A Sandy Springs resident is suing the city over his commercial property’s change to a residential designation in the new zoning code, a move he says is “revenge” for an earlier eminent domain dispute.
Stephen F. Johnston’s lawsuit about his 80 Johnson Ferry Road property echoes complaints and controversies about rapid, unpublicized changes to property designations that dogged the process of writing a new land-use plan and zoning code. Johnston said in community meetings before the zoning code’s approval in August that he found out about his property’s zoning change only by accident, and threatened to sue. In September, he did, with the suit now in federal court.
City spokesperson Dan Coffer declined to comment about the lawsuit.
The 80 Johnson Ferry property is a 1950s house that, Johnston says, has been used as commercial or office space since 1986 and was zoned as such. Johnston, who chairs the board of the prominent local videogame-oriented company Launch Media Network, bought the property in 2010 as home for another business.
In 2014, the city attempt to take part of the property by eminent domain for its neighboring Marsh Creek water detention and park project. Johnston successfully fought the land-taking. In 2016, he moved his business out and has been attempting to sell the property ever since.
In the city’s new Development Code, as it is formally called, 80 Johnson Ferry was initially placed in a “City Springs” zoning category, which allows for a high-density mixed use. At some point, however, city staff changed the designation to an exclusively residential category intended for townhouses.
Johnston said city staff never asked him about the zoning change and that he found out about it by accident while attending a June 21 Planning Commission meeting.
“The only reason I found out then was that I walked into a side room after the meeting to look at the city zoning map and saw that my property was not coded CS-3 as it had been previously,” Johnston said in an email. “I went to the city’s zoning and permitting department the next day to speak with someone and was told they were all busy and someone would call me. I then received an email stating that if I wasn’t happy with the zoning I could come to a City Council meeting and express my discontent.”
Johnston said he discovered through an Open Records Act request that, while city staff had not asked his opinion about the zoning, they had asked two of his neighbors. In an email included in the lawsuit, city senior planner Catherine Mercier-Baggett said she recalled the neighbors requested a zoning change to Johnston’s property and asked, “what is the zoning you see fit for it?”
Johnston complained at public meetings and said he wanted a commercially oriented zoning, but staff kept the townhouse designation in the final draft approved by the City Council.
At those meetings, Johnston was just one of several property owners complaining about unexplained and unpublicized changes. The land-use and zoning code maps changed frequently, but the city did not provide any live tracking of the changes; people had to email city staff and ask about the current status of individual properties, which could change daily. Some controversial changes related to redevelopment plans were due to comments from developers and City Council members that only became publicly known afterward.
Johnston’s lawsuit says the “downzoning” of his property has made it “unmarketable for sale or rent.” He claims it was a “bad-faith targeting” of his land and “an apparent back-door attempt to acquire Plaintiff’s property and/or exact revenge upon Plaintiff.”
The lawsuit complains about the zoning code process as unfair and rushed. Included in the lawsuit as evidence is a Reporter story that mentioned city planning staff members saying they wanted the code approved before municipal elections might change the leadership. The lawsuit also claims that the city failed to fully respond to Johnston’s Open Records requests for documents related to his property’s zoning.
The lawsuit seeks a declaration that the zoning ordinance is unconstitutional; an order to fulfill the Open Records request; unspecified damages awards; and attorney fees.