Decatur approves annexation for more apartments in split vote, capping an unusual process

Posted by Dan Whisenhunt June 5, 2018

Decatur City Hall.

The Decatur City Commission rarely has a split vote, but on Monday night, June 4, commissioners voted 3-2 on an annexation that would bring about 300 apartments into the city.

Commissioners Scott Drake and Brian Smith were the two no votes. Mayor Patti Garrett, Mayor Pro Tem Tony Powers and Commissioner Kelly Walsh voted for it.

The process was odd because the commission considered annexing and zoning the properties to allow for the project simultaneously. The way it usually works is property owners petition the city for annexation, unconnected to any development proposal.

The three commissioners who voted to annex the parcels near the Avondale MARTA station bristled at accusations that they had ulterior motives for allowing the project to go forward.

“There’ve been many mistruths,” Powers said. “This is not a money grab.”

 

 

Garrett was also troubled by the accusations that the annexation vote was a foregone conclusion.

“I have found it to be a little bit unsettling to have things said like ‘it’s a done deal’ and ‘money talks’ and we’re allowing a group to go ‘zoning shopping’ and we are only looking at this from a financial perspective,” Garrett said. “We’ve had a number of people from neighborhood groups speak to us and email us, that they want something on that corner that includes a grocery store and includes some retail and includes some nice streetscapes.”

Walsh wished the discussion about the vote had been “a better and more positive dialogue.”

Smith and Drake felt the process of annexing the property was not typical for the city.

“I think it’s just the process I have a problem with,” Drake said. “It’s because we’re doing an annexation, approving a development and approving zoning. This process has felt real un-Decatur like … I wish the property owners had come to us independent of a developer or broker.”

A couple of other unusual things happened along the way to annexing the property. The city’s Planning Commission had recommended denying the rezoning request from Alliance Realty Services for the 11 parcels on east Ponce de Leon Avenue and Grove Place.  The project, which would be mixed-use and is likely to include a Publix grocery store, was denied by the DeKalb County Commission before the developers approached Decatur about annexation.

Business owners near the project have also objected, saying the project encroaches on industrial uses in the area. Three county commissioners have also objected to Decatur’s consideration of the annexation petition and spoke out against it during public meetings. Last night, commissioners Kathie Gannon and Jeff Rader spoke against the project again.

“This does not maintain the small character (of Decatur), nor does it encourage diversity of business types, nor does it increase opportunities for economically diverse housing,” Gannon said. “There’s no public  purpose under this opportunistic annexation.”

As the attorneys for the developers noted, the county itself did not file a formal objection to the annexation petition.

Christine Hunsaker, who owns Your Pet Crematory on East Ponce, has been one of the harshest critics of the project. She fears that bringing residential uses closer to her business will encroach on industrial uses in the area.

“I provide jobs to people and if you keep shrinking the industrial footprint, you’re going to run us out,” she said.

The project did win the approval of a key stakeholder: the Decatur School Board. The board recently held a work session on the proposal and determined it could potentially bring 45 to 56 students to City Schools of Decatur, far more than the attorney for the developer says the project will generate.

But the project will also bring in $750,000 more in tax revenue than it would cost to educate these students, due to the project’s retail components. The additional students would likely require building three classrooms at a cost of $2.3 million, a cost that could be spread out over 30 years.

The School Board submitted a letter of support for the annexation, stipulating that the support is for the current development plan.

In addition to the annexation, the commission approved special exceptions for the project. The facade of the grocery store will be allowed to front internal parking on the site so long as, “The front yard the length of East Ponce de Leon Avenue [is] developed with publicly-accessible open spaces and public art.”

Commissioners also approved an exception from the city’s store front requirements, allowing the developer to install faux windows and glass. The developers received an exception from the 50 foot building setback requirement to allow for a maximum building height of 68 feet for the residential building.

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About Dan Whisenhunt

Dan Whisenhunt is editor and publisher of Decaturish.com. https://www.linkedin.com/in/danwhisenhunt

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