Aerial view of the 160 acres near June Ivey and Indian Shoals roads near Dacula proposed for a new subdivision development. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Can (or should) what’s left of ‘rural Gwinnett’ be saved?

This isn’t the type of zoning battle that’s generally fought in Gwinnett County. Not in 2018.

It doesn’t pit the traffic-obsessed residents of a subdivision against developers hoping to cram more townhomes along an already busy stretch of road, recurrent disputes that have become almost cliche in one of metro Atlanta’s most rapidly urbanizing communities.

No, this one — the Battle of June Ivey, let’s call it — is more like the Gwinnett skirmishes of yesteryear, the ones that played out during the county’s shift from farmhouses to neighborhood clubhouses. And with developers running out of places to turn in parts of the county, it may be a harbinger of more throwback battles to come.

It involves 160 acres way out near the Walton County line, in one of the few areas of Gwinnett that could still be considered largely rural. It involves a proposal to build a big new subdivision with a few hundred houses near the corner of June Ivey and Indian Shoals roads. It involves a band of locals trying to preserve what’s become an endangered way of life, especially in a county that’s been growing since the ’80s, already has more than 900,000 residents and may add as many as half a million more over the next two decades or so.

The protests have been sizable, both online and at meetings. “Rural Gwinnett” signs line the nearby roads.

“I just think it’s a shame,” Laura Walsh, the leader of the resistance, said during a recent walk through the pine-flanked battleground. “It’s kind of that whole feeling that we’re paving paradise and putting up a parking lot, you know?”

Even here, though, development appears inevitable.

‘The Gwinnett County way of life’

The county’s 2030 unified development plan, which was adopted several years ago, estimated that about 80 percent of Gwinnett’s land already had been developed. Only about 49 square miles — or roughly 11 percent of Gwinnett’s total land area — were designated as “rural estate area.”

The planning area that includes most of the June Ivey property had 13 rezoning applications approved in 2016, the most in the county, paving the way for 1,329 housing units to be constructed.

“There’s folks that hear the word ‘rural’ and they think hog farms and corn farms and big open spaces like that,” said Gwinnett planning commission Chairman Chuck Warbington, who has become the “Rural Gwinnett” group’s primary adversary. “And, frankly, that’s not the Gwinnett County way of life anymore.”

But Warbington said he’s indeed noticed over the last year or so an uptick in the number of rezoning applications in the area.

From left, Joell Brule, Laura Walsh and Robert Protasewich — members of “Rural Gwinnett,” which is fighting new development in what’s left of the rural eastern side of Gwinnett — discuss the proposed rezoning area in Dacula on Tuesday, June 12, 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Walsh, the Rural Gwinnett leader, said that, in the past, residents didn’t find out about new developments in their area until it was too late to speak up. By law, folks who live within 1,000 feet of a proposed rezoning must be notified — and in more rural areas, 1,000 feet can sometimes reach just one or two houses.

Because the large June Ivey property abuts two neighborhoods and a handful of other properties so closely, Walsh said, more people received official notification of the proposal — one that originally called for more than 350 homes to be built on closely compacted lots.

Officials have recommended reducing that number since, but the development is still due for a vote by the county’s Board of Commissioners.

“It was kind of the last straw, you know?” Walsh said. “Enough is enough. There had been so much build up that when we saw that one, and especially it being that big, we were figuring we needed to do what we could.”

‘Peace and quiet’

June Ivey is a sprawling, wooded expanse near the intersection of its namesake road and Indian Shoals, in the far eastern corner of Gwinnett. It’s tucked in the middle of a pair of small subdivisions, homes on multiple-acre lots, a few horse and goat farms.

On the western end, a stone’s throw from Walsh’s home, the dense pines are joined by a smattering of humble headstones, a cemetery of mysterious provenance. Among the dozens of smaller stones is one professionally carved and still readable — “Peavy,” it says. “William M.” lived from 1849 to 1878, “Nancy C.” from 1845 to 1900.

No one seems to know exactly who those folks, or their comrades in the afterlife, were.

Walk east and there’s a tree-cleared power company easement, more pines and outcrop after outcrop of granite.

“There’s an air of freedom out here,” said Jennifer Won, who, along with her family and three horses, lives on three acres near the site of the proposed development.

Gwinnett County’s planning department recommended denial of the necessary rezoning that June Ivey Development LLC applied for to build its hundreds of homes. But the planning commission voted last week to approve it — with a few big changes.

New conditions recommended by Warbington included setting minimum lot widths at 100 feet, which he said would cut the original 2.4-homes-per-acre proposal to closer to 1.25. There is no specific limit on the number of homes to be built, but Warbington said the lot width guidelines would make it far less than were originally proposed. He later called it “the least dense” subdivision development approved during his 14 years on the planning commission.

The Rural Gwinnett folks don’t trust that assessment, or that a developer would ultimately stick to the guidelines, or that the guidelines wouldn’t later change. The attorney representing the developer has not responded to media inquiries over the last several months.

“Obviously, the more density, the more it hurts everybody else who moved out here because they wanted peace and quiet,” said neighbor Rob Protesawich.

The rezoning is likely to be included on the agenda for the June 26 meeting of the county’s Board of Commissioners, which will have final say, though consideration of the matter could be rescheduled.

Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash lives just around the corner from the June Ivey property. She declined to comment on the proposed development, calling it “inappropriate” to do so before a decision is rendered.

Joell Brule walks by graveyard in proposed the rezoning area in Dacula on Tuesday, June 12, 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The future

The Rural Gwinnett movement has more than 600 followers on Facebook. It’s also become sizable enough to have an impact on a race for the local state House seat — House District 105, already one of Georgia’s most competitive.

Republican candidate Donna Sheldon got involved in the Rural Gwinnett movement early on, Walsh said. Fellow Republican Robin Mauck — who will face Sheldon in next month’s primary runoff — caught flak from the group for suggesting on her campaign signs that she was involved with the cause before she actually was.

She later apologized on the group’s Facebook page.

Sheldon, Mauck and Democrat Donna McLeod were all at the recent planning commission meeting for the June Ivey vote. All were wearing the red shirts designed and donned by Walsh and her crew.

“Representative Democracy has not been a part of [the county’s] consideration,” McLeod later wrote on Facebook.

Warbington was not asked directly about the candidates’ stances. But he’d likely take another tack.

“There’s 500,000 people that are going to be moving to Gwinnett County in the next 30 years,” Warbington said this week. ” … The future is not no growth, it’s planned growth.”

It’s that plan that has some folks worried.