Building boomlet fuels new northern march

Even the few remaining cows glance nervously over their shoulders, it seems, for the bulldozers marching north.

Nine subdivisions, some with names ending in “mill,” “hollow” or “pointe,” line the highway about 75 minutes northeast of downtown Atlanta. In all, 47 subdivisions across Jackson County saw some level of construction in 2015, according to Metrostudy, a housing data firm.

Atlanta’s decades-long residential surge northward stalled during the Great Recession, but it’s back with gusto today, at least in some areas. Home permits are up and vacant lots down across an exurban arc that includes Barrow, Bartow, Cherokee, Forsyth, Hall and Jackson counties.

Cheaper prices and homebuyers not averse to long commutes, or those who work nearby or from home, are expanding metro Atlanta’s footprint ever closer to South Carolina.

The construction rekindles a key sector of metro Atlanta’s economy, putting framers, roofers and carpenters back to work and creating new homeowners who buy furniture, lawnmowers and the like. At the same time, new demands for roads, schools and other services ensue. And what was once special and unique eventually becomes more common and crowded.

“We never really gave up our dream of a house in the suburbs. We just put it on hold temporarily,” said Jeff Humphreys, a University of Georgia economist. “And now we are back to our sprawling ways.”

The renewal is playing out vividly in Jackson County, which is bisected by I-85.

The county seat of Jefferson, says Jay Cleveland, is like Dacula only better. Cleveland, 41, and his wife moved from the Gwinnett County city a year ago after building a house at Traditions, a 1,100-acre golf-tennis community with hundreds of new homes off Ga. 124. He commutes to his truck-driving job in Dacula 20 miles away; she does internet security from her home office.

They both wanted the traditional American Homeowner Dream: a new house on a corner lot with a 3-car garage and a sizeable buffer from traffic, crime and Atlanta.

“We wanted to move away from a busier area,” Cleveland said while spring cleaning the garages.

“We like it out here. We occasionally hear a rooster crowing or a loud gun shot. And there’s a lot of deer. I’m sure there’ll be growth, but it’s probably nothing we can’t handle.”

Cleveland, like legions of earlier Atlantans, followed the interstates in search of bigger homes at more affordable prices. As Cobb, Fulton, DeKalb and Gwinnett filled up with houses, stores and traffic, residents and newcomers leapfrogged farther north.

Prior to the recession, the population of the northern exurbs was predicted to double by 2030.

Surplus of vacant lots

Then the bottom dropped out. In 2006 unincorporated Jackson County issued 684 single-family residential building permits. Four years later, it issued 34. County-wide, nearly 6,000 permitted residential lots were vacant.

Ga. 124 between Braselton and Jefferson looked shoddy, abandoned. Near-empty subdivisions with new roads and sidewalks were bereft of people. Weeds out-grew PVC pipes. Foreclosures and bankruptcies were common.

In all, across the six-county northern swath, 38,800 permitted lots sat empty and forlorn in 2010, according to Metrostudy. Once-booming Cherokee County tallied 6,366 vacant lots.

Homebuilders were slow to get back into construction once the economy improved. And, with prices low across the board, buyers didn’t have to drive beyond Cobb, Gwinnett or Fulton to afford a big home. The vacant lot inventory dropped to 23,000 before rising to 26,900 late last year as new lots began to be developed.

“Prices intown are close to peak again, so now we’re starting all over which means, if you want a house, you have to move farther out,” said Eugene James, regional director for Metrostudy.

‘Really just deja vu’

In some spots it’s like 2006 all over again.

“The only surprise is the re-emergence of trends in place before the Great Recession,” Humphreys said. “This is really just deja vu. And these trends are here to stay.”

More than 415 subdivisions across the northern exurbs experienced construction in 2015, according to Metrostudy. More than 5,800 homes were sold — nearly three times as many as 2011.

In booming Forsyth County, for example, 2,814 building permits were logged in 2015 — 150 percent more than 2010.

Lots are selling and homes being built along Ga. 124. A new Baptist church is “coming soon.” A health clinic and McDonald’s just opened.

“And I’m glad we’re getting a new auto parts store,” said Cleveland.

There’s a different feel, though. While many newcomers cite the usual draws — cheaper homes and quieter lives — no longer must residents drive to the Perimeter or downtown Atlanta for work. Jobs are following the population.

Hall County, for example, counts Kubota, King’s Hawaiian and Wrigley’s as major industrial expansions attracting more workers who live nearby. Caterpillar, near Athens, and Baxter Pharmaceuticals, in Covington, allow employees to settle in Barrow and Bartow counties. Many people, including Cleveland’s wife, telecommute.

Industrial space boom

Roughly 12 million square feet of industrial space, distribution centers mostly, sits vacant or under construction between the Jackson-Gwinnett county line and South Carolina, developer Frank Norton said.

“So what you have is an industrial distribution market that will eventually need housing to support the labor base,” he said. “You could call it blue- collar jobs. But the hourly wages, say, for a welder at Kubota or Caterpillar is $20. The jobs-creation engine is certainly in full kilter.”

The average unemployment rate across the northern fringe counties, 4.6 percent, is significantly lower than metro Atlanta’s 5.3 percent.

Norton cites another demographic distinction between the latest exurban push and previous ones: retirees. Three “age-restrictive” communities in Hall County, for example, are attracting droves of 65-plus seniors.

Already, though, the northern surge brings problems. Forsyth County imposed a moratorium on apartment construction last year. There’s currently a moratorium on any new rezonings as the county hustles to hire 11 people for its planning department. And with the highest average new home price across the northern exurbs, $381,600, metro Atlantans are driving farther north along I-575 in search of the next affordable neighborhood.

“Forsyth has helped accelerate Dawson County’s growth,” Norton said.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.