Dozens of major developers and local residents showed up for a June 21 city Planning Commission meeting at City Hall to comment on the draft “Development Code.” City staff aim to have a final draft ready by July 10 and put it before the City Council for adoption on Aug. 1.
In an age-old tension, most developers sought looser rules to build bigger, and most residents sought tighter rules to guarantee input on large projects. There was general agreement the Development Code is impressive work heading in the right direction.
But, as local developer Steven Cadranel put it, everyone agreed on another message to the code team: “Slow down.”
Complaints of constant and unpublicized changes to the zoning code and map, and before that, to the Character Area Map whose vision informs them, have dogged the process. In the days before the new draft’s release, the latest Character Area and zoning maps posted on the city’s website did not match up on some properties of major public interest, such as stretch of Hammond Drive eyed for a road-widening project.
The Planning Commission could have voted on the draft and forwarded it to the City Council for a vote, though no one expected that to happen. However, in voting unanimously to continue the conversation at its July 20 meeting, commission members made clear their main reason was the need to digest the behind-the-scenes, day-to-day changes.
Commission chair Lane Frostbaum said he agrees that “the document keeps changing – it’s really hard to find out what’s going on” and whether public comments are affecting it.
Prior to the meeting, city spokesperson Sharon Kraun said the best way to get updated about a specific property is emailing through the “Next Ten” planning website at thenext10.org/contact. Those emails are seen by the entire zoning code team, whose members can respond quickly, she said. However, a property’s status can change repeatedly, so repeated check-ins might be necessary on a controversial site.
At the meeting, Assistant City Manager Jim Tolbert said the staff had heard many of the concerns already and was adjusting the code and map to match. Lee Einsweiler of Code Studio, the consultant leading the code rewrite, said he took “copious notes.”
There were plenty of comments to take notes about – more than an hour and 15 minutes worth. The following were some of the key topics:
A prime goal of the Development Code is to simplify the zoning and allow more uses by right so that the City Council doesn’t end up haggling over details. But a lingering concern for residents is that may remove both existing and future leverage over major projects.
Some high-density projects like apartment complexes could be built by right in certain areas, regardless of topography or other unique features of the site, residents say. And the city proposes wiping out existing zoning conditions on plans approved years ago but never built, meaning residents could lose protections and compromises they negotiated.
“This one-size-fits-all [approach] is very difficult for us to digest,” said Curt Friedberg, co-president of the Aberdeen Forest Neighborhood Association, which has been involved in recent controversial projects along Glenridge Drive.
Tochie Blad of the Sandy Springs Council of Neighborhoods said that losing existing zonings conditions that are “more stringent than our current code sounds like not an even trade.”
Meanwhile, in places like Perimeter Center, developers seek permission to build higher.
Carl Westmoreland, a well-known zoning attorney for many major developers, noted that the TV screens in the City Hall chamber displayed the city’s stylized drawing of the King and Queen skyscrapers at the Concourse Center.
“I assume you’re proud of them,” he said of the iconic towers, adding, “Neither could be built under the new code.”
Sheldon Taylor, chief financial officer of Concourse owner Regent Partners, said he was thankful that his property’s zoning height limit was boosted from 15 to 20 stories in the latest draft. But even more height is needed, he said, up to 25 stories to remain competitive in the office marketplace. The Concourse had a major redevelopment plan for apartments and a hotel last year that it withdrew; Regent has now placed the entire complex for sale.
Jockeying for redevelopment
The hottest disputes over unpublicized zoning map changes come from areas where homeowners are looking for higher-density zoning for neighborhood buyouts to developers. Such parcels may switch designations repeatedly as city staff, neighborhood association leaders and city councilmembers weigh in.
One hot spot is the two-lane section of Hammond Drive, where the city has been buying up properties for an eventual widening nearly everyone expects will happen. Still marked as higher-density “Urban Neighborhood” on the Character Area map, the area is now zoned single-family in the draft code, the latest in a few such switches.
Dean Perry was among the property owners or brokers saying they were unaware of the change and accusing the city of using zoning to lower property values for its own road project acquisition. Asked if that is the city’s motive, Kraun simply said, “No.”
Another hot spot is Clementstone Drive near the Medical Center. Resident Gene Bramblett said he had petitions from eight of 11 homeowners there backing a change from its current single-family status to a medical/mixed-use zone.
Kraun said before the meeting that the city likely will zone both areas single-family in the final code.
Under pressure by gas station and convenience store owners, the city recently renewed a moratorium on applications for either. In the latest code draft, the city is moving ahead with a “cap and trade” plan to ban brand new gas stations, but allow a new one to be built to replace an existing one that closes. Expansion of existing stations is also possible with permission.
Officials from the gas station company RaceTrac came out in force to the Planning Commission to say they were teaming with rival QuikTrip to seek changes to the draft. A big concern is new language limiting new gas stations to no more than a half-mile from any other station, inside or outside the city border. That leaves very few places to go, especially on Roswell Road, the RaceTrac officials said.
Roswell Road redevelopment
Another main goal of the city is pushing redevelopment of older commercial strips along Roswell Road.
Chip Collins, a former city councilmember and 2018 board chair-elect at the Sandy Springs Perimeter Chamber of Commerce, was among those saying the draft code has big disincentives for such redevelopment. A requirement for big projects to bury utility lines at their own cost is a “huge impediment,” he said, as are certain mandates for second-story retail and the height of commercial buildings.
Cadranel echoed such concerns, saying, “I applaud the aspiration. I’m simply concerned about some of the implementation.”