with Raydient, will bring reuse to industrial, commercial and residential, attracting jobs and preserving a precious natural resource.
We all know that Bryan County Schools are among the best in the state and, along with our regional workforce and quality of life, represent one of our greatest advantages in competing for economic development and high-wage jobs. What you may not know is that our school district over the last 10 years has also been engaged in a unique planning effort at Belfast. The result of this planning effort and the donation of approximately 300 acres of land from Rayonier, will result in a series of school campuses that will accommodate 5,800 students. The Richmond Hill Middle School is already constructed and in operation but, in close proximity to that school will be a new state-of-the-art elementary and high school as well.
Just like Rome was not built in a day, all of these efforts take time, as well as tremendous vision, cooperation, ingenuity, determination and, perhaps most importantly, a commitment to do what is in the long-term best interest of the public. To that end, all Bryan County governing bodies have begun meeting jointly at regular intervals to address the long-term planning issues of our community.
We want to thank prior elected officials without whom all of this simply would not have been possible. We would be remiss if we didn’t especially mention Jimmy Burnsed and Harold Fowler for their tremendous leadership and commitment to collaboration and our dedicated staffs who have demonstrated their “can do” attitudes and ability to execute at a high level. Finally, we want to thank Rayonier and Raydient Places + Properties, their real estate subsidiary, for their time, energy, planning expertise, land donations, financial commitment and dedication to making a very positive and lasting impact on our community. We should all be looking to the future with great anticipation.