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West Forsyth community facing the future
Neighbors wrestle with land-use map
Peggy Pearson, a Howard Road resident, points out areas that could be affected by proposed changes to Forsyth County's future land-use map. - photo by Autumn McBride

What's next
The next meeting of the steering committee looking at Forsyth County’s comprehensive plan update is set for 6 p.m. May 18 in the county administration building. At 6 p.m. May 23, there will be a public participation meeting at the same location.

Some pretty colors splashed over a map mean a world of difference to the residents of one west Forsyth community.

A small degree separates what the yellow and purple areas on the map signify, but for the residents of Howard Road and nearby areas, the community’s future is at stake

The debate is rooted in the county’s update of its comprehensive plan, which provides a policy guide for Forsyth’s future through 2032.

While most of the county’s some 175,000 residents have been uninterested in the planning process, a dedicated few from around Howard Road have educated themselves on planning and zoning to make their case.

Their faces have become familiar to county officials conducting public participation meetings on the plan update. The next session is set for later this month.

The future development map, which provides a guide to preferred land use for the next 20 years, has drawn the primary interest of the Howard residents.

Each color on the map represents a character area, which defines the feel of a community and provides suggested future property zonings.

The designation for the community surrounding Howard Road has bounced between the yellow estate residential character area and the purple suburban living category.

Estate residential includes low-density residential and agricultural uses, while suburban living steps up the residential density and could also include limited neighborhood shopping.

To residents, whether the map shows Res-2, or two homes per acre, or Res-3, or three homes per acre, means the difference in maintaining the look and feel of the community, and the price a property might fetch.

Planning process

As the comprehensive planning process moves forward, the debate enters the hands of planning staff and the steering committee. Eventually, the decision will fall to the county commission.

During two public participation meetings in March, 286 people submitted votes on their favorite version of the future development map. Two-thirds of them selected a map that called for the most estate residential areas, including the Howard Road community.

The county did not take a specific tally of residents in that area.

The steering committee, however, opted to designate the Howard Road area suburban living, based on an evaluation the area's growth potential.

While suburban supporters breathed a temporary sigh of relief, estate enthusiasts wondered why their voting majority had not led the committee to back the lower-density designation.

The area falls in the district of Commissioner Todd Levent.

“The steering committee may have given it a little more density because they understand we’re supposed to look out 20 years," he said.

Levent pointed out that even the final decision won’t set in stone any zonings.

“I do not have a side in this, I’m letting it work its way through the process,” he said. “I’m going to let the majority prevail as long as that majority is not there because they’ve been given misinformation.”

Suburban living

Many of the residents of Howard Road have lived on their land for decades.

It wasn’t until sometime in 2004 that the county's growth reached them, resident Linda Stewart said.

“We had all just lived on the road, farmed, raised the kids ... we were just families growing our families and working,” Stewart said.

“Then in 2004, the economy picked up, developers were interested in our land, and we began educating ourselves about the county government process.”

At that time, developers pointed to the limited residential possibilities in the county’s existing future land-use map, and the offers dwindled.

While the agricultural feel remains in tact, it’s having that option in those 20 years that’s important, resident Donn Fleming said.

“We want to make sure there’s room for growth,” Fleming said. “I want the opportunity to be there if something should come along.”

The suburban living group put together a proposal based on data supporting growth in the area.

Diane Carney said though their group of neighbors wants the option of having the “upper limit” designation of suburban living, if others want to keep their land the way it is, “there’s no problem.”

Both groups, she said, want to control her group’s land, which makes up a majority of the acreage on Howard Road.

“That’s the heart of the discussion,” she said. “This is not a new issue for the county. This is an old issue that comes up with every land zoning that comes before county.

"The neighbors next door don’t want it to change, but who actually owns the rights to that land?”

Estate residential

Peggy Pearson has spent her whole life on family land along Howard Road.

It breaks her heart to see neighbors she’s known for decades — and some for life — want to change the community.

“This is a 20-year county plan, which will be the rest of my life, and I’ll be here,” she said. “For the people who really have no plans to ever leave ... I don’t like for people to mess it up and then leave.”

Pearson and others set out to learn what their neighbors thought about leaving the area in an estate residential setting. They found several supporters.

Resident Jo Anne Leach said this effort resulted in 151 residents voting in favor of the map that shows the most estate residential during public participation meetings.

So when the steering committee opted to change the designation to suburban living, the group was shocked.

“What’s the most important way to gather public input? You vote,” Leach said. “Nobody knows our area like the people who live in this community.”

Longtime resident Sammie Singleton said he’s begun to see changes he doesn't care for.

“If you want this county to look like Gwinnett County, keep going,” he said.

While the group agrees the community can’t escape change, the idea is to guide the growth under the estate residential character area.

“We realize we can’t hold onto the past, but we want [future development] to blend with the people who live here,” Leach said.

“People like this area because of the integrity and the rural areas ... if there’s going to be development, let’s get it right.”

Regardless of the eventual outcome, both sides said they will still be neighborly, waving as they pass and stopping to chat.