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giganew12-copyCity of Suwanee: Preserving a Healthy Environment in the Face of Rapid Growth

Introduction.

Follows is a review of what one town in the Greater Atlanta Metropolitan
Area(GAMA) is doing to preserve its natural resources and mitigate air pollution while at
the same time improving quality of life for its citizens and preserving its small town feel
in the face of rapid growth and development. Many of the tools used by the City of
Suwanee to accomplish these tasks, including the massive Open Space Initiative and the
effective use of Planned Mixed-Use Developments, are ones that are also potentially
readily available to many other small towns within GAMA as well as without.
Borders and Connections. The City of Suwanee is located in northwestern Gwinnett
County. It is bordered by Buford to the northeast, Lawrenceville to the southeast, and
Duluth to the southwest. I-85 passes through the southeastern edge of the city where the
city abuts with Lawrenceville. This stretch of I-85 includes exit 111, approximately 30
miles from the center of Atlanta. Other major roadways passing through the City include
Lawrenceville-Suwanee/Suwanee-Dam Rd.(GA 317), Peachtree Industrial, McGinnis
Ferry Rd., and Buford Highway(US 23). One rail line, the Southern Railroad, passes
through the City, paralleling US 23 and Peachtree Industrial.

Ecological.

The Chattahoochee River passes just west of the western boarder of the City
of Suwanee with the Chattahoochee River Corridor extending into a small area of
Residential and Commercial zoning comprising about 4000 feet of that border. There are
several streams within the City, two of which, Bushy Creek and Suwanee Creek, are
tributaries to the Chattahoochee. There are no known occurrences of protected species
within the City. There are no other major natural resources within the city with the
exception of the following. The Georgia DNR has shown that Suwanee “contains
Significant Groundwater Recharge Areas that have, according to the Groundwater
Pollution Susceptibility Map of Georgia, a Low Susceptibility rating.”(1, “Natural
Resources”) The rating is based on the DRASTIC system, as laid out by the EPA, which
examines the hydrogeolgic settings of a given area and creates an overlay map indicating
areas susceptible to contamination (5). Lastly, Suwanee and Gwinnett Co. are a part of
the Atlanta Metropolitan AQCR, which is currently a non-attainment area for ozone. This
classification places restrictions on the expansion of roads and other structures that
contribute to the creation of ozone(smog) in the Atlanta area, as well as bars the receiving
of certain Federal funds.

Demographic.

The City of Suwanee comes from humble beginnings as a predominately
rural farm town with a population of only 615 in the early 1970’s. However, through the
70’s up until 1990 the population of Gwinnett Co. increased 388%, adding approximately
94,000 people between 1970-80 and 186,000 people from 1980-90. By 1998 (latest
Census estimate) the county had grown another 169,000 people. Suwanee’s own growth
has been exponential during this period, with a quadrupling of the population between
1990 and 2000, from 2,412 persons to 9,191. The 2007 estimate has the City at about
16,250 residents(2). A comparison of the growth rates reveals that while the Atlanta
Region has held steady at about 2.5% over the three decades and Gwinnett Co. has
actually slowly decreased from 8.7% to 5% from 1970 to 1990, Suwanee has seen nearly
a tripling of its growth rates over those same three decades (’70- 5.25%, ’80- 8.9%, ’90-
14%). In short, Suwanee has been growing fast.(1)
Current 2000 Census data shows the age distribution to be centered at 35-44 years of age
and weighted between approximately 50% of the population between the ages of 25 and
54. The vast majority of these are white (94% in 1990), with only about 4.4% black and
2% Asian. Almost half of the population of Suwanee in 1990 was at a high school
education or lower, 21% with some college but no degree, and a third of the population
having at least a College Associates degree. These numbers were, at the time, overall
worse than the County’s. Per capita income in 1990 was slightly below the County at
$17,300 and Median Household Income was well above the County’s at $48,750, with
income groupings evenly distributed.(1)

Projected Growth.

Total population is projected to grow to about 20,500 people and
8,000 households by 2020, with a sharp leveling off of growth after 2015. Long term
projections for 2030 have households at 11, 495 and the population between 30,000 and
32,500. Socioeconomic trends, including Median Household Income and education
levels, have also shown a strong improvement since the 1980’s and are projected to
continue. The current city average of about 3 persons per household, however, is not
projected to change much. This means much of the future growth of the City is expected
to be as large families rather than single adults.(2)
Land Use. The City of Suwanee’s land area currently totals 6,998 acres, or about 10
square miles, with the following breakdown. About 42% is Residential, with 95% of that
being Single-Family and the remaining being Multi-Family. Only about 6% of the land
was being used for Commercial, with the overwhelming majority of that being
commercial/retail. Light industry comprised approximately 10% of the land. Parks/
Recreation & Conservation lands were about 11.5% of the land use. Total undeveloped
acreage is currently 12% of the land area of the City. That is projected to ultimately be
reduced to 0% in the future.(2)

Problems the City Faces.

Space has become a very valuable commodity within the
small city due to its extremely rapid growth. One of the issues cited as being the leading
cause of urban sprawl in the Atlanta area is the fact that homeowners and developers have
always preferred large lot sizes, with upwards of an acre or more not entirely uncommon
for one household (Wes Rogers, Senior Environmental Planner, 3/14/2008). This problem
has especially impacted Suwanee as the town has seen much of its land occupied by lowdensity
subdivisions, with lot width minimums from 85 to 150 feet.
This leads to the number one challenge the City faces today: managing infill well. Infill is
the result of the rapid growth the I-85 corridor has experienced in the past several years.
“As growth has leap-frogged… up the I-85 corridor, in checkerboard fashion, spurred by
road and sewer extensions, urbanization has been a function of filling in the spaces left
between disparate development projects- basically a densification of the checkered-board
over time until all of the spaces are filled” (1, “Land Use”).
To make matters worse, since Suwanee is a part of the Atlanta area urban air quality basin
and since that area is currently in non-attainment for ozone emissions, Suwanee and
Greater Gwinnett County are both subject to federal regulations which, “impacts the
county’s road improvement program and its ability to add additional capacity to
regionally significant roads”(1, “Natural Resources”). Furthermore, the Atlanta Regional
Commission has been working on ways that local governments can help reduce air
pollution by reducing average trip miles, etc. These, together, put added pressure on the
City of Suwanee to “infill” smartly.

The Chattahoochee Corridor does not greatly affect the City, but is noteworthy. Related to
it are the many un-developable areas such as low-lying flood-zones and wetlands. There
is also some concern for the vast recharge area over which the city lies.

Finally, to tie all of these issues together and expand on them some, it is, in fact, the
Mayor and the City Council’s desire to make their city an environmentally pleasing and
pleasant place- if not for Mother Nature, at least for the human beings living there. This
includes everything from side walks and greenspace to matching street lamps along the
main thoroughfare into town. They also wish to reduce traffic through so-called “smart
planning,” or to put work, play, residence, and shopping all within readily accessible
distance of each other.

In short, the challenge faced by the City of Suwanee in recent years has been to infill the
remaining available space while at the same time preserving the city’s small-town feel,
improving pedestrian access and lowering traffic, and saving as many trees and green
open areas (for the purposes of aesthetics and the environment) as they realistically can.

Solutions and Other Actions.

Chattahoochee River Corridor & Tributaries.
The Chattahoochee River Corridor extends into a small portion of the western extreme of
the City and, overall, affects the City little. Nevertheless, this area is subject to regulation
under the Georgia Metropolitan River Protection Act and the River Corridor Plan and so
is not insignificant(1).
Per regulations there is required a 50 ft. non-disturbance buffer, a 100 ft. set back for all
development, and a 150 ft. setback for all impervious development within this corridor
(1). In addition, there are severe restrictions on land use within a 7 mi. radius of any
down stream municipal water intake plants. However, none currently exist near the City
and none are likely to ever be developed within this proximity(1). There is one last action
which the City was required to take as the commercially zoned section that occupies
much of the corridor/city overlap is developed. As a precaution to protect the
Chattahoochee from storm water runoff and river bank erosion, 6 acres of land of this lot
were slated to be preserved, undisturbed (Wes Rogers, 3/14/2008).
There is a further requirement of at least a 35 ft. non-disturbance buffer for all tributaries
of the Chattahoochee with an additional 35 ft. impervious surface setback(1). However,
this seems moot as current city stream-buffer ordinances require a 50 ft. non-disturbance
buffer with an additional 25 ft. set back for development for all streams within the City
(4).
Wetland Conservation/Utilization and the Greenway.
Per city ordinances, all wetlands within the city are subject to standard S. 404 permitting
under the Clean Water Act. However, there are no easily developable wetlands within the
city as those that do exist are flood-zones for streams and rivers. This posed a problem for
the City of Suwanee as it meant there was privately owned land within its boundaries
which could not be used by either its owners or the public at large. As a solution, the
green-minded Mayor of Suwanee decided 10 years or so ago that, rather than leaving all
of that land to just sit and waste away, he would like the City to buy it up and convert it to
greenways. The green-minded City Council agreed to the idea, and so in 2001 the City’s
award winning “Open Space Initiative” was begun. With this initiative the City took out a
$17.7 million bond and began the purchasing of land and developing of trails and parks.
One of the crowning achievements of this project has been the Suwanee Creek Greenway,
a project which also received State Recreation Grant funding. This greenway connects the
expansive George Pierce Park sports complex with the Town Center and preserves
several acres of flood-generated wetlands along the Suwanee Creek. Also, since the City
owns the lands, the project also prevents any issues with takings or zoning violations, as
well as circumvents having to deal with developers in the preservation of open space.
Finally, before taking out the bond the City held a vote, and its citizens agreed to take a
140% increase in property taxes in order to pay the bond back.
Air Quality.
“The City of Suwanee is also working toward improving air quality through coordination
and integration of land use and transportation, the encouragement of mixed use and
pedestrian friendly facilities, the support for a commuter rail station and building of the
necessary infrastructure for alternative modes of transportation.” (1, “Natural Resources:
Air Quality”)
These actions are covered in further detail below.
Coping with Growth: reducing traffic, managing density, and maintaining open space.
In 1998 a new Zoning Master Plan was created to cope with the growing pains of the city.
Of particular note in this new master plan was a new type of zone, the PMUD (Planned
Mixed Use Development). In short the objective of the City in creating this zoning type
was not to increase density but to make travel in the city more pedestrian friendly, make
daily life for the residents of the mixed-use zones easier, and reduce overall trip mileage,
all while preserving some open space as well. There are two types of PMUD: Mixed-Use
Village (MUV) and Mixed-Use Center (MUC). The difference is essentially that the
Village is predominantly residential and the Center is predominantly commercial or
industrial(offices). The goal of both is to put residents closer to their place of work and/or
shopping and at the same time provide open space for recreation. A full list of objectives
for PMUD zoned areas can be found in Section 510.A in Article V of the Zoning Master
Plan.(3)
In the 1998 zoning map there were 6 PMUD zoned regions within the city, each at
specific “Character Areas” per the 2020 Comprehensive Plan. The future land use
projections in the 2030 Comprehensive Plan shows these PMUD areas expanded, with
several new and broader overlay Character Areas. These new Character Areas are mainly
meant as a tool for organizing the City’s development plans, though some older areas
may have purpose beyond this. Follows is an explanation of the thinking behind the
creating of certain PMUD zoned Character Areas.
The goal of some of these Character Areas is to facilitate transition from existing
commercial or industrial areas to existing low-density neighborhoods within the minimal
space remaining between the two (the infill). One prime example of this is the area
around the Peachtree Industrial Boulevard (PIB) and Lawrenceville-Suwanee Road
intersection. Here PMUD and multifamily housing are being used as transitions from the
heavily commercial PIB Corridor and single family uses to the north and Town Center
and Old Town to the south. Another particular PMUD zone, known as Suwanee Station,
was set in anticipation of a future commuter rail station for the City of Suwanee and also
serves as transition between light industry and single family areas. Most areas are set to
utilize both MUV and MUC together, though some are exclusively one or the other. Of
note in the only MUV-only area is the planned use of a conservation neighborhood, in
which a minimum of 50% of the area must be devoted to open space, due to the presence
of extensive flood-plains in the area. Also of note is that all Character Areas, for all types
of zoning, are designated low-medium density, with the exception of the Sims Lake/
Suwanee Gateway area near the I-85 interchange. It is slated for high density residential
development.(1, 2)
To go more in depth, as a part of the preservation of open space, all MUV areas are
required to have at least a ½ acre park within 500 ft. of the front door step of all housing
units and are required to preserve at least 20% of the gross area of the development as
open space. This often results in the transference of that land to either the City or, in some
cases, the home owners association for that neighborhood. Both areas carry extensive
regulations on the nature and use of driveways, alleys, and parking lots- mainly to the
effect of having them placed in the back of development and away from where their
traffic might disrupt traffic on the main streets. Sidewalks are mandatory and, to further
facilitate pedestrian traffic, several of the PMUD zones and broader Character Areas will
be interconnected via trails and greenways. Thus the City hopes to accomplish the task of
infilling its undeveloped areas without destroying its small town character or creating
traffic and air quality problems, while also better connecting the already developed areas
of town to one another.(1)

Funding.

Suwanee has 5 main sources of funding for its plans. The obvious first two are
local funding from the City’s own coffers and the State of Georgia. Other primary sources
of funding include the Open Space Bond, as discussed earlier. A SPLOST, passed in
2005, goes towards many of the City’s road maintenance, pedestrian development, and
city building maintenance projects. Finally, a TAD has been set up for the development/
re-development in the Suwanee Gateway Character Area. Occasionally money comes in
from Gwinnett County or the Georgia DOT.
Room for Improvement. The City of Suwanee was ranked as the #10 Small Town to
live in in the US in 2007 by Money Magazine. This is for good reason given all that the
City has done, is doing, and will do to improve the quality of life of its citizens in the face
Atlanta’s monstrous sprawl. But, that is not to say that there is not more the City could
do. The biggest thing the City could do to really push the environmental-shade of green is
to pass ordinances requiring Low Impact Development practices and Energy Star
efficiency standards for all new development and pushing for older developments to
retrofit parking lots and even replace conventional roofs with green roofs, etc.
The City’s Senior Environmental Planner, Wes Rogers, has himself, expressed a desire to
do things like put the lights in the Town Center park on solar power instead of leaving
them on the system, feeding off the nearby Buford dam. However, as Wes Rogers points
out, things like forcing LID design practices and putting up solar power panels, as green
as they might be environmentally, can often times be in conflict with that other shade of
green that developers and cities must pay so much attention to: money. As Wes pointed
out in a phone conversation, LID and energy efficiency practices are often not worth their
initial costs, which can be very high. This is because the developers often lease the
property, so that they are not the ones paying the electric and water bills; and because
impervious surface taxes are not very high, making benefits from reduced impervious
surface minimal to none. Furthermore, he points out that installing solar panels is not
very realistic if its own costs are going to be well above the actual savings on the electric
bill because it will not necessarily be very justifiable in the eyes of the citizens. In other
words, in a cost versus benefits analysis, justifying the more environmentally friendly
methods can often be a hard ticket to sell to developers and citizens if they are not
already on the City’s side as the comparison can often be heavily weighted on the side of
costs.
To make a LID ordinance more justifiable or simply to make LID practices more
appealing, the City could instate its own impervious surface tax. However it would
probably have to be fairly stiff and would possibly not get the support of the City’s
citizens. Alternatively, as an implied police power granted in the State Constitution, the
City could target the impervious surface tax to only people who go over a certain
percentage of impervious surface or towards commercial and industrial developers.
Subsequently, those developers making full or substantial implementation of LID
practices on their properties could have those properties completely exempt from said
tax. Of course this poses the issue of possibly reducing commerce in the area; but given
the City’s desirability from a residential stand point and how well it is connected to
Atlanta and the rest of Gwinnett County, this seems like it would be of little issue. The
real issue, for Suwanee, would be the fact that most of the city is already developed, with
those areas that are not developed already being under construction and potentially
beyond the point of being able to use LID technology without retrofitting.
Suwanee: A Model City? How applicable are Suwanee’s design practices to other small
towns in the Greater Atlanta Metropolitan Area(GAMA)? This is difficult to say as
Suwanee has some very important but unique characteristics. Easily the biggest and most
important of these is the City’s governing officials and its citizens. There are many towns
in the GAMA that certainly do have the connectivity that Suwanee does and do have the
natural beauty and appeal that Suwanee has. However, how many can claim to have a
governing body truly concerned with the preservation of open space, protection of
valuable natural resources, such as streams and wet lands, and desire to mitigate air
pollution, so much so that the governing body would be willing to even suggest more
than doubling property taxes and taking out a $17.7 million bond so as to pay for it all?
Then how many of those cities have citizens that would agree to it or even could agree to
it for it not being beyond their financial means?
Another important characteristic that really helps make the City’s PMUD zones work is
that fact that the town did develop in a haphazard manner, such that today all that is left
are the infill spaces. This characteristic of the City helps to make the PMUD designs the
obvious choice, not only for all the benefits already stated above, but also because they
allow for the preservation of property value in some areas that might have otherwise
suffered due to undesirable locals- i.e. next to light manufacturing plants.
Nevertheless, it is certainly possible for many of the ideas implemented in Suwanee to be
applied to other towns. Even in areas where the demographic is not affluent enough to be
able to afford such things as Suwanee’s Open Space Initiative, the plan could still be
applied if support from federal, state, and/or county governments could be garnered.
Mixed-use developments, while they make more sense for a town that is in the “infill”
stage, could easily be applied anywhere. They could even be used as a tool to help boost
land values and desirability in up-and-coming small towns as the Mixed-Use areas of
Suwanee are definitely a part of what makes the town so attractive today.
Conclusion. As the City of Suwanee faces another doubling of its current day population
by year 2030 and a dwindling of its land available for development, it has been pressured
to preserve its small town feel, its natural beauty, and its clean air all while comfortably
fitting in the extra 15,000 residents. Through the support of its citizens in proceeding with
the Open Space Initiative and in the smart use of Mixed-Use zoning the City appears to
be well on the way to accomplishing that task, 20 years ahead of schedule. While there
are still areas for improvement in deepening the City’s environmental shade of green,
things like a new LEED certified City Hall and a strong will to preserve greenspace and
reduce air pollution make it hard for one to argue the point.

References
1. City of Suwanee City Council. 2000. A Comprehensive Plan to the Year 2020. City of
Suwanee, GA. Available online at: http://www.suwanee.com/
economicdevelopment.reportsregulations.year2020.php. Accessed 3/1/2008.
2. City of Suwanee City Council. 2008. Draft of the 2030 Comprehensive Plan. City of
Suwanee, GA. Available online at: http://suwanee.com/compplandraft.php. Accessed
5/8/2008.
3. City of Suwanee City Council. 1998. Zoning Ordinance. City of Suwanee, GA.
Available online at: http://www.suwanee.com/
economicdevelopment.reportsregulations.php. Accessed 3/1/2008.
4. City of Suwanee City Council. 2006. City of Suwanee Stream Buffer Protection
Ordinance. City of Suwanee, GA. Available online at: http://www.suwanee.com/
economicdevelopment.reportsregulations.other.php. Accessed 3/21/2008.
5. DRASTIC: A Standardized System for Evaluating Ground Water Pollution Potential
Using Hydrogeologic Settings. EPA #600287035. 1987. Available online at: http://
nepis.epa.gov/Exe/ZyPURL.cgi?Dockey=20007KU4.txt. Accessed 12/29/2008.

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