Now that the 2015 Georgia Legislative Session is officially over, let’s take a look at the top 5 most significant issues/bills to emerge in the land use and environmental arenas. Please visit the 2015 Legislative Page for a greater discussion of each issue mentioned below.
Honorable Mention: Transportation
Though this was one of the two or three major issues across the board, nothing too dramatic happened. Yes, it came down to the wire and the House and Senate had to compromise to hash out a plan, but in the end we got what everyone expected: a watered-down plan with few fundamental changes. It’s only getting an honorable mention because I think we’re all tired of hearing about it in the local media and the bills that passed didn’t really achieve anything too extraordinary.
It isn’t really news when the legislature is unable to raise taxes despite voter approval when the stakes are so high. That’s just the nature of politics and negotiating and compromising on a huge bill. The final outcome of the Transportation Funding Act of 2015 will raise the average gas tax by 6 cents across the state. The good news is that the plan will reportedly raise close to $1 billion and it does allow local jurisdictions to vote to raise local sales tax to pay for local transportation needs. The legislature also voted to end a decades long rule that requires MARTA to spend 50 percent of its money on operations and 50 percent on maintenance.
The bad news is that the state still essentially re-allocated local taxes for state purposes and is making local governments work to raise the tax to recoup the lost revenue. The bill also slashes tax credits for electric vehicles, which could do significant damage to the industry within the state. Georgia is apparently the leading state in electric vehicle sales.
The legislature also failed to allow Fulton, Dekalb, and Clayton counties raise an addition half cent in sales tax to pay for MARTA. This would have resulted in an additional $200 million for MARTA. Instead, the agency may get an additional $75 million from a transportation bond included in the coming budget. It won’t, though, since that $75 million is the entire budget for alternative transportation in the state – meaning all the state’s transit agencies have to compete for that money.
However, the session should probably be considered a good one for transportation. After all, a plan did pass and some changes were made to give MARTA more freedom. Most importantly, we saw key political figures publicly endorse the need to fund alternative forms of transportation. Though no real funding occurred this year, the endorsement could signal coming changes.
5. Solar Panels for Everyone
The country is on the verge of a solar renaissance. Solar energy continues to get cheaper across the nation as production costs decrease and as states and cities loosen land use and energy regulation rules.
The major bill that everyone was talking about this year was HB-57, which allows third-parties to finance solar equipment. Currently only Georgia Power is authorized to buy and sell energy. This is a problem for those those who want to take advantage of solar power because solar equipment is very expensive and Georgia Power has no intention of allowing people to produce their own energy.
The current system is as if state law prohibited the financing of automobiles in order to make everyone ride a bus owned by one company. The passing of HB-57 means that companies other than Georgia Power can lease solar equipment to homeowners. Instead of paying an up-front cost of $30,000 for equipment and waiting decades to recoup the cost, homeowners can rent the equipment and pay a monthly rental fee. This results in an overall energy bill that can be as much as 50 percent cheaper than a normal energy bill. Plus you get the added security of being able to produce energy should the power grid fail for whatever reason.
On the land use side, the legislature almost approved another bill designed to liberalize the use of solar equipment. Certain property that is subject to conservation covenants receive lower assessment values and, in turn, are subject to a lower taxes. Unfortunately, a breach of the conditions under the covenant makes the entire covenant void. This includes the addition of solar panels on the property.
House Bill 496 sought to change this by allowing solar panels on property subject to conservation covenants. The property containing the solar equipment would be severed from the covenant, but the additional property would still be subject to the covenant. After passing the House it failed to advance in the Senate, but it’s still a step in the right direction.
The people over at NPR’s Planet Money did a great episode on the reasons behind the decline in solar energy costs. Some of the stats above are taken from the podcast. Check it out here.
4. The Plan to Take the Tennessee River
Georgia needs more water. It’s not an immediate threat like in California and parts of Texas, but we’re constantly running the risk of water shortages every few years as droughts come and go. On top of that, we’ve been in litigation with Florida and Alabama over general water rights for the past 30 years. The US Supreme Court is set to officially allocate water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River (ACF) basin between the three states and the outcome likely will not allow Georgia to continue to grow at its current pace. At least not without some additional water resources from outside the ACF basin.
Over the past several years some Georgia politicians have floated the idea of “taking” a portion of the Tennessee River from Tennessee by redrawing the state borders. According to who you ask, this would be less of a “redrawing” and more of a “correcting” as some historical documents show that Georgia’s border should actually extend northwards to the point of encompassing part of the Tennessee River.
Aside from the likely insurmountable logistics of actually redrawing the border, form both a legal and practical standpoint, Georgia law also makes the acquisition of the Tennessee River somewhat meaningless. That’s because current law prevents water from outside of the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District (“District”) from being transferred into the District. The idea of the law was to prevent metro Atlanta from rampantly acquiring water from all over the state.
House Bill 4 was introduced to change this law. It sought to allow water from outside the District to be transferred into the District under certain circumstances. Possibly more important than the bill itself was how well it fared. A show of support likely would have been an indication that the Georgia legislature was open to the idea of diverting more water from around the state into metro Atlanta and possibly even pursuing the border redrawing scheme.
Ultimately, the bill ended up going nowhere. It didn’t even manage to make it out of committee. Perhaps this isn’t surprising given that a move to open the possibility of diverting water would be seen as a move of aggression by neighboring states and those jurisdictions located downstream of metro Atlanta and North Georgia (see The Dawson Forest Site: Atlanta’s Intriguing Former Nuclear Aircraft Site Turned Nature Conservancy). As Georgia wants to impress the Supreme Court by showing how it’s willing to compromise and be a fair player in order to get a more favorable allocation, the approval of HB-4 likely would’ve been unwise.
3. New Cities, New Cities, New Cities!
One of the major issues this legislative session was the proliferation of new cities in and around metro Atlanta. It was right up there with medical marijuana, school reform, and transportation. Communities are clamoring to separate themselves from the two major counties in metro Atlanta: Dekalb and Fulton. Myriad socio-political explanations exist with actual and perceived corruption within those two counties being one of the less controversial explanations. Atlanta also appears eager to extend its borders thereby increasing its tax base and political influence.
Those opposed to the creation of new cities have voiced concern over regional cooperation with the addition of even more political jurisdictions.
Well at the end of the day, after all the talk both inside and outside of the legislature, only two new city charters were approved. Those are the charters for the City of LaVista Hills and the City of Tucker. Residents in those areas of Dekalb County must now approve the creation of the cities through a referendum.
Atlanta’s effort to annex the Druid Hills neighborhood failed, as did the effort to extend Atlanta’s limits northwards into Cobb County (to take back the Braves!). For the second consecutive year, a bill creating the City of South Fulton failed. Other notable failures include bill to create the City of Greenhaven and the City of Stonecrest.
2. Is Urban Redevelopment for Cars or People?
Between roughly the end of World War II and the late 1990’s, America was dead-set on destroying urban neighborhoods in the name of “redevelopment.” Those neighborhoods rarely got replaced with other neighborhoods, but usually with freeways and other massive infrastructure projects such as stadiums. The 1960’s and 1970’s in particular are littered with examples of huge freeway projects bisecting urban neighborhoods and barricading cities from their waterfronts.
This was largely the work of federal, state, and local policies that simply promoted suburban sprawl and cars over urban neighborhood development. This is obviously a large issue that has been the subject of countless books, films, and dissertations. The good news is that over the past 15 to 20 years the country has coalesced around the idea of reversing the objectively poor planning policies of the latter half of the 20th Century.
This means more cities and states have devoted resources towards tearing down above-ground urban freeways and putting into place more policies that cater to pedestrians and create healthier, more vibrant communities. While the federal government still wavers back and forth, largely based on political lines, on funding for non-vehicular modes of transportation and urban projects, the general trajectory is in the right direction.
Given the general change in how we view cities as a society, it is striking to come across statutes and ordinances that seem ripped from the 1970’s or 1980’s. Of course, that’s usually the case. Many cities still have minimum parking rules mandating an absurd amount of space be reserved for cars. This is often the reason why most huge developments have parking lots that are 90% empty for most of the day.
Georgia had a chance to change an archaic statute, but fell short. The Urban Redevelopment Law still refers to areas of cities as “slums” and still only allows governments to use condemned “slum” property for car-oriented development. House Bill 174 sought to change both of these outdated policies. The bill changed the term “slum” to “area of blight” and allowed condemned property to not only be used for surface transportation projects and to lessen density, but also to increase density and to build transit facilities and sidewalks.
The change in terminology passed, but the changes to allow an increase in density, sidewalks, and transit facilities failed. The change would have gone a long way in allowing local governments to decide how to develop their land by 1.) giving them the freedom to choose; and 2.) allowing them to use more progressive tools to create neighborhoods in which people actually want to reside. The existing law simply upholds poor urban planning principles.
1. Protection of Coastal Georgia
Last year’s legislative session saw a dramatic victory for Jekyll Island and this year we saw more of the same for coastal Georgia. In 2014 a plan was created that capped development on the island in order to preserve one of Georgia’s most cherished natural environments. After months and years of developers clamoring to build on the island, which put pressure on the Jekyll Island Park Authority to allow more development when it updated the island’s master plan, the Georgia Legislature jumped in to save the island.
This year the legislature took a similar stand on the protection of coastal Georgia. Senate Bill 101 sought to re-establish a 25-foot buffer along coastal marshlands after the Environmental Protection Division (EPD) amended its rules to get rid of the buffer. The House moved to strengthen the bill they received from the Senate in order to ensure makeshift bulkheads weren’t constructed along marshlands thereby circumventing the rule.
The House also halted the advancement of Senate Bill 139 that sought to prohibit local governments from banning plastic bags. This is particularly applicable to coastal Georgia since Tybee Island is the only jurisdiction in the state seriously considering such a ban. Plastic bags are particularly hazardous to turtles, dolphins (two species synonymous with coastal Georgia), and other wildlife. They’re also simply not aesthetically appealing and Tybee is a place that relies on aesthetic appeal.
The legislature also attempted to control the pumping of water into the Floridan Aquifer, which is found in Florida and coastal Georgia, to prevent deterioration of the water quality in the aquifer. A mandatory prohibition on the act of pumping water into the aquifer failed, but a rule to require the Department of Natural Resources to study the issue and create regulations passed the Senate. Ultimately, it failed in the House so we’re left with whatever rules the Department wants to create in the future.
That’s a wrap on the 2015 Georgia Legislative Session. Please visit the 2015 Legislative Page for all of the posts that addressed the above issues in more detail, as well as many other issues.
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