South Fulton's growing pains

When does smart growth become sprawl?

Stephen Macauley is the golden boy of Atlanta's smart growth movement.

His enormous developments aren't subdivisions, but whole communities that combine houses, town homes and apartments with business and shopping centers.

They've won the National Award for Home Communities in 1993 and 1996.

In 1995, Macauley Homes and Neighborhoods won LIFE Magazine's Dream House award for Legacy Park, a community in Cobb County that boasts hiking trails and parks instead of golf courses.

His Walden Park was one of the first major developments in south Fulton County that community leaders would point to as proof that the area south of I-20 was more than just a sound buffer for Hartsfield. Of Walden Park's 592 acres, Macauley left 191 acres undeveloped — to act as a shield to prevent erosion. When developers do environmentally minded things like that, it's called "smart growth."

But some growth experts say Macauley's latest project, Cedar Grove Lakes, is anything but smart.

Scheduled to break ground by the end of this month, Cedar Grove Lakes is a massive undertaking. When it's finished in 2007 or 2008, its 541 acres will boast 725 single-family homes, 200 town homes, 860 apartments, a 136-room senior citizen complex, and 116,000 square feet of office space.

Steven French, a Georgia Tech professor of city planning, said in a letter to the Fulton County Board of Commissioners that Cedar Grove Lakes "is a good example of the type of project that is needed to bring much-needed economic development to south Fulton County without repeating the mistakes associated with conventional suburban development in the northern part of the county."

Fulton County commissioners subsequently gave the project their stamp of approval on April 17, when they unanimously agreed to change the zoning so that Macauley and Cousins Properties can get to work.

But to critics, moves like that show just why Cedar Grove Lakes — built along the South Fulton Parkway and close to 10 miles from any other development, restaurant or shopping complex — is a bad idea. They say the project will generate more traffic, and the air pollution that comes with it. In short, they fear "smart growth" isn't really smart at all, but a clever mask for old-fashioned sprawl.

"It's a classic example of leapfrog sprawl," says Bryan Hager, who heads the Sierra Club of Georgia's Challenge the Sprawl Campaign. "It's eight miles past the nearest significant development. It meets no definition of smart growth, and I guarantee you this project will drain tax money away from the county and either force a reduction of services or an increase in property taxes."

Macauley responds: "He's wrong. It's not leapfrogging sprawl. Bryan just doesn't want to see developments of any kind."

But Hager may be right about the development's financial impact. Already, county commissioners have earmarked $1.6 million to extend the county's sewer line to the development. And a Fulton County study says the public schools in the area are too small to support the population of Cedar Grove Lakes. (Macauley donated land from Walden Park for the county to build a new middle school, but he doesn't plan on doing that in Cedar Grove Lakes.)

Hager's not alone. Abby Jordan, director of Green South Fulton, also sees Cedar Grove Lakes as an example of what not to do.

"The first couple of principles of smart growth are to develop in areas that are already developed and take advantage of existing infrastructure. That didn't happen in this case," Jordan says. "From a smart growth perspective, this project doesn't have it. There are thousands of acres of land that are served by sewer. Instead, [Fulton County] extends the sewer at taxpayers' expense."

Actually, the lack of a sewer line puts Cedar Grove Lakes in violation of Fulton County's land-use plan — at least until that sewer line is extended. Jordan says that violation is further evidence why the development is a bad idea.

The project raised red flags in Dan Reuter's mind too. He's the Atlanta Regional Commission's chief of land use planning.

"Most people would say that sprawl was leapfrog development, so it just depends on which is more important: that each development is contiguous to the last or that innovative developers are willing to go beyond what most developers are doing," Reuter says. "It's hard to say it's right or wrong, and it's a good discussion."

So, what's going on when one of Atlanta's most respected developers is catching flak for a project that most people would hold up as model for smart growth?

For one thing, the people criticizing the development have a reason to be watchful over anything going into south Fulton.

South Fulton was always the country-bumpkin cousin to swanky north Fulton and Buckhead. But over-development in north Fulton, outrageous land prices and a moratorium on new sewer hook-ups have builders like Macauley and Cousins looking south for the next big boom in metro Atlanta development.

Fulton County is spending $100 million to almost double the sewage capacity at the Camp Creek plant, which all but erases the chances that south Fulton would ever fall under sewer moratorium. That has developers drooling over the 100,000 undeveloped acres in the area.

Some have a jump on the others. Besides Macauley's Cedar Grove Lakes and Walden Park, there's the $500 million Deep Creek Golf and Country Club, with 893 single-family houses, 82 town homes for seniors, and, naturally, a golf course.

A development feeding frenzy is imminent, and residents like Jordan are feeling exposed and vulnerable. For south Fulton, any growth, even the smartest kind, would have a negative impact.

"Because South Fulton is so undeveloped, we have the advantage of being able to look everywhere else and see what didn't work. Now that development is coming in, and we're making the same mistakes," Jordan says. Cedar Grove Lakes "is such a disappointment because we have the opportunity to do smart growth in south Fulton."

Macauley says the project "does comply with all the ARC's and Georgia Conser-vancy's rules on smart growth. Ideally, we'd rather have growth closer in. In a perfect world that would be the case, but it's not a perfect world." Macauley said he chose the parcel because the land was "beautiful" — and for sale.

Another part of the smart growth problem is that the term itself is so fashionable and overused that it means one thing to Macauley and something completely different to Hager and Jordan.

In Atlanta, we have to take smart growth any way we can get it.

"One thing I think we should give Macauley credit for is he's trying to push the limits of conventional development," says Reuter. "He should get all the credit in the world for not going for the easy status quo projects.

"In my mind, we've conquered a lot of land in metro Atlanta. Do we keep just moving farther and farther out? Or do we try to be efficient about where we put our infrastructure and be reflective about where we've been and be more careful about where we're going?"??