Following its Aug. 1 hearing on the new draft zoning code, Sandy Springs City Council has at least one big decision to make: whether to erase existing “conditions” that limit redevelopment to suit neighborhood demands.
The council heard split opinions on the conditions question, with planning staff arguing for the erasure of all but a few types, and residents calling for keeping them all. Several other big issues were discussed, including criticism of the code’s proposed affordable housing mandate for large multifamily projects.
The Development Code, as it is formally called, next heads to an expected City Council adoption vote on Aug. 15, after such decisions are made. An updated draft of the code is expected to be available at thenext10.org no later than Friday, Aug. 4.
A long line of speakers variously approved or criticized the code, but almost all praised city planning staff for a collaborative, open process and generally good product. Robert Forrest, a representative of developers planning five new skyscrapers at 1117 Perimeter Center West, wanted more provisions for on-street parking and traffic calming. But, he added, the property owners think the new code is “very progressive and world-class, to be honest with you.”
However, the recent speed of the zoning process has been a concern, which the council responded to by delaying what appeared to be a planned vote that night until Aug. 15. Mayor Rusty Paul said that holding the vote at the next council meeting would “make sure we have weighed seriously all the things you have said tonight.”
Steve Berson of Glenairy Drive was among the residents prepared to complain about the speed and ended up praising the delay. “There’s an old proverb that goes something like this: ‘The doctor can’t operate until the patient stops moving,’” Berson said.
While the council delayed the vote, Paul added, “I kind of chuckled to myself when I heard this has been a rushed process.” He noted that the overall “Next Ten” planning process, including a new Comprehensive Land-Use Plan and the code, was extended from a previously announced 18 months to two years and counting.
However, the zoning code phase has accelerated from its earlier timeline, which main code-writing consultant Lee Einsweiler has acknowledged and attributed to the mayor and council’s desire to adopt the code prior to the municipal elections this fall. The rough state of an earlier draft at the time of the July 20 city Planning Commission hearing led to complaints from that body and a divided approval recommendation vote. The council appeared to get the message and it is likely a complete draft will be ready for its Aug. 15 vote.
Rezoning conditions: To keep or not to keep
Conditions are limits or improvements that a developer agrees to in exchange for rezoning a property, often with neighborhood input. Conditions can be nearly anything, from new roads to landscaping, building heights and landscape buffers.
The debate over keeping existing conditions on rezonings goes to a main goal of the code: making zoning easier to understand and eliminating negotiations made on the fly by the council during rezoning votes. City planning officials say that it can be hard to find reliable records of conditions on rezonings that can date back decades to Fulton County decisions made before the city’s 2005 incorporation. Their solution: Simply wipe away all existing conditions, except for green space easements, traffic-related mitigations for large-scale developments, and landscape buffers and setbacks.
But residents who know exactly what conditions they recently negotiated with developers want to keep them. They say it’s unfair for developers to suddenly get to build projects without meeting the promises that won community support.
“It would really be a slap in the face if you removed those,” said Jane Kelley, president of the Windsor Park Community Association.
The Planning Commission recommended retaining all conditions as well, and that was added to the latest draft code. But Assistant City Manager Jim Tolbert called for reverting back to the idea of wiping them out except for the green space, traffic and buffer categories.
Paul said in a July 31 interview that councilmembers appear to be leaning toward keeping all of the conditions. But the next draft and the final vote will tell.
Affordable housing is a new priority in the code, supported by a mix of incentives and mandates. The primary goal is more “workforce,” or middle-income, housing for such workers as police officers. But some lower-income housing goals are in the mix.
One element is an inclusionary zoning system – though the city is avoiding the term – that mandates developers of large multifamily projects include a certain percentage of affordable units or pay a fee in lieu of building them.
That mandates was criticized by representatives from the Atlanta Apartment Association and the Council for Quality Growth, a developer advocacy organization, and the Atlanta Apartment Association, both of which are based in the city. James Touchton of the Council for Quality Growth said the affordable housing policy should use “partnerships and incentives,” not inclusionary zoning mandates.
Resident John Gonzalez said he underwrites affordable housing developments for a living, yet believes they are bad for communities, lower property values and increasing crime. He said that “workforce housing” can be a misleading term for “run-of-the-mill affordable housing people … I used to coach my clients to use that [“workforce”] lingo just to get things approved.”
“I see no problem with workforce individuals commuting to our community” rather than living there, he said. “I’m all about whatever it takes to increase my house’s value.”
Setting maximum limits on parking – rather than minimums – in the dense districts of City Springs and Perimeter Center is one proposal, apparently aimed at reducing car-oriented uses and encouraging alternative transportation. In the current draft, the City Springs district already has parking maximums, but also minimums.
Redevelopment hot spots
Property owners who want to redevelop certain single-family areas continued to make their cases to the council. They include owners on Clementstone Drive, who wanted to match the nearby Medical Center but face opposition from the High Point Civic Association. The owners there now are seeking “Residential Urban” redevelopment of single-family detached house. Owners on Hammond Drive, who allege the city wants to depress property values to buy land for a future road expansion, are still seeking a higher-density zoning to encourage redevelopment.
Life Center Ministries, a church at 2690 Mount Vernon Road on the Dunwoody border, withdrew its controversial request to be placed in a category allowing higher-density detached houses to replace it. That request was made at the last minute at the July 20 Planning Commission meeting, when church attorney Chip Collins said a possible redevelopment was one solution to ongoing conflicts with neighbors about heating and cooling system noise. Neighbors Bill and Laura Pearson attended the council meeting to oppose the request, saying the church has been involved with city code enforcement complaints for 18 months and drew controversy over four years ago with a day care proposal.
Updated version: This story has been corrected to clarify the current zoning request by Clementstone Drive property owners.