The Brookhaven Planning Commission has many questions but few answers as to what and how a proposed Design Review Board should work to provide a way for community input into the “look and feel” of new developments in the city.
Commissioners voted Feb. 1 to postpone until March 1 a vote on its recommendation to the City Council on an ordinance to create the Design Review Board. Several members mentioned they wanted more community involvement in the process.
“The lack of community engagement for the formation [of the DRB] concerns me,” said Commissioner Conor Sen.
Seven people attended the meeting, with three making public comments and two residents saying they were “on the fence” about establishing a DRB.
The idea of a DRB came about as residents urged the City Council to allow more public involvement in the proposed and controversial Brookhaven/Oglethorpe MARTA transit-oriented development.
City Hall has been packed with residents for a year of meetings to oppose MARTA’s plans for a significant mixed-use development, but when only a few people showed up at Wednesday’s meeting, at least one commissioner suggested he would vote against recommending the DRB if more residents did not become involved.
“There is a lack of community excitement for this,” Sen said.
“It’s hard to keep the energy up” to attend meetings, responded Chair Stan Segal.
“If they don’t show up, I’ll probably vote to deny,” Sen said.
With the Planning Commission’s deferral until March 1, however, the MARTA vote will likely again be delayed.
During Wednesday’s meeting, the Planning Commission could not reach consensus on the scope of the DRB. The City Council has also not been able to reach an agreement during its discussions of the DRB.
The Community Development Department recommended the DRB at first be restricted to reviewing certain developments in the Brookhaven-Peachtree Overlay District, which includes the area of the proposed MARTA project.
The idea, said staff, would be to add other areas of the city after the initial roll out of the new board. But Segal raised his concerns that other parts of the city, such as Buford Highway, could become the “Wild West” if they were not included in the DRB’s purview.
Commissioner John Funny said the intent of the board was to give citizens the ability to have input on the “look and feel” of buildings and structures to ensure they add to the quality of life.
Suzanne Heath, who lives near Dresden Drive where the battle over development has raged for many months, was one of the people who spoke to commissioners. She said she was “on the fence” about the board and that her concerns are that there would be too many architectural professionals on the board and not enough average citizens.
“It needs to reflect the people of the city,” she said.
Her sister, Jen Heath, echoed her sister’s sentiment, saying construction and development professionals on the board could provide too narrow of a vision.
The Planning Commission did agree that there should be seven members on the board and two of them required to be development professions. They noted the mayor could appoint more professionals.
Commissioners also agreed DRB members serve two-year staggered terms, but could not decide how often the board should meet.
Discussion delved into specifics, such as whether $5,000 for a project be considered a threshold that would require approval by the DRB.
Commissioner Shannon Cameron, who supported the DRB initially only include the Overlay District, said too much information felt like “mission creep.”
“Let’s start small because this started with MARTA,” she said. She also asked if some details proposed for the DRB be included in the upcoming Overlay District rewrite and zoning code rewrite.
But they all stressed they wanted more community involvement. Community Development Director Patrice Ruffin said she could work with the Communications Department to send out blast emails to residents to let them know of the March 1 meeting.
“This [DRB] started with MARTA and people turn out for big projects,” Sen said. “Seven people turned out tonight. This board is going to be run by the community … and I’m very concerned we won’t be able to fill it up.”
“I expect to see a roomful of people because I’m a fan of citizens having a voice,” Cameron said. “I want the community here. They need to pay attention.”
Late last year, the City Council asked City Attorney Chris Balch to draw up an ordinance to create a Design Review Board to help define guidelines for developments, specifically the proposed MARTA TOD that is to serve as the “city center.” The original plan was to have a DRB in place before the Jan. 24 vote on the MARTA redevelopment.
At the Jan. 10 City Council work session, however, members decided they wanted the DRB to be including in the Zoning Code and therefore it was necessary to gain input from the Planning Commission on what the parameters of the new DRB should be.
MARTA’s developers requested a postponement of the Jan. 24 council vote until Feb. 28 to give the Planning Commission and City Council time to create a DRB.