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Developer Pens Paean to Growth in Atlanta

THE NATION

A Newsletter Gets the Scoop on Suburban Sprawl's Joys

February 20, 2005|Ellen Barry | Times staff writer

DULUTH, Ga. — Who will sing in praise of sprawl? The bright hopefulness of slicing through thorn and vine? The lonely walk of the surveyor, deep in woods known only to moonshiners? The animal pleasure of moving dirt?

Leave it to Atlanta -- a city spreading across north Georgia like a glass of milk spilled at the dinner table -- to generate a journal devoted to celebrating the construction of new suburbs.

That's what happened at Development Consultants Group, an engineering, planning and land surveying firm in Gwinnett County. Ten years ago, when DCG started documenting the local development scene in a newsletter called Dirt, they found that they had a lot to say -- not just about the kudzu, machetes and zoning disputes that make up their life's work, but about the joys of sprawl, or, as they put it, "Successfully Providing Residences, Amenities and Workplaces Locally."

In a business preoccupied with such matters as stream buffer exemptions and turbidity monitoring, their efforts sometimes verge on the lyrical, like this haiku on a "400,000-square-foot power center anchored by Wal-Mart and Lowes" proposed at the intersection of two highways:

Rising like the sun

Mall of Georgia at Mill Creek

Heralds a new dawn

Or this meditation on a 3,240-acre planned community in rural Douglas County, to feature 1,200 homes, four golf courses, an office park and a "small-town feel":

National Golf says:

Just add water and dollars

Grow instant city

Few American cities have been more boisterously proud of growth than Atlanta, a city founded in 1837 with the inauspicious name "Terminus," because it marked the end point of the Western and Atlantic railroad. The new city was in the middle of nowhere: 225 miles from the nearest ocean port, undistinguished by a river, a lake or a mountain. But over the next 150 years, the city's boosters turned that characteristic to their advantage, said Sam Massell, who served as the city's mayor from 1970 to 1974.

"For years, mayors of Atlanta bragged that Atlanta had no natural barriers to deter growth," said Massell, who is now president of the Buckhead Coalition, an Atlanta-area civic association. "We bragged about it and bragged about it and bragged about it and bragged about it."

By the 1990s, it was more than a sales pitch. The city's land base grew by 25% in the 1980s and by 47% between 1990 and 1996. Since 2000, a quarter of a million people have poured into the Atlanta area, many settling in outer suburbs while the city center remains sparsely populated.

In 1998, the Sierra Club released a list ranking Atlanta as the "#1 sprawl-threatened large city in America." Around that time, Ted Turner, one of the Atlanta area's louder environmentalist voices, put it this way: "Thank God for the Pacific Ocean, otherwise Atlanta would keep sprawling forever."

That kind of nay-saying drives the staff of Dirt crazy.

Their online journal, which got a public boost last year when it was profiled in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, tells the story of development from the developer's point of view: An animated cartoon shows a snake-infested, weed-choked landscape being bulldozed by a friendly construction worker, a heart tattooed on his biceps. Trees sprout from the land and a bright, clean subdivision emerges with children waving from the yards.

It's a lighthearted treatment of a serious conviction on the part of Dennis Billew, the president of DCG, who is fed up with complaints about babbling brooks, Indian mounds and the supposed cultural wasteland of suburban life.

"People can say they enjoy being out in the woods, but they don't want to live there," said Billew, who is 60. "They want to go for a few minutes or a few hours. Then they want to go back to their air-conditioned homes."

Billew grew up here, in a shotgun house with tarpaper sides and no indoor plumbing. Gwinnett County was all farmland then, but Billew doesn't remember it with nostalgia. What he remembers is dust storms so ferocious that he had to cover his eyes with his hands and scramble to get indoors. The family may not have missed a meal, but that meal was sometimes no more than a biscuit and fatback. A boy graduating high school faced a cramped set of options and red dirt in every direction.

To him, the Gwinnett County of today, with new homes rising daily, is a place infused with possibility. "I think using the word 'hope' is very accurate," Billew said.

In that spirit, articles in Dirt -- which can be viewed at www.dirt-e.com -- blast studies that blame sprawl for air pollution or obesity. Its writers argue that public transit lengthens, rather than shortens, commutes, and that global warning is a fiction peddled by environmentalist "wackos." Most of all, they challenge the idea that undeveloped land is a pristine wilderness.

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