Developer agrees to fund stream restoration in planned Decatur city park
By Cathi Harris, contributor
The Worthing Companies, an apartment developer seeking to build a 322-unit complex along Weekes Street just south of College Avenue in Decatur, has signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Decatur Development Authority (DDA) to pay for additional streambank restoration on property just south of their development that is slated to be a city park.
At its regular meeting Friday, Sept. 13, the DDA board approved the MOU, which obligates Worthing to set aside $35,000 to fund streambank restoration on property that the DDA is in the process of acquiring from AT&T. The city plans to create a park with a multi-use trail on that property.
“We are already going to do streambank restoration on the side of the stream on our property — including restoring the streambank on the other [east] side, which is not our property,” explained Linda Dunlavy, the attorney representing Worthing before the city. “Our original thought was that we would just continue the restoration work south of the property. But, as it seems likely that the park project will be behind ours, and we want to do the streambank restoration at one time, the best solution seemed to be that [the DDA] would provide an estimate of what it would cost and then we would, at the time we close on the property, tender the $35,000 to the DDA for streambank restoration.”
Conditions on the agreement stipulate that the restoration must begin within five years. If it doesn’t, the DDA could use the money to fund stream restoration elsewhere in the city. If that were not possible, they would have to return the funds.
The restoration would involve removal of invasive plants clogging the stream and shore up the streambank to prevent further erosion.
And, if the Worthing project does not receive final approval from the city and they don’t complete the purchase of the land, the DDA will not get the money, Dunlavy added.
The planned apartment development has been in limbo seeking two variances from the Decatur Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) that would allow it to build inside Decatur’s mandated stream buffers.
Worthing contends that adjustments it made to the site plan to better align with Decatur’s comprehensive plan for that area have reduced the land they can build on and the property cannot be developed without the variances.
The ZBA has considered the variance applications at three previous meetings in May, June, and August, but tabled consideration each time to ask the developer for more information or to work with nearby property owners.
After the June meeting, Worthing agreed to perform the streambank restoration on the opposite side of the stream that will run north-south on their property, restoring the bank on the side of adjacent property owners as well as the side of the stream that is on the property they hope to acquire.
The developer hopes that agreeing to fund the additional restoration on the park property will help fulfill another ZBA request that it take steps to mitigate or offset any potential environmental impact of the incursions into the buffers.
The DDA previously passed a resolution in support of the developer’s application for the variances, noting that the developer would be undertaking expensive environmental remediation of the properties, as well as implementing stormwater runoff and treatment measures that are not currently in place. They also noted the significant changes Worthing has agreed to make to the site plan, including allowing space for a wider sidewalk along Commerce Drive, realigning Freeman Street and connecting it to Commerce, and constructing a multi-use path along one of the streams on the property that is planned to eventually connect to the city park to the south.
Critics of the plans have said that the city has not done a thorough enough evaluation of all of the potential environmental effects, particularly downstream of the planned building site, as required by the city’s Unified Development Ordinance.
The ZBA is set to again consider the measure at its next meeting on October 14. Worthing has the necessary permits from the Army Corps of Engineers and expects approval in the near future from the state Environmental Protection Division for incursions into the state-mandated stream buffers, Dunlavy told the board. The last hurdle will be getting ZBA approval.
In other news, DDA board member Conor McNally, the board’s liaison to the Decatur Affordable Housing Task Force, presented an update on the task force’s work over the previous months.
The task force has formed several subcommittees to look at different aspects of preserving existing affordable housing stock in the city as well as encouraging affordable housing development. One subcommittee is looking at defining what affordable housing is for Decatur, another is looking at where to encourage development of new affordable housing, while others are working on programs to assist people who need affordable housing or who may have trouble remaining in their homes. There’s also a subcommittee looking at a public education piece to keep the city informed about any changes to code or ordinances and what the financial impact would be, McNally said.
The subcommittee on which he serves is looking at ways to preserve existing affordable housing stock, particularly older, smaller apartment complexes.
“There is a real danger that we are going to start losing them,” McNally said. “There was the recent transaction where the Adair Oaks apartments were purchased. And there were a couple of properties over in Oakhurst. And the plan for those is often to either knock them down and build townhomes or renovate them to the point that they are no longer affordable.”
The new owners have said they want to renovate those apartments, not demolish them.
McNally said the subcommittee is looking at recommendations for possible changes to the zoning code to restrict the ability of developers to get rid of older apartments, as well as possible tax abatement incentives to the owners of older complexes to keep the properties maintained, but not sell or over-renovate them to the point that they become expensive.
Angela Threadgill, director of planning for the City of Decatur, said the task force is working toward a set of recommendations to present to the City Commission at a work session on Dec. 2, with an eye toward having a final report and recommendations by the end of January.