Forsyth County is known for its closeness to Lake Lanier, top-level public schools and, particularly in the last two decades, rapid growth, including previously being named one of the fastest-growing counties in the country.
But as the county has grown to an estimated 225,000-plus residents, the majority of that growth has come to the south end of Forsyth County, not surprising given the proximity to jobs in Atlanta and the metro area.
On the other side of the county, north Forsyth has seen growth, just not to the level of the south, and still retains pastures, chicken houses and a rural feel.
But local leaders and businesses say that it is a matter of when, not if, north Forsyth sees growth, and plans are being put in place to control how that happens.
“Growth caught us,” said Forsyth County Commissioner Cindy Jones Mills, whose District 4 seat represents the majority of north Forsyth. “People wanted to come here so much faster than we were ready for, and especially in the south end of the county, it was like no one wanted to live here, and then everybody wanted to live here, and it caught everybody off guard.
“I think that that’s one thing that maybe north Forsyth has been able to do a little bit thanks to the recession is that those houses didn’t come.”
Since taking office in 2013, Mills, county staff and stakeholders in the area have rolled out several plans, such as: the Coal Mountain Overlay, a set of a zoning standards in a large area of north Forsyth; a zoning moratorium on properties zoned between 2000 and 2012 to put in place to develop new zoning standards; a planned trail project going from Sawnee Mountain to Lake Lanier; and the countywide comprehensive plan adopted in 2017.
“We’ve been trying to prepare for it,” Mills said. “There are a lot of zonings that are laying out there that have not come to fruition, and we’re getting ready to start on the town center that has been looked at and anticipated in the [comprehensive] plan that was adopted a couple of years ago for what we call the Coal Mountain Town Center that is at Hwys. 369 and 9.”
The Coal Mountain Town Center is a planned mixed-use, or live-work-play, development, planned at the northeast corner of the intersection and going through it will be a new road known as the Coal Mountain Connector, which will reach from Hwy. 9 across the street from Coal Mountain Drive, across Settingdown Road to Bridgetowne Drive.
The town center was previously zoned for commercial and residential uses. Mills said one part of the 150-acre project once called for 90 townhomes on 15 acres, which was not connected to planned commerical uses on the land.
“That town center will have that parkway coming through it. We’re taking sort of an old zoning and creating a town center with it,” Mills said. “The property owners have been cooperating and working with us, and we’re going to be bringing an overlay to the community with those old zonings, but creating all of it connecting.”
The county isn’t the only one interested in north Forsyth.
Earlier this month, Fischer Homes opened a new model home, their Blair Coastal Classic model, as part of the River Rock community, a $32 million project bringing 107 homes to the Matt Highway area.
“That neighborhood has seven-floor plans that are options, including ranch plans, which are becoming a demand for that area,” said Heather Jones, with Fischer omes.
Jones said her company isn’t the only one taking an interest in the area.
“The area has been cleared quite dramatically and there’s a Publix coming in [on Matt Highway], there’s another shopping center coming in. That area alone, they’re only going to put those stores in areas that are thriving,” Jones said. “They’re not going to build two brand new shopping centers in an area that’s struggling.”
Just off Ga. 400, at 6150 Ga. 400 Stes. A and B, NoFo Brew Co. is planned to open on Friday, Sept. 27 and is taking a special interest in north Forsyth and its residents.
“Hyper-locality is really important with craft breweries, so when we were doing all of our studies and looking at where we wanted to put it, we drew a circle and said, ‘How many people live within a 10-minute drive of the brewery, and that’s really who we’re building it for,” said co-founder Joe Garcia. “Obviously, anyone beyond that that wants to come and enjoy it is great too, but really that’s kind of the core group of people that we feel like would be at the brewery on a regular basis.”
Like Jones, Garcia said he can see the area opening up to a variety of commercial and residential developments.
“We certainly see the north part of the community continuing to be developed, whether it’s multi-family, residential, commercial, especially in the 400 corridor,” Garcia said. “We just wanted to position ourselves to be a part of that growth.”
As that growth comes, Mill said the plan for the proposed bike and pedestrian trail across north Forsyth is to get developers along the route to build sections of the trail as part of their approval.
“What we’re hoping is going to be different with this trail plan that might be different than the Big Creek Greenway is hoping that the developer will help pay for it,” she said. “We’re developing a plan that we can now instead of being reactive, [being] proactive, asking the developer hopefully to pay for some of the infrastructure ahead of time, for them to put in some of the trail ways, and also, some of these roads ways that will come in, knowing that there is a trail already there maybe it will get the trail way put in as the road widening goes in.”
As planned, the town center would connect to the trail, meaning residents living there could walk to the elementary, middle and high schools across the road, shop at stores in the development, walk down the street to churches and nearby businesses or jump on the trail to go to other areas in the county.
Mills said the entire area would have a focus on healthy living and wellness.
While the comprehensive plan calls for development at the town center and along Ga. 400, the majority of areas around the intersections with Hwys. 369 and 306 will continue to have a more rural feel.
“I think as you get away from 400, it will do just like the comp plan says and you’ll see larger lots,” Mills said.
Along with being commissioner for the area, Mills is a lifelong resident of north Forsyth and said she has kept a particular focus on remembering the history of the area. In recent months, Forsyth County has approved a contract to purchase the old Matt School building on Namon Wallace Road and made plans with graduate students at the University of North Georgia to study the area and provide information to the county.
Mills said she has plans for the town center to include the history of the area and to have design standards similar to those in Crabapple or Woodstock that are a throwback to the past.
“In the comp plan, that’s very much in it, the history component,” she said. “That’s why the [planned] Publix at Matt [Highway] has got tin roofs, has got the metal component. We tried to blend even in the architecture that it has some old with the new.”