Counties rethink growth plans

WINDER -- Officials in Barrow, Jackson and other northeast Georgia counties are rethinking plans to deal with population growth, which is not matching earlier expectations.

U.S. Census Bureau figures show that Barrow County, which had been growing 5 percent to 7 percent a year for about a decade, grew only 2.7 percent between 2008 and 2009. Jackson County, which had been growing 4 percent to 7.5 percent each year, grew just 2 percent.

County planners are taking a second look at mid-decade population projections that said their counties would more than double in size by 2020 and 2030. County leaders relied on those projections to make decisions about infrastructure projects such as reservoirs, water treatment plants, parks and roads.

''I think, at the time, no one could even anticipate that the bottom was going to fall out like it did,'' said Gina Mitsdarffer, director of public development for Jackson County. ''We just assumed that we would keep growing at this ballooning rate. We didn't realize that it would just balloon, balloon and balloon and then pop. ... We didn't consider this at all.''

Consultants calculated that Oconee County would grow by 4 percent for the next several years and run out of water by 2014. County officials partnered with Walton County to build the $100 million Hard Labor Creek reservoir.

''I think everyone was nervous that we weren't going to meet the needs of the population growth,'' Mitsdarffer said. ''But now the slowdown has lessened the strain of that pressure to keep financing, keep building and keep going.''

Residential and utility infrastructure projects that aren't being used now won't be wasted, said University of Georgia demographer Doug Bachtel. He said northeast Georgia is in the right location to continue to draw residents, and it's going to keep growing -- even if it's at a slower rate.