Atlanta’s mayor and a Buckhead city councilmember are seeking a new permitting process for commercial “party houses” amid new controversy about large and noisy events at a Garmon Road mansion.

Atlanta City Councilmember J.P. Matzigkeit.

City Councilmember J.P. Matzigkeit of Buckhead’s District 8 developed the proposed legislation with Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and city staff members, and introduced it at the July 1 City Council meeting. The legislation would ban commercially rented “party houses” from residential areas unless residents receive a special permit.

“This will allow the city to better enforce our zoning code, as [officials] will be able to more easily determine if this activity is permitted or not, and if not permitted the activity will be able to more easily be shut down,” Matzigkeit said in an email.

However, Matzigkeit said in an interview that the Buckhead party mansion is an especially tough case because of strong property rights laws and a lack of information about who owns the property. He said he met with top city officials, including the chief operating office and police chief, on July 3 to talk about a coordinated response and to discuss the approaches of such other cities as Los Angeles.

“The proposed regulations are common sense measures to ensure our neighborhoods are safe, friendly and livable for all who call Atlanta home,” said Bottoms in a press release. “This is about ensuring accountability for unlawful party and event planners who create nuisance and disorder in our communities.”

The legislation follows controversy about party mansions around the metro area, including one at 4499 Garmon Road in Buckhead. Once home to music and film star Kenny Rogers, the Garmon Road mansion was the source of neighborhood controversy in 2018 for a string of massive parties, some with guests arriving by helicopter or toting AR-15-style rifles for security. After a court case late last year, the partying disappeared, but has returned in recent weeks, drawing new citations and stop-work orders, according to police and city officials.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.

Matzigkeit and other officials have said that they believe large commercial parties are illegal in residential areas under current laws. But lack of legal definitions in the code clearly have been among the issues complicating a legal crackdown, and one the new legislation seeks to fix.

According to the Mayor’s Office, the legislation would create a zoning code definition of a “party house.” The definition reads: “A single-family, two-family or multi-family dwelling unit, including all accessory structures, which [is] used for the purpose of hosting a commercial event. For this definition, commercial event includes parties, ceremonies, receptions or similar large-scale gatherings where the attendees are charged entry to the event, or the structure and its curtilage otherwise functions as a commercial recreation facility.”

Party houses would be allowed in residential-zoned areas only with a special permit.

The legislation was referred to the City Council’s Zoning Committee and will be subject to hearings and other public input.

However, even a tighter zoning code has challenges in enforcement. Matzigkeit noted in the interview that zoning violations are not crimes and can easily be avoided by someone not opening the door — or the large gate on a party mansion like the one on Garmon Road. City officials posted stop-work orders on that mansion’s gates, but they were simply taken down and no responsible person found to answer to them, Matzigkeit said.

“The laws that protect us sometimes inhibit us from doing what we want to do on the enforcement side,” said Matzigkeit, noting that many neighborhood complaints about the Buckhead mansion are not crimes.

Private parties aren’t illegal. Displaying rifles openly for security isn’t illegal. What about that time party-goers landed a helicopter on the lawn? Laughing and saying he can’t believe he’s learned such facts, Matzigkeit explained: “Landing a helicopter in a residential area is not illegal. And if you want to build a helicopter pad, there is a permitting process up to the Moon… but if you want to land it on grass, it’s not illegal.”

“This is a private residence that is gated, and we have strong property rights laws here in Georgia,” Matzigkeit said. “So someone having a party at a residence – and how much evidence do you have it’s an illegal party? – busting in somebody’s gate is a pretty big deal in this state.”

With the lack of response from owners, he said, city officials must rely on social media ads to become aware of commercial parties at the Buckhead mansion, and typically contact promoters proactively to tell them such events are illegal.

Matzigkeit said he met on the morning of July 3 with several city officials to strategize about the Buckhead mansion, including Chief Operating Officer Joshua Williams, Police Chief Erika Shields, Zone 2 Police Commander Maj. Barry Shaw and representatives from the city planning and prosecutor’s offices.

“We are looking at every angle of how we can get to the owner,” Matzigkeit said. “And a lot of this [talk] was around, what would our lawyers allow us to do?… We are going after them and we will continue going after them.” He said officials and police are looking at one model of legislation from Los Angeles though he did not know its details.

Matzigkeit also has sought state legislation to increase the maximum fine for violating city ordinances above the current $1,000 limit to address party houses. He said he has gotten no response from local legislators about the idea.

Update: This story has been updated with an interview with City Councilmember J.P. Matzigkeit.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.