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Decatur ZBA postpones hearing on controversial Weekes Street project

Business Decatur

Decatur ZBA postpones hearing on controversial Weekes Street project

One of the tributaries (Stream 1) of Shoal Creek as it flows onto the property planned for the Heights at East Decatur development. Photo credit: The Worthing Companies.
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By Cathi Harris, contributor 

The Decatur Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) will not consider a controversial variance request from residential developer The Worthing Companies at its next meeting on Sept. 9 as originally planned.

“The applicant has indicated in writing via email that it will continue the public hearing in October 2019,” Decatur’s Design, Environment & Construction Director John Maximuk told Decaturish. “This information was received after the meeting notice was posted to the Champion newspaper, at City Hall, and on our website.”

The staff report prepared just prior to the meeting will reflect the developer’s request to postpone, he said. He expects the application will be deferred to the next regular ZBA meeting on October 14.

Worthing is seeking two variances allowing it to build inside city-mandated stream buffers on property it is under contract to buy along Weekes Street near the intersection of College Avenue and S. Columbia Drive. The company hopes to construct a five-story, 322-unit apartment complex and parking garage on the assembled site that currently houses several single-family homes and small businesses.

The topic was the subject of hours of public debate at three previous ZBA meetings held in May, June and August, with the board voting to table the measure to seek more information each time.

Proponents of the measure, including the Decatur Development Authority (DDA), say that the project represents a key opportunity to support the denser, more connected development in that area that has been the city’s stated goal since 2002. Critics contend the city has not followed the requirements of its own ordinances that require more extensive vetting of the potential environmental impact.

“The DDA worked to find opportunities to balance both public and private interests and negotiate a project that is responsive to the district’s master plan,” the authority board’s chair, Chris Sciarrone, wrote in a July 29 letter to the ZBA in support of  the variance request. “The DDA board worked extensively with this developer and determined that the proposed improvements, particularly in the area of stormwater management and water quality infrastructure, would be an improvement over current site conditions.”

But development officials don’t understand all the risk posed by the plan, which includes completely removing the buffers on one stream to allow it to be piped and buried, some local residents say.

“My biggest problem with this is that I think you are really going to mess up downstream,” says Steve Blackburn, a Decatur resident who works as an oceanographer and watershed expert with the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Enclosing streams is an outdated practice that has been shown to cause more rapid deterioration of stream banks downstream from where the stream eventually exits the pipe, he explains. “And, everywhere you look around Atlanta and Dekalb you see problems with putting streams in pipes – pipes collapse, pipes get clogged.”

Planning for the future

The area surrounding Weekes Street is covered by Decatur’s Avondale MARTA Station Livable Cities Initiative (LCI) master land use plan. Developed in 2002, the plan calls for encouraging the redevelopment of the mostly industrial area along College Avenue near the MARTA station, and prioritizing denser, more affordable housing that is mixed with commercial businesses and served by connected streets that support pedestrian and cyclist access as well as cars.

In discussions with city staff and the DDA, Worthing agreed to incorporate several key features called for in the master plan, including building a wider sidewalk along Commerce and South Columbia Drive, relocating Freeman Street to the south to align for an eventual connection through to New Street, and building a multi-use path on its property that will connect to a future planned path on city property to the south.

The DDA and the city now control two parcels near the intersection of Talley Street and South Columbia Drive, the DDA letter adds. One 2.78-acre lot was recently donated to the DDA by AT&T and the other was purchased by the city last year.

“The DDA has plans to create a passive park on the AT&T donation to include streambank restoration, removal of invasive plant material, preservation of existing trees, and installation of a network of paths, benches and a small, grassed outdoor amphitheater space to support outdoor education,” the letter states. “The stream that flows into the 2.78-acre site also flows directly into Shoal Creek. Therefore, improvements on this property will have a positive impact on Shoal Creek downstream and the park space will provide useable greenspace to benefit the adjacent school and neighborhood.”

Agreeing to the city’s requests for the sidewalk, street relocation, and the multiuse path has limited the amount of land left to build on, the DDA notes. And, in order to develop the site at all, Worthing will also have to enroll it in the state Environmental Protection Division’s brownfield program and work to clean up existing ground and water contamination at their own expense. They will also have to meet modern requirements for preventing stormwater runoff during heavy rains and other water quality standards that are not currently in place.

“Our feeling is that this developer is working in earnest to provide public improvements,” Sciarrone told Decaturish.

Flooding and capacity concerns

But Steve Blackburn, who also serves on the city’s Environmental Sustainability Board, says that the property could be developed without burying either of the streams. The fact that one of the streams is already piped before it reaches the site means that continuing the pipe will create more problems, not fewer, he adds.

“Streams that are piped are under pressure. They don’t meander in a stream bed, the way they do naturally,” he explains. “They come rifling out of the pipe much faster and they cause a lot of the deep cutting of the streambank and you see the banks erode and collapse.”

AECOM, the consultants that have been hired to help Decatur update its stormwater master plan, have specifically mentioned piped streams as an ongoing challenge for addressing drainage problems in the city, Blackburn says. According to their research, there are more than 50 miles of piped natural streams in Decatur, with several of the pipes at or nearing their capacity.

The stream that the developer wants to pipe is on the AECOM map as one of the ones that is already at its capacity, he says. Burying more of it could contribute to flooding of homes and businesses in Winnona Park during heavy storms.

In the documentation made public by the developer in the previous ZBA meetings, Blackburn says he has not seen evidence of measures they plan to take that would address the downstream impact, something that Decatur’s unified development ordinance requires.

“It may be that they have [planned mitigation], I just haven’t seen it,” he says.

Though the site at Weekes is overgrown and the water quality is not good, the existing trees and shrubs provide some stormwater mitigation, helping slow down erosion and sedimentation downstream, Blackburn adds. This vegetative buffer would be eliminated if the stream is buried, the lots clear cut, and an apartment building and parking garage built on top of it.

Though the city may plan to have a passive park and restored stream south of this area in the future, it won’t mitigate the effects of paving over the stream now, Blackburn says.

This image is an artist’s rendering of the planned city park near the corner of Talley Street and S. Columbia to the south of the proposed development. Image credit: City of Decatur/Decatur Development Authority.

Worthing will have to get permission from the state Environmental Protection Division and the Army Corps of Engineers in order to pipe more of the stream, he adds. But, for small streams like these, the Corps and EPD tend to defer to the wishes of local governments, Blackburn said. If the city grants the variance to eliminate the stream buffers one that stream, the state will probably grant permission to pipe it.

Ironically, he added, cities across the country, including Atlanta, have begun the expensive process of “daylighting”– uncovering and restoring — streams that have been buried for decades because of the problems that piped streams cause.

Old Fourth Ward Park, near Ponce City Market, contains an example of a creek that has been restored and made part of an urban mixed-use residential development. Gesturing to the houses and buildings currently along Weekes Street, Blackburn feels that a similar plan could work there.

“Clearly the land is developable. It’s developed,” he says. “It may be that they have [grant a variance] to go down to the state-mandated buffer. But that would be better than eliminating it entirely.”

Balancing environmental concerns with development

Decatur needs a better process for considering variances like this, argues Ash Miller, a Decatur resident and attorney who specializes in environmental law and compliance. Miller is one of the founders of the group, Friends of Shoal Creek, and has urged the city’s Environmental Sustainability Board to be allowed to weigh in on the variance application.

“Stream buffers are kind of a whole world unto themselves, because of the environmental implications. It’s in the environmental protection part of code, not land use,” Miller says. “The city regs on stream buffers are pretty strong and cool — they require what is essentially a mini environmental review process. [It has] many of the classic features of federal and state mandated environmental impact reviews, in miniature — baseline surveys, alternatives analysis, mitigation, etc.”

At the most recent ZBA meeting, the board asked that the city engineer, Jennings Bell, evaluate the application to determine whether it met the standard in the city’s development ordinance for being “at least as protective of the environment [as developing the property without the variance would be].”

Miller says this is a step in the right direction, but does not go far enough.

In July, at the direction of the city attorney, Mayor Patti Garrett advised the Environmental Sustainability Board that it would be outside its authority to comment on private development proposals before the ZBA.

As a result, the ESB sent a letter to City Manager Andrea Arnold expressing concerns with the plans to pipe the stream and clear-cut almost an acre of land, and urging a change in the process by which stream buffer variances are considered. The letter is here.

Noting that the Avondale MARTA LCI plan cited in support of the development also calls specifically for protecting greenspace in the area, the board urged the city to look more closely at the request.

“In light of all of the above, the ESB therefore recommends that city staff request additional information from applicant to ensure effective implementation of the City’s environmental regulations with respect to stream buffer protection,” the letter states. “This project is an ideal example of how the ESB can offer site-specific recommendations that assist the City Commission and staff in implementation of the city’s environmental regulations.”

Learn more: This Google Map overlay shows the scope of the proposed development, including the planned relocation of Freeman Street, as well as the affected streams that feed Shoal Creek. Click on the image for an interactive version. To see the overlay, click here. Credit: Friends of Shoal Creek.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated a connection between increased sedimentation at Postal Lake at Legacy Park and a stream flowing through the Weekes Street properties. The streams flowing into that lake and the stream covered in this article are in separate subwatersheds of Shoal Creek. The streams covered in the developer’s application do not flow into the pond at Legacy Park. 

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