Sandy Springs City Council on Sept. 2 approved changes to its zoning ordinance that eliminates a clause allowing apartment developers to obtain permits in commercially zoned districts.

The vote was deferred from Aug. 19 when city staff asked the council for more direction. On Aug. 19, council members repeated concerns they have about developers’ ability to obtain apartment permits for areas zoned C1 and C2 commercial, without having to apply for a rezoning.

The vote now forces apartment developers interested in building apartments in commercial districts to appear before the city council for a rezoning.

“If you want to build an apartment [in a commercial area] then you have to come to us for a full rezoning,” Councilman Gabriel Sterling said on Aug. 19.

He said that allows the council to decide whether or not the project is “the right project in the right place.”

“I like the idea that part of the reason we passed the moratorium on C1s [a type of commercial development] was because we wanted to make sure the council had some say in the development standards of these units, and if someone has a good market reason to go bigger, say empty nesters, they can come and give that market sell to us, but otherwise these standards set a good precedent for the city,” Sterling said.

At a special called meeting on July 23, the council approved a 60-day moratorium on apartment permits for land zoned as C-1 or C-2 commercial.

At that time, City Attorney Wendell Willard said the moratorium came about as city officials are concerned about an over-abundance of multifamily uses on the Roswell Road corridor, particularly the city center area.

“Up and down Roswell Road,” Willard said, is what he called “a string of pearls on both sides” where apartments could be built in commercial districts. The previous ordinance allowed for apartments to be built on top of and behind retail and office uses in commercial zoning districts as long as the builder obtained a permit.

Mayor Rusty Paul has also said that some apartment developers will include just a few retail storefronts as a “fig leaf” to cover up the fact that the building is mostly apartments in order to fall into the mixed-use category. “An apartment with just a couple of small stores doesn’t constitute mixed use,” he said.

The amended ordinance protects apartments that have already been built in commercial areas, even if they are destroyed and must be rebuilt. The ordinance allows for apartments above or behind commercial and office uses if their permits or certificates of occupancy were issued prior to Sept. 2.

The ordinance change had the support of the Sandy Springs Economic Development Advisory Committee.

“Our recommendation would be to please exert the greatest extent of local control that you can over zoning issues,” Jim Comerford, a member of the committee, said on Aug. 19, though he said the council should proceed carefully, along with legal counsel.

Trish Thompson, vice president of the Sandy Springs Council of Neighorhoods, voiced her support. She said the original ordinance allowing apartments in commercial areas dated back to when owners of gas stations and mom-and-pop stores wanted to live above their businesses.

“This isn’t applicable anymore,” she said. “It needs to be taken out of commercial.”

Ann Marie Quill

Ann Marie Quill is Associate Editor at Reporter Newspapers.