AT&T building development delayed to address neighbor concerns
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By Cathi Harris, contributor
The developers converting the old AT&T building at 108 Park Place in Oakhurst have deferred a request to the city Planning Commission for a height exception and amendment to their conditional use permit (CUP) after nearby property owners expressed concerns about the development’s progress at the commission meeting Tuesday night.
The developer, Thrive Homes, had sought Planning Commission approval for an exception to the maximum building height of 40 feet to allow the developer to construct the penthouse level on top of the building, as well as an amendment to their existing conditional use permit to allow an additional unit in the interior of the building, bringing the total number of units to 35.
A numerical mistake in the original application for the permit indicated that the additional third floor would be constructed within the 40-foot limit Laurel David, the developer’s attorney, told commissioners. Instead, due to the high interior ceiling heights of the different floors, plus a newly constructed penthouse level, the finished height would be 56 feet.
“If you look at the architectural drawings that we presented [when the development was approved] it should be clear that it would not be within 40 feet,” David said.
Planning Commission Chair Harold Buckley acknowledged that the drawing shows the penthouse level, but said that the commission approved the original permit without knowing they were agreeing to a total height that would be 16 feet over the limit.
“These drawings are what we saw the first go round, but the implication of what we are looking for changes when you say 40 feet versus 56 feet,” Buckley said.
The amendment to the conditional use permit to add an additional unit should be allowed because Thrive recently acquired the adjoining property at 112 Park Place and can abandon the portion of an alley at the rear of that property to give them the additional land that would permit a higher density.
The end of the alley in question — which runs between Winter Avenue on the west and East Lake Drive on the east — was already used as a part of the AT&T building’s parking lot and was not used by residents to access East Lake Drive.
“We are not limiting the access to the alley from Winter Drive,” David said. “Residents will still be able to use the alley to access their homes. The end of the alley [at East Lake Drive] would continue to be and remain a parking lot.”
Both the request for a height exception and the amendment allowing the additional unit were also considered and deferred by the Decatur Development Authority at its recent meeting last Friday, with a request that the developer meet with nearby homeowners to gauge their feelings about the height difference, DDA member Scott Kenter told the Planning Commission.
Because the condo development includes an affordable housing rental component, Thrive was required to get their recommendations for approval as well.
“You look at the drawing and it’s beautiful and someone tells you it’s 40 feet and, by implication, because there was no request for a variance, you think it must be 40 feet,” Kenter said of the DDA’s deferral. “If you meet with the neighbors and they say, or a majority of them say, that they don’t have a problem with it at 56 feet then that is useful information for us as a board.”
The DDA also asked Thrive to get written permission from property owners adjoining the alley to give up their legal right to access East Lake from the alley.
Property owners adjoining an alley in the city of Decatur have legal access rights to the entire alley unless they agree to give it up and quitclaim their access to another property owner, Decatur Planning Director Angela Threadgill clarified.
Even if the AT&T development did not curtail their access to the portion of the alley near their homes, they still need to officially give up their right to access the alley from the end on East Lake Drive.
Confusion about the new changes to the development prompted many nearby residents to attend the meeting in opposition to the developer’s requests.
“There’s a lot of confusion about this,” said Bill Emmanuel, the owner of 218 Winter Avenue. “My neighbor who has been there since 1953 called me and said that they were trying to get everyone to quitclaim the alleyway. I contacted them and they sent me quitclaim paperwork that was pretty much blank …We were just supposed to fill it in and send back to them and they would take it from there.”
Many of the residents were surprised to learn that the homeowners at 112 Park Place had sold their home and feared the impact if that property were included in the development footprint in some way.
“We are now right next to the development at 108,” said Christy Hall, the owner of 118 Park Place. “And, the error that was made with regard to the 40 or 50 or 60 feet in height must have happened multiple times because 40 feet was what we were told when [the developers] came around to talk with us the first time.”
It has been difficult to get any information from Thrive about what they intend to do with 112 Park Place, Hall said, and Hall asked the Planning Commission to give the neighborhood more time to understand the situation.
The discussion prompted David to request the commission also defer their applications until the April meeting to allow time to meet again with nearby residents and allay their concerns.
Much of the opposition is the result of a miscommunication about the purpose of the quitclaim forms as well as the lack of time to communicate fully about the plan for the newly acquired lot, she added.
“As far as the alley, we do not need quitclaim deeds for any of the homes on Winter Avenue,” she said. “The people on Park Place technically have access to the alley all the way from Winter Avenue to East Lake Drive. So, they would be giving up their right to come through the parking lot, crash through the fence that is there and the trees on the other side. I know it sounds dramatic, but I just want to clarify that they can’t access [East Lake Drive] from there now, so they aren’t really being asked to give up anything.”
The property at 112 Park Place will not become part of the 108 Park Place development, David said. Thrive has not determined what they will do with the house, but consider it separate from the current development.
She requested — and the commission approved — a deferral of both requests to the commission’s April meeting.