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Amendment 3: Crunch time for "private cities" 

"Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended so as to authorize the General Assembly to provide by general law for the creation and comprehensive regulation of infrastructure development districts for the provision of infrastructure as authorized by local governments?"

We couldn't tell what all that meant either – at least not without help from legislative experts, law books and a voodoo priestess from South Carolina. Monied interests like their ballot amendments a bit opaque: They figure people will vote "yes" if they don't know what it means. Vote "no" instead.

To simplify the Amendment 3 debate, consider that Amendment 2 is intended to revitalize already developed areas, where the public's invested in things like roads and sewers. But Amendment 3's designed to let developers tap government tools for their own interests – in this case, to tear into undeveloped land – and, at the same time, to be protected from risk by you, the taxpayer. Sort of like Wall Street's bailout, except guaranteed beforehand.

"Infrastructure development districts" grew out of a multiyear legislative battle to allow developers to set up areas where they could issue tax-exempt bonds to pay for sewers, roads, even golf courses. The bonds would be paid off by assessing fees on property owners in the districts.

It's not a new idea. Seventeen other states allow something similar. In Florida, where they're called "community development districts," there are more than 400. The projects are a gold mine for developers, as well as bait for cash-strapped county governments that want to attract growth but lack the funds to expand the necessary infrastructure.

Environmentalists and other opponents, who call IDDs "private cities," warn of danger ahead should Amendment 3 be approved. Because most of metro Atlanta is densely developed and served by sewers and roads, IDDs would be best suited to rural areas.

Woe be unto them, the opponents say. The districts, they warn, would grant governmental powers to a private entity and serve as a catalyst for sprawl. Should a developer default on payments, opponents say the city or county that allowed the district in its jurisdiction could be left holding the bag, the unintended recipient of a manufactured slice-of-life – more product than progress. (The well-financed business group pushing the referendum says a new developer would have to be found. But what if no developer was interested?)

At the same time, the pop-up developments could slice business from rural historic downtown districts in the same way that Wal-Mart superstores do.

What does it take to make the districts happen? Two public hearings and approval of the county commission. What's to stop county commissioners who vote on them from having a financial interest in IDDs? Nothing.

State legislators Mark Hatfield, Stephanie Stuckey Benfield and Wendell Willard put it best in a recent op-ed. The trio of bipartisan lawmakers wrote: "Georgia does not lack for development. The state has grown dramatically over the last two decades, and if anything, it is now time to stop and take a break to assess what is needed to accommodate the growth we already have."

Do your fellow Georgians out in the boondocks a favor and vote "no" on Amendment 3. We're just now coming to grips with sprawl in metro Atlanta. Let's be nice city folk and help them avoid their own.

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12/25/2014

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