By Patrick Fox
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Say "commercial growth" in Milton, and everyone's ears perk up.
The city's 38 square miles include some of the most pastoral horse farms and pastureland in metro Atlanta. A key reason many people voted to incorporate in 2007 was to take the reins of zoning from Fulton County.
While neighboring cities such as Johns Creek and Alpharetta go out of their way to attract business, Milton continues to guard its growth.
-- The city council deadlocked 3-3 last month on a zoning ordinance that would have essentially prohibited any new gas stations or convenience stores. The measure is due for more discussion later this year.
-- In August, the council passed an ordinance placing a long list of restrictions on new cell towers, including detailed line-of-sight studies, an application fee and liability for up to $7,500 in engineering or consulting costs incurred by the city.
-- More than 85 percent of the land inside the city is zoned residential or agricultural. The city's sewer system likewise supports 14 percent of the city's acreage. The remainder is on septic tanks.
Governments traditionally encourage business development because, on the whole, it is more valuable than residential property. More commercial value brings in more tax revenue and helps offset the tax burden on homeowners.
But, Milton may have found a way to turn that on its head.
By preserving the aesthetics of a rural community, the value of property actually can increase, said Milton City Council member Julie Zahner Bailey, a champion of preserving the city's pastoral posture.
Milton falls in one of only two ZIP codes in Fulton County to show an increase in value this year. The value in the 30004 ZIP was up 3 percent, while the county's overall tax digest fell 9 percent from last year.
Bailey likes to add that she is also a champion of appropriate growth.
"Of course commercial areas are important to Milton," she said. "They, too, are part of the character of the city."
At the same time, she added, citizens have indicated there are some characteristics uniquely important to the community, characteristics that require careful planning in commercial growth.
Milton businessman Mike Moss has his own ideas about the city's attitude toward commercial growth. He said he favors a moderate tack that encourages smart growth, like the developments in Crabapple in the southwest section of the city. The area features office space, medical offices, restaurants, retail services mixed with town homes and single-family homes.
"We have to work with and through business," Moss said. "We shouldn't just block them out."
Commercial property also can also be offset by large residential tracts, like horse farms.
Large tracts reduce the impact of homestead exemptions on property, said Fulton County chief appraiser Burt Manning.
Milton offers a basic $15,000 off the assessed value of an owner-occupied home. Large properties, like farms, get only the one exemption, whereas three homes on the same amount of land would get three exemptions, or a combined $45,000, Manning said.
Mayor Joe Lockwood said Milton can sustain itself by operating as any smart household, within a budget.
"There's no doubt in my mind that the difference between when we were Fulton County and became the city of Milton, we can all day long get the same service for the same dollar that we were getting before," he said.
The trick now is managing expectations.
"What we have to consider is now that we're a city, a lot of our residents expect more, parks, infrastructure things like that," he said.
Milton's fiscal 2011 budget calls for $17.4 million in spending, down about $400,000 from last year. The city levies 4.731 mills on property. By city charter, that rate cannot rise without a special referendum.
City Manager Chris Lagerbloom said Milton has been able to exceed the services residents had lived with under Fulton County government by focusing money within the city limits. Federal and state grants can be directed to help pay for local, rather than countywide, projects, he said.
"That bar keeps going up as it should," Lagerbloom said. "But as the bar goes up, along with that bar is the need for additional funding to manage the expectations."
Lagerbloom said there are at least two potential sources of additional funding outside of property taxes.
First, the city receives its portion of the local option sales tax, $3.5 million, based on an official population of 15,000. That estimate is way off, said city officials, who put the actual count at more than 30,000.
When the new census numbers come out later this year, receipts may not double but they should grow substantially, Lagerbloom said.
Impact fees are another source of possible revenue the city is studying, Lagerbloom said.
"They're not fun to talk about, but they're easier to talk about in a non-election year," he said.
Impact fees for transportation would be assessed against those that are causing the roads to be used more frequently, like a business, Lagerbloom said. If a business is expected to draw more traffic on a street, he said, the business should help pay for its upkeep.
The city already charges a usage fee for garbage haulers to help defray the costs of maintaining roads.
"Realistically, we could always use more money to put into our roads," Mayor Lockwood said. "But if you compare, look 10 years ahead, I think we'll be ahead of where the county would have been if we weren't here as a city."
Commercial digest in north Fulton cities*
Sandy Springs -- $2.9 billion
Roswell -- $1.2 billion
Alpharetta -- $2.5 billion
Johns Creek -- $847 million
Milton -- $348 million
Mountain Park -- $13.7 million
*Figures are assessed value, meaning they are 40 percent of fair market value.