The Sandy Springs Planning Commission recommended approval of the city’s new Comprehensive Land Use Plan on Nov. 17—but only with conditions ensuring better public input and a delay in implementing it before a new zoning code is in place.
The Comp Plan, as it’s commonly known, is a 10-year policy and planning document guiding land use and redevelopment. It serves as the basis for the city’s zoning code, which is being rewritten in a process that will kick into high gear in early 2017.
Commissioners and members of the public generally praised the new draft Comp Plan. Commissioner Andy Porter said he was looking forward to one of the plan’s main goals: making land-use policy clearer so that fewer rezoning cases come before the city.
“It is very difficult to come here the third Thursday of every month and have a barroom brawl,” Porter said of the commission’s sometimes controversial hearings.
But that also means that residents won’t have as many automatic chances to hear about and review redevelopments. Assistant City Manager Jim Tolbert said the city likely will come up with some new way of doing that to go along with the new zoning code, but nothing is in place.
“Is there a phrase anywhere in there that says there is a commitment to public participation for clarity and for transparency?” asked Trisha Thompson, president of the Sandy Springs Council of Neighborhoods. There is not, Tolbert said, adding that including such language is a good idea. The commission officially backed including that language.
Local zoning attorney Pete Hendricks said that both community and developer input are “very important in the equation” and called for a system of conditions on zoning so some leverage could be maintained on possibly “noxious” uses.
Thompson also questioned the Planning Commission’s own leverage going forward.
“What is your future role?…Are you going to devolve into a design review board only?” she asked.
“We are not getting rid of the Planning Committee,” said Tolbert, adding that the city’s hope is the commission will be freed to do more big-picture planning.
Another question is what happens in the period between the adoption of the land-use plan—likely around late February—and the new zoning code, which could be a gap of several months. If a developer filed for a rezoning, the current zoning code would apply; but if the new Comp Plan proposed a different use for the property, it could raise questions about the city’s intent and which should have priority.
The situation is not just theoretical. A townhome developer is already citing the draft Comp Plan for a project proposed on Hilderbrand Drive—a site where the Comp Plan proposes a change from current zoning partly due to that proposed project itself.
Thompson asked commissioners, “Can you imagine standing between the old zoning and the new Comp Plan and trying to argue that out?” She called for a moratorium on such changes taking effect before there’s a new zoning code and the commission made that another condition of its recommendation for approval.
Tolbert said a moratorium is one of the strategies the city was considering anyway and that he is “perfectly happy” with the recommendation.
Commissioner Dave Nickels, in a separate motion, proposed a kind of veto of a specific part of the plan that talks about widening parts of Abernathy and Johnson Ferry roads. He called that a “folly” designed to serve Cobb County commuters rather than Sandy Springs residents.
“I’d like to send a message from the people—the people that we represent,” Nickels said.
But most commissioners disagreed, saying they want to give consultants and city staff a chance to propose any and all traffic-oriented solutions. The idea failed in a 4-2 vote.
The Comp Plan next goes to City Council on Dec. 6 for a public hearing. The city is accepting public comments through that date at thenext10.org.