Rabun County: Looking Ahead

Perfecting Plans For Land Use And Development

Of the 371.1 square miles that make up Georgia’s Rabun County, approximately 80 percent is owned and managed by Georgia Power and the United States Forest Service. Between lakes, watersheds and land rendered unusable by mountainous terrain, only 18 percent remains in the hands of private owners and is considered eligible for development.

Therein lies the rub, and the challenge, for Rabun County. The small amount of land available for residential, commercial or municipal development creates an equally small margin for error in terms of what type of development the county ends up attracting. And, as with many other Georgia counties, there are competing visions of what the finished product ought to look like.

Nestled in the northeast corner of the state, Rabun County is bordered by North Carolina to the north and South Carolina to the east and is home to breathtaking mountain scenery, vistas and waterfalls. The Chattahoochee National Forest as well as three state parks – Black Rock Mountain, Moccasin Creek on Lake Burton and Tallulah Gorge – lie within the county lines. Natural beauty is the hallmark of Rabun County, so are independent thinking citizens, many of whom trace their lineage back to some of the county’s first settlers and who cherish their own way of doing things.

Mary Elizabeth Law, Rabun’s first female county commissioner, was a Vickers before she married. “My father was a Judge of the Ordinary, a one man county commission,” she says. “He was in office for 32 years.”

As a young woman, Law worked for her father and learned a great deal about local politics. She later worked for Georgia Power as a customer service representative and a member of the clerical staff until her retirement, but says she never felt the urge to run for office until 2004. “I had served for eight years on the [county] planning commission,” she says. “I wanted a bigger voice in the way the county was run.”

Law is hardly a shut-the-door-Rabun-is-full kind of commissioner. Instead she is a pragmatist who views change as inevitable. “Some people don’t want to change,” she says. “You can’t stop growth or you’ll die. The best way to handle our challenges is to find the middle road.”

Her biggest concern? “People were building houses on mountaintops,” she says without hesitation. “When you look at a mountain, you want to see the mountain.”

Law is not alone in her concern for the county aesthetic. Equally dismaying to many residents is rampant development at Lakes Burton and Rabun that’s similar to the “infill” craze in Metro Atlanta counties. Million dollar lake homes are being torn down and replaced with $10 million homes in areas where roads and county services are often not just scarce but nonexistent.

The issue of what type of development should be allowed in Rabun County and how it should look jumped to the forefront in 2006 as county leaders and constituents wrangled over the wording and intent of a Uniform Development Code (UDC), a set of ordinances through which the county wants to address everything from land use to water and sewers to lighting on roadways.

“The commissioners developed their comprehensive plan with a mind toward managing growth,” says Jim Bleckley, county administrator. “This led to the desire to have a UDC which would stand the test of time and stand up to any scrutiny in the courts.”

In April 2006, the county hired Jerry Weitz and Associates, a firm specializing in growth management, comprehensive planning, land use regulations and public policy. The firm came up with a first draft of the UDC that Bleckley concedes was “very restrictive,” but which, he contends, was only to be used as a jumping off point, not the final destination.

Many residents howled at some of the UDC provisions, which touched on such topics as roofing material on a house or development on a slope of 40 percent or more. They claimed the commission was trying to use a template for a UDC better suited to a Metro Atlanta community than Rabun County. Bleckley describes the complaints as a “clash of cultures.”

“[Critics] were saying their rights as private landowners were being trampled and that there hadn’t been enough community input during the comprehensive plan development phase,” he says. That last claim was noteworthy, considering the county received a commendation from the state for the amount of public involvement in the process.

“We really went to fairly extraordinary lengths to involve the community,” Bleckley says. “We did surveys and question and answer sessions. We went through a ‘visioning process’ with as many people who wanted to be involved.”

Results showed a clear desire to preserve and protect the environment and to develop reasonable restrictions to manage growth. To move forward with the process, the commission appointed a five-member ad hoc committee in late January 2007, to review and revise the proposed UDC, and produce an enforceable finished product, possibly by early spring.

A referendum held March 20 was expected to renew a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST), enacted five years ago to provide funds for parks and recreation, road improvements and other growth related projects.

The March SPLOST is conservatively estimated to bring in $16 million; this time the county offered to voluntarily share the revenue with the its six municipalities: Clayton, Mountain City, Tiger, Sky Valley, Dillard and Tallulah Falls. The cities will list projects they plan to apply their SPLOST funds to, such as water and sewer improvements, and the county must agree to them. The one issue everyone can agree upon is that Rabun County is changing and that they want the change to be for the better.

The Road Ahead

Regular summer visitors to Rabun County will notice a significant change as they cross Tallulah Gorge; the longtime Highway 441 widening project is coming to an end. The highway, with four lanes split by a grassy median, should be fully operational by July and will ease some of the traffic woes that have plagued the county for years.

Clayton expects a significant economic development boost as small businesses, including upscale boutiques and restaurants, locate in the city’s quaint downtown. Though he applauds the road widening project, Bleckley adds, “The downside is that it will create more traffic on a safer road.”

Six to eight months of the year, Rabun County’s population doubles with an influx of tourists and second home dwellers. While that’s great for SPLOST collections, it has created another challenge for fulltime, land-owning Rabunites. “I have eight grandkids and no expectations that they will be able to afford to live in Rabun County,” says Cannon Ramey, semi-retired owner of Ramey Builders.

Ramey, who has lived his entire life in the county, says, “I’ve watched land prices go from $100 an acre to $1 million dollars an acre in some places in Rabun County.” He believes land prices will drive young people out of the area unless county leaders are able to snare some type of industry or manufacturing that pays a decent wage.

Though he loves the mountains and his way of life, Ramey says, “If I were to have an agenda this would be it: I’m against anything that would stop or hinder economic development in the county. We have to do something to bring jobs to the county.”

August 2006 was a tough month for Rabun County in that respect. Rabun Apparel, which made clothing for Fruit of the Loom, closed its doors, throwing 940 people out of work. “That [shutdown] accounted for 12.5 percent of the county’s total workforce,” says Emory Brock, executive director of the Rabun County Economic Development Authority and Convention and Visitors Bureau. Surprisingly, the county unemployment rate only went up 1.5 percent, meaning some of those jobs were likely held by North and South Carolina residents.

Though the plant closing was a major blow, Brock sees it as an opportunity. “We are left with a plant of over 1 million square feet on 282 acres,” he says. “It has its own water and sewer treatment and can generate its own power.” Brock says several prospects have already expressed interest in the site and that more than one company will probably be housed there when all is said and done.

Though on a smaller scale, more retail and jobs were promised when Home Depot began building across from the Wal-Mart Supercenter on Hwy. 441. Construction of the 132,874-square-foot building began soon after the land was purchased in October 2006. Home Depot expects to hire 100 fulltime and 50 part-time employees. A strip mall may also be built on the site.

In spite of its remote location, or perhaps because of it, the number of young families making their homes in Rabun County attests to its high quality of life. Rabun is home to two of Georgia’s most prestigious prep schools, Tallulah Falls School and Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School, which experienced a record enrollment, 336 students, for school year 2006-2007.

Good Report Card

Though some counties see a correlation between a high free and reduced lunch percentage and sub par performance, Rabun County public schools, with a total enrollment of 2,180 students and a system-wide 52 percent free and reduced lunch rate, is one of only four counties to meet all No Child Left Behind (NCLB) requirements for four consecutive years. All five county schools met Adequate Yearly Progress goals as set forth by the NCLB Act, and Rabun County Middle School was named a Georgia Lighthouse School to Watch, meeting nationally endorsed criteria for high performing middle schools.

“We have great parental involvement from kindergarten through high school,” says Superintendent Matt Arthur of his system’s performance. “Our community supports our schools and students completely.”

The county parks and recreation department opened a SPLOST funded county recreation center that includes two new basketball gyms and four meeting rooms used seven days a week. “We have over 200 kids involved in basketball leagues, ages 9 to 12,” says Lester Norris, the department’s executive director. SPLOST money also paid for the addition of eight state-of-the-art baseball and softball fields.

John Dillard, Sr., the patriarch currently running the Dillard House, a much beloved hotel and restaurant landmark in Dillard, sits in the dining room looking out over the fields, valleys and mountains. He’s seen and heard disputes about what Rabun County ought to do and be and isn’t shy about sharing his opinions.

“I wish we could be a Vermont or Carmel [California] but it’s not practical,” Dillard says. “It ain’t in the cards to become a Highlands. Some enclaves will be more upscale and outside of that, it’s going to be a mix.” Dillard says both sides of the debate need to listen to the community, use common sense and, once a UDC is formulated, phase it in on a gradual basis.

Whether Dillard’s wisdom is heeded or not remains to be seen, but this jewel of North Georgia will continue to draw tourists and fulltime residents alike, and the margin for error keeps getting smaller.

Categories: Northeast