A five-month moratorium on Sandy Springs rezonings and special land use permits was declared Feb. 7 by the City Council to avoid conflicts with a new zoning code in the works.
The 150-day moratorium went into immediate effect. It will head off the “dilemma” that property-owners and city officials would face of an “application caught in the middle” between old and new codes, said Assistant City Manager Jim Tolbert. Representatives of major developer organizations expressed caution about the moratorium, but not outright opposition to, in a public comment period.
Any applications submitted before the evening of Feb. 7 will undergo review as normal under the current zoning code. The moratorium may be extended or shortened, depending on when the new zoning code is complete, officials said. Construction permitting is not affected by the moratorium.
The city is in the midst of its “Next Ten” process, a massive revision of development visions and rules. The process recently produced an updated land-use plan, known as the Comp Plan, which just got approval from the state and the Atlanta Regional Commission, Tolbert told the council. The process is expected to wrap up this summer with the new zoning code based on the Comp Plan. It will be the decade-old city’s first city-written zoning code rather than the heavily tweaked assortment of old Fulton County code it currently uses.
Sandy Springs has imposed zoning moratoriums in recent years for other code and planning changes. A 60-day moratorium in 2014 allowed for apartment and mixed-use use rules to be tightened. The council set a six-month moratorium on many types of rezonings in 2015 and 2016 to prepare for the new Comp Plan.
Councilmember Andy Bauman asked why the moratorium includes special use permits, which must be sought for certain types of development that are allowed under zoning with official permission. Tolbert said that most use permits issued by the city are for the height of buildings, and it is expected that the old and new codes may have “significant differences” on height restrictions.
Between the current and previous moratoriums, developers will have had about 12 months out of the past two years to apply for rezonings.
Councilmember Gabriel Sterling asked City Attorney Wendell Willard about whether another long moratorium could open the city to lawsuits from property owners. Willard said state law does not have any specific limits on how long a zoning moratorium can last. Case law suggests a judge would decide a claim based on whether the moratorium was reasonable, he said, adding that a pause for rewriting the zoning code seems reasonable to him. Willard noted the council can end the moratorium sooner.
David Ellis, executive vice president at the Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association and a Sandy Springs resident, told the council the moratorium should be as short as possible. He said he understands the rationale, but cautioned the council about the seriousness of “any abridgement of people’s property rights.”
James Touchton, the policy and government affairs director at the Council of Quality Growth, a Sandy Springs-based developers’ advocacy group, agreed. Touchton—who also lives in Sandy Springs—said his group’s “biggest concern” is delaying development opportunities that the council itself prioritized in the new Comp Plan. He cited the council’s desire for redevelopment along northern Roswell Road and specifically asked how the city would handle a developer seeking to do something innovative with an old shopping center. The 9-acre North Springs shopping center at 7300 Roswell Road recently sold to a retail-oriented investment management firm.
Ellis and Touchton spoke at the meeting’s second public comment period—one held at the end, after the moratorium vote took place. Both also praised city staff for recent private meetings to give input on the new zoning code.
Public input meetings about the new code are scheduled to begin next month.