Sandy Springs City Council has approved a controversial zoning change allowing new-car dealerships on northern Roswell Road to expand their facilities, with councilmembers expressing fears the dealers will leave for other cities and be replaced by shoddy used-car lots.
“We have a real-world issue we need to address…to support our corporate citizens,” said Councilmember Gabriel Sterling at the Oct. 18 council meeting, where he was one of several city officials to refer to car dealers possibly leaving, but did not name any that might.
But city officials didn’t mention that one dealer already has expanded by renting a parking lot at a county government center next to the Big Trees Forest Preserve, where it stores cars, recently including a damaged vehicle with trash and leaf debris inside.
Classic Cadillac and Subaru, based at 7700 Roswell Road, has been leasing a rear parking lot at the North Fulton County Government Services Center across the street for vehicle storage since March, according to a copy of the $3,000-a-month lease provided by the county. Classic Cadillac and Subaru owner and general manager Mike Domenicone did not respond to a phone call and email.
Assistant City Manager Jim Tolbert was aware of Classic Cadillac’s lot rental there, but it did not affect his proposal for the zoning change, according to city spokesperson Sharon Kraun.
The zoning change has drawn concerns for allowing more car lots instead of other types of development; for allowing city staff to approve the car lots’ use permits instead of going through full rezoning processes; and for benefiting a small number of specific businesses. The city Planning Commission recommended denial of the zoning change in August.
“I’m not happy with it,” said Trisha Thompson, president of the Sandy Springs Council of Neighborhoods, who spoke against the change at the Planning Commission and City Council meetings. “I’m not happy with that text amendment at all.”
“I think there was probably more to it than came out,” Thompson added when told of Classic Cadillac’s use of the county center’s parking lot.
The zoning change, or “text amendment,” affects Roswell north of Dalrymple Road. There are four car dealerships in that area, including Classic along with Nalley Ford, RBM Mercedes and Motorcars of Georgia, which deals in exotic sports cars such as Lamborghini.
More dealerships in that area were banned several years ago within a “Suburban Overlay” district. While the existing dealerships are grandfathered in, they cannot expand under the code. The change allows expansion as well as adding some design standards and a prohibition on off-loading cars in the center lane of Roswell Road, as some do today. While applying only to dealerships that primarily sell new cars, they may also sell some used cars as well.
“This will allow these dealers to expand and to upgrade their businesses to stay relevant and competitive with other metro dealers,” a staff memo about the change says.
Sterling acknowledged that city zoning consultants say it would be better to encourage retail uses on that corridor. But, he said, the city is also concerned with losing dealerships that add value to the city by dealing expensive, high-end models.
Mayor Rusty Paul called the change a “defensive move” to keep businesses “that are being encouraged to leave our community.”
City Councilmember Ken Dishman also agreed with the zoning change, saying it helps the “character of the whole north end of Sandy Springs.”
Thompson said she understands the concern about high-end dealerships devolving into used car lots. “But a car lot’s a car lot,” she said.
And, she added, car dealerships are otherwise an allowed use under the commercial zoning that lines much of Roswell Road, meaning they could expand significantly. According to the city, car storage—as opposed to car sales—is already a permitted use as well.
Classic Cadillac and Subaru already has an extra outpost farther north on Roswell Road near Morgan Falls Road. At the county services center, it is renting a parking lot formerly designated for county police cars and a helicopter. There are no signs or barriers indicating that the lot is leased for private, commercial use. In recent weeks, about nine to 12 vehicles have been parked there at any given time, most with sales stickers on the windows.
Two damaged, dusty cars have remained there as well. One is a Lincoln with a smashed grill and headlight, worn paint, an open window, and old newspapers, leaf litter and other items on the front seat.
The county did not respond to questions about whether vehicles in such condition are allowed there. Kraun said the city is not concerned, either.
“As long as they are not selling cars from that location, it is permitted use,” she said. “We have not had any complaints or issues reported, so at this time, we have no concerns.”