Gwinnett County commissioners here an update on the development of the county’s 2040 Unified Plan at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center in Lawrenceville on Tuesday. The plan is looking at different issues in the county to determine how Gwinnett leaders can prepare the growth expected to happen over the next 22 years. (Staff Photo: Curt Yeomans)

It may be 22 years away, but Gwinnett County officials are deep in planning to prepare for what the county will be like in 2040.

By the time that year arrives, Gwinnett is projected to be Georgia’s most populous county, with about 1.5 million residents. But what does that look like? Will the entire county be urban, or will there still be areas that have retained their rural character?

Those are questions that the 2040 Unified Plan, which is under development, would address, and the officials from Pond and PEQ who are working on it said the year 2040 isn’t as far as it may seem.

“We’re thinking about the year, 2040 right? On the one hand, it seems like it’s way off in the distance, but if you think about it being 22 years from now, well 22 years ago was the (1996) Olympics,” Pond Senior Project Manager Eric Lusher told county commissioners this past week.

“So on one hand, it seems it’s this thing kinda far off, abstract, in the future, but at the same time, the Olympics wasn’t that long ago. I think we all kind of remember that.”

The team working on the county’s new unified plan has already gone out into the community and gotten some public input during meetings held around the county in late January and throughout February. They are tentatively scheduled to go back into the community near the end of next month for another round of community meetings though.

An online survey is also available to residents and other Gwinnett stakeholders through May 31 at www.Gwinnett2040UnifiedPlan.com.

“We’re also doing non-traditional outreach,” PEQ founder Inga Kennedy said. “We’re not limiting ourselves to the meetings. We’re getting out and participating in speaking engagements, events that are happening in the community, festivals, all kinds of activities with civic groups.”

The plan touches on a wide range of issues, including land use, utilities, economic development, housing, county services and infrastructure needs, such as transportation. It also takes population and demographic trends into account.

Lusher said some of the data that Pond and its partners working on the plan shows that about 63 percent of residents in Gwinnett have a suburban mindset. The group of residents that have more of an urban mindset can’t be ignored though, he also said.

“There’s 32 percent of us, a minority but a sizable minority, that fit into sort of an urban mindset,” Lusher said. “This is part of the change and part of the growth that’s happened in Gwinnett County. There’s sort of a different vibe and vision among certain parts of our community.

“You can break that down even further geographically, and this is what is most interesting to us. In (the) west part of the county, over 75 percent of households have sort of that urban mentality. In contrast, (in the) east part of the county, only seven percent of households fit into that (mentality).”

The team working on the new plan has already gotten some idea for residents want to see happen in the future. A draft version of a composite map created from the first round of public meetings offers some insight into what residents want.

It shows people who live along the U.S. Highway 78 corridor, as well as the Interstate 85 corridor in southwest Gwinnett expressed a “strong preference” for change. South Lawrenceville, the Dacula section of Ga. Highway 316, Berkeley Lake and Duluth also leaned toward change.

One area where a heavy number of residents expressed a desire for change was the Gwinnett Place Mall area at I-85. Another area where a lot of residents said change was needed was the Jimmy Carter Boulevard area at I-85.

“There’s not a lot of surprise here that there’s a lot of interest in the 85 corridor,” Lusher said of the heavily traveled interstate.

On the other hand, there are areas where preferences leaned more toward preservation, including Peachtree Corners, north Gwinnett and pockets on the north side of Lawrenceville, the Centerville area, and unincorporated areas between Lilburn and Snellville, and between Grayson and Dacula.

There were some warnings that Lusher had for commissioners though, particularly concerning employment shifts and the future of retail. Although there were some areas of Gwinnett where employment was higher in 2015 than they were at the pre-recession peak, there are other areas that were still below those level.

Employment in the northern part of Gwinnett was up 18.7 percent over its pre-recession peak while southwest Gwinnett was 16.5 percent below that peak level, for example.

Lusher also pointed to the recent announcement that Toys “R” Us is closing all of its U.S. stores as an example of retail’s struggles.

“That’s sort of our future quite frankly,” he said. “We have incredible parts of our county, but we’ve really kind of gone all in on retail in some communities.”

There are also parts of the county where the public input didn’t offer a clear vision of where a majority of residents want to see those areas go over the next 22 years. The change versus preserve map uses green to indicate areas that residents wanted to see preserved as it is, and red to indicate areas where residents want change.

“We’re probably going to have to make some hard decisions about the Mall of Georgia area,” Lusher said. “There’s not really a strong color either way. There’s not green or red. A lot of people put red dots down on that part of the world. A lot of people put green dots down on that part of the world. What do we do?”

While the county is in the midst of working on its plan, its leaders face a deadline of having to approve a plan and submit it to the Georgia Department of Community Affairs. Under state rules, a community must submit an approved plan to the department every 10 years or the community will lose its qualified local government status.

Communities must have qualified local government status to be eligible for more than a dozen state programs, including Community Development Block Grants, funding from the OneGeorgia Authority to support economic development efforts, the Employment Incentive Program and the Home Investments Partnership program.

As the plan continues to come together, though, commissioners expressed an interest in the information that’s already been compiled.

“It’s exciting to be able to hear the summary of a lot of different efforts that have already taken place,” commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash said. “I’ll certainly be interested in hearing updates as we go through the process.”

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