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Bridget Kurt, who lives near the Sterigenics plant, urged planning commissioners to deny a request to expand the Cumberland-area regional activity center, which could encourage development in the area.

MARIETTA — An effort to encourage greater development in the Cumberland area cleared its first hurdle with approval from the Cobb County Planning Commission on Tuesday, but that decision was not made without criticism.

At issue is the effort to update the county’s Comprehensive Plan and Land Use Map. Unlike zoning, the map is not legally binding. It lays out the vision for the county, parcel by parcel, and signals to developers what projects might be worth pursuing.

“Regional activity center” is the county’s most intense land-use designation. It currently includes the Cumberland and Town Center areas.

Expansion of Cumberland’s regional activity center was requested by east Cobb Commissioner Bob Ott after a group of community activists, the Oakdale Alliance, approached him with a vision for the area’s revitalization. Expansion of the regional activity center could potentially pave the way for greater development of the area, said Jason Gaines, head of the county’s planning division.

Planning Commissioner Andy Smith, who was appointed by Ott, said the area is ripe for redevelopment.

“We’ve got a confluence here of the river, the Silver Comet Trail, some existing residential, an active neighborhood (and) involved citizens, and I think all of those things could lead to a good outcome for this RAC,” he said.

But his colleague, west Cobb Planning Commissioner Fred Beloin, who was appointed by Commissioner Keli Gambrill, criticized the proposal, calling it a “bait-and-switch” for seniors that had moved to the county to take advantage of its senior property tax exemption.

In Cobb County, people over the age of 62 are not required to pay the portion of their property tax that goes toward county schools.

Beloin said seniors were moving to the county given the relatively low millage rate they pay. But, he added, “when you have highly urbanized areas, cities with dense development, what you’re going to end up with is higher taxes, higher millage rates, period.”

Beloin went further, saying that redevelopment of the area would mean replacement of its aging housing stock with new high-rise condominiums, exacerbating the county’s lack of affordable housing. He also said he did not think the area in question meets the statutory definition of a regional activity center, given that it is three miles from the nearest intersection of two freeways.

During the public comments period, two people spoke against the change, citing the area’s proximity to a medical device sterilization plant run by Illinois-based Sterigenics. Last summer, news that people living near the plant might be at higher risk of developing cancer due to Sterigneics’ use of the chemical ethylene oxide caused an uproar.

“People don’t want to live in our neighborhood anymore,” said Bridget Kurt, who lives near the plant. “Our neighbors are taking turns — we’re letting our neighbors move out first because they have four young children. … I am a pro-business Republican, and I am very disappointed in Commissioner Ott. I voted for him but I will not be voting for anybody who puts business interests above people’s health.”

Another area resident, Tony Adams, agreed.

“If we’re going to bring in more warm bodies, as long as Sterigenics is there, it’s not going to be a good idea,” he said. “I love the plan — minus Sterigenics.”

Ott said he understood their concerns.

“I have always been an advocate for not bringing residential near industrial,” he said. “You have (the Oakdale Alliance), which would love to see it as residential. In order for that to happen, the industrial would have to go away. The only reason it was left in there was because there was no other way to have the discussion.”

Tony Waybright, speaking for the Oakdale Alliance, said residential properties thrive in the area and urged the Planning Commission to approve the change.

“Heavy industry is not the future for that area,” he said.

The Cobb Board of Commissioners will hear the issue at their Jan. 21 meeting.

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