By Gerhard Schneibel

Sandy Springs’ comprehensive plan took a 28-member advisory committee 18 months to create before it was voted into effect in November 2007. But it has lost much of its relevance, say some city residents and council members.

The comprehensive plan is meant to lay out the city’s vision of itself for the next decade. It includes a set of policies and a future land-use map. Although all municipalities in Georgia are required to have one, they are free to decide themselves how to use it.

The City Council in recent months cast at least two votes that appeared to go against the plan: In August the council granted Holy Spirit Preparatory School a permit to build a football stadium on Long Island Drive, and in October it granted Mount Pleasant, S.C.-based American Media Services a permit to build four 303-foot radio towers at the Blue Heron Golf Club on Morgan Falls Road.

Residents sued in September to overturn the Holy Spirit decision. The case is pending.

Dorothy Knight, who has lived on Long Island Drive for 40 years, said the Holy Spirit decision was “just dumped on us.”

“I went to the hearing, and I felt like it was a cut-and-dried thing. I felt it was decided before I arrived, long before,” she said.

Knight is incensed by what she sees as a blatant disregard for the comprehensive plan.

“I speak for a whole volume of people who live around here,” she said. “I hate to see it just go the way of ‘anything goes.’ And when you do away with the comprehensive plan, you don’t have any guidelines to go by.”

Dist. 1 Councilman Doug MacGinnitie and Dist. 6 Councilwoman Karen Meinzen McEnerny voted against Holy Spirit.

“They’re the only two,” Knight said. “The rest of them, I’m going to vote them out!”

Nancy Leathers, Sandy Springs’ director of community development, said the comprehensive plan is open to interpretation by the mayor and City Council.

“Most all of the actions taken by the mayor and City Council have been consistent with the plan,” Leathers said. “It’s not going to be perfectly clear in every case because there are a lot of policies in the plan and because the map is what it is. That’s why I think there are differences of opinion.”

While other jurisdictions may have a plan tailored for new development on empty land, Sandy Springs is “a fully developed city. We are looking at redeveloping some of our areas and preserving others,” Leathers said.

“It doesn’t mean that every parcel is correct,” she said. “This city probably uses it more than most. It has become a very important document for our city.”

While “any written document can always be tightened up,” MacGinnitie said, the comprehensive plan “provides pretty clear answers” to zoning questions.

“Legally, we can kind of do whatever we want, but I do think unless there is a compelling reason not to follow the plan, that we should generally follow the plan,” he said.

Doing so would help residents buying or selling property because they would know what to expect, he said. Sticking to the plan also would reduce the staff’s workload because property owners would know not to submit applications inconsistent with the plan, he said.

City staff can recommend the denial of an application even if it fits the comprehensive plan, Leathers said. “We may just believe that the development as proposed doesn’t meet the city’s standards for that kind of use.”

McEnerny said the plan should protect neighborhoods and balance growth. “We need to have growth where infrastructure allows,” she said. “Stick with the plan. … It’s a very basic way to make decisions that benefit everyone.”