Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Robin Hood to the Rescue

My childhood years in Oconee County were spent in Northwest Woods, then the largest subdivision in Oconee County. We lived at 1510 Robin Hood Road, and I spent my middle school years riding bikes in the neighborhood, mowing people's lawns with my buddy Cody for spending money, exploring the woods behind the neighborhood, playing tennis, and swimming at the Northwest Woods Pool. Other past times included being Jay Allen's victim in faux professional wrestling matches on the trampoline, posing as a skateboarder, arguing with my brother and cousins, and playing hoops with a big group of friends at our house, at the Claghorns, or on Danny Dyer's cul-de-sac down the road.

It was a long walk, but if I had the energy and time, I would often stroll home from the old OCHS rather than wait on Mr. Huff and bus no. 22. I might also walk up to Dreamboat Annie's (to get the new Bon Jovi tape!), Oconee Sporting Goods, or the "old" Golden Pantry via Mars Hill Road on a summer morning. The roads were calm enough that my friend Danny and I could pedal our bikes to "the four way stop" to get a drink or get adventurous and ride out to High Shoals via the "speed bump" hill on New High Shoals Road and watch older kids at Paradise Falls. A trip to the "cool pool" at Killarney West was not out of range either if your friends from Lake Wildwood, Hillcrest or Killarney could sneak you past the Bishops, who guarded access pretty tightly.

In my teenage and college years, I spent most of my time pounding the neighborhood pavement, sweating on nearby country roads, or covering miles on the red clay tractor road that bisected the Dooley's fading farmlands behind the neighborhood as my brother and I prepared for upcoming cross country and track seasons. My high school girlfriend also lived in NWW and my job was just up the road at Bell's, when it was the only grocery store in Oconee.

The voting precinct for Northwest Woods was always Briarwood Baptist. Now NWW is part of the civic center precinct (the Civic Center was not around back in the day). In my wrap up on the elections last night, I mentioned how surprised I was that this district went so strongly for Sarah Bell given the fact that it had always been solidly pro-business, pro-development and the fact that Chairman Davis also lived there for many years. I also referenced the fact that voters in that district were beneficiaries of some recent and highly-touted county initiatives like the new park and the Mars Hill widening.

However, a more astute observer who happens to still live in the old neighborhood made me rethink my assumptions and consider my own impressions of that area today. Perhaps nowhere in our county is a transition from quiet, moderate growth to rapid, suburban style development more obvious than the area around Northwest Woods. In fact, this area and the adjacent area along Hog Mountain Road are the posterchild for what frustrates many about Oconee's current growth pattern. Look at the map and consider (NWW is the cluster of homes in the middle):

  • The trails I used to run on and enjoy as a teen are now Parkside, just west of the neighborhood. But the problem is, there is just a road that connects 53 to Mars Hill. There are no homes, no shopping, no nothing. The woods and trees are gone, with nothing to replace it; for many in Northwest Woods, their views and peace and quiet are gone; while this neighborhood has enormous potential if it is built, I'm sure it is frustrating to see the woods disappear behind your home and then watch the land lay fallow.
  • Several years ago, amid a controversial rezoning effort on the Southeast side of Northwest Woods, Bob Cain decided to spread chicken manure on land that was not rezoned from its agricultural use to teach the local residents a lesson. This incredible classy act soured many in Northwest Woods on the development community. This land, now rezoned, features paved roads, pipes emerging from the ground, but no homes, trees, or landscaping.
  • When traveling to Butler's Crossroads (on the right edge of the map), residents in the "new side" of the neighborhood now get to enjoy stunning views of neon lights at a nail salon in the Colony Square shopping center along Highway 53, a beautiful new AutoZone with requisite bright orange paint, and several other vacant retail tracts. Those on the "old side" of NWW likely take Mars Hill to Butler's Crossroads. They now enjoy views of the half empty Manders Crossing shopping center at its intersection with Cliff Dawson Road (which is also now home to several vacant subdivisions), an undeveloped storage and retail parcel "developed" by one of our own planning commission members, and a variety of other vacant commercial lots.
  • The easily accessible country roads I used to ride my bike on are now filled with subdivisions, some successful, and some less so (see Coldwater Creek, Parkside and others).
  • The drive to "Herman C." -- once an easy bike ride or quick drive, now features no fewer than three large vacant "field hoods" of empty lots. Even worse, when these neighborhoods fill up, the county has promised to four-lane Hog Mountain Road to Herman C. Michael Park -- just what local residents want.
I would guess my former neighbors are not thrilled about these changes. All told, within a one mile radius of Northwest Woods, I would guess at least 1,000 lots have been rezoned and approved (mostly unbuilt), strip shopping centers have proliferated, and they have seen few if any benefits. I doubt anyone in Northwest Woods had any idea that Hog Mountain Road was being eyed as a growth corridor -- it just happened overnight.

It's a shame, because the corridor between Butler's Crossroads and Herman C. Michael Park should have been a showcase for Oconee County. It features one of the state's top high schools with a wonderful architectural design, several architecturally significant churches, pastoral land owned by UGA, and our county civic center. Instead, with poor planning, we have turned that stretch of road into our own little slice of Snellville. The scary thing is that it may be worse when it is built out.

The Mars Hill corridor is currently a crowded -- but stable -- two lane road right now. When it is four-laned, Northwest Woods will be surrounded by traffic, by more commercial development, and more change. Perhaps all of our BOC members new and old would benefit from a stroll around my old neighborhood. A talk with the residents of Sherwood Drive, Robin Hood Road, Kings Court, and Colliers Creek Road might make for some interesting conversation, and offer a pretty good picture of what many residents in Oconee think about our community right now.

Bottom line: if we're going to grow the "north end" of the county, lets say where that is and what it is going to be. Landscaping requirements should be enforced. Growth corridors announced and planned. Homes and buildings should face the street. Medians should be grassed and treed. Commercial architecture should be consistent. Careful planning and some of these steps can enhance property values of existing neighborhoods and make sure Oconee's great old neighborhoods stay that way.

So, current and former NWW residents .... what do you recall about our neighborhood? What were your fondest memories? And what do you think about what is happening around it now?


William said...

Great post Brian. Being an "Oak Ridge Boy" growing up in Watkinsville, I spent many days and nights in NWW. It was by far the metropolis of teenage life growing up in Oconee County in our days.

I think your post has hit the nail on the head. While growth is inevitable it should be done smartly. I would love to see the county follow the City of Watkinsville in attempting to keep a certain look and architectural design. This would never prevent anyone from opening a business, see Autozone type businesses in Dunwoody or Ellicot City, MD. If anything it gives their buildings a better "dark value" if they ever find the need to leave it.

I think these are issues that all Oconee Citizens are concerned with, new or old.

Anonymous said...

I never thought the Claghorns would be remembered for our basketball playing...

Nice trip down memory lane. Just wanted to point out that a few months ago I was looking at aerial photos of the area from the late 1960s and NWW wasn't even there and the rest of the county was much different from even when we were growing up. And while Bells was seen as an improvement back in the day, the people from Foodland didn't seem to like it. So development in general can be "good" in the sense it can provide more people the opportunity to experience a great community, it can provide goods and services close by that used to be much further away, etc. Of course, as we all know, development can also be "bad."

That being said, I don't think the solution to bad development is to necessarily control the look of it, but to more closely address the form of development. A big box with tuscan columns out front is still a big box eating up acres of real estate (usually farm land or forest). Likewise, a new bypass that is only somewhat necessary on game day (6 days a year), can eat up immense amounts of land. I think putting too much emphasis on regulating individual developments, while not having a clear vision of what in the town or county should be enhanced or protected usually leads to bad development (with some added red tape). Of course, trying to get people to buy off on a vision or masterplan in this country is next to impossible...

Joseph Claghorn

Brian said...

Great thoughts, Joseph, spoken like a true professional.