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Dear Decaturish – Why WSE development’s stream buffer variances should be denied

Decatur Editor's Pick

Dear Decaturish – Why WSE development’s stream buffer variances should be denied

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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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Dear Decaturish,

Another apartment complex is proposed for construction in Decatur (location is lots and greenspace on and near Weekes Street). The WSE Development, with 322 units and 550 parking spaces, will heavily impact two streams and a forested area, cause significant increases in traffic, bring many more students into our already crowded school system and more. We acknowledge that smart development has proven to be a good thing for the city, however significant issues raised in the WSE application remain unresolved, most notably their request for stream buffer variances to pipe 273 feet of one stream and build within 25 feet of a second stream instead of 75 feet as required by city code.

It’s another case of a developer requesting variances to build more than what the city code allows. The Zoning Board of Appeals will consider the variance application on Monday, October 14th at 7:30 p.m. at the Decatur City Hall.

WSE’s variance request still contains several fatal legal flaws. The following issues require the Zoning Board of Appeals deny the application:

1) Allowing new development on top of an existing stream and forest is inconsistent with city code and plans, bad policy, and bad practice. The City’s Environmental Sustainability Board has called this application “highly problematic” and warned that it would set a “dangerous precedent” for future development in the city.

2) To be eligible for a variance, WSE must show “extreme hardship,” which means that the property would have “little or no reasonable economic use” without a variance, according to the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia. WSE’s chosen site includes over 2 acres of entirely unencumbered land outside of buffer area, which has a very high value (millions of dollars) in the marketplace even before improvements. How can a variance be granted based on hardship?

3) WSE remains out of compliance with basic Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) requirements, including required alternatives analysis, baseline studies, mitigation, and environmental protection. Although they claim to have considered alternatives, WSE has not submitted a single alternative for evaluation by the public or the board. WSE cannot assert that saving the creek is infeasible, when it has never evaluated that.

4) WSE has not proposed meaningful mitigation to “offset” the “effects” of its proposal and render it “at least as protective” of natural resources and the environment, as required by the UDO. The applicant has not meaningfully studied traffic and its associated impacts (noise, pollution, safety, community character, impact on greenspace).

In light of all the above, this Board should deny the requested variance. Granting the variance would cause tangible harm to nearby property owners and the residents of Decatur, including loss of significant green space, loss of a stream and associated wildlife, increased noise, pollution, and traffic-induced impacts. In addition, losing the over 100 mature trees in the stream buffer will impact us all. A conservative estimate of stormwater this year intercepted by these trees is 500,000 gallons; this number increases as the trees continue to mature, and the CO2 sequestered this year is almost 56,000 pounds.

One healthy old growth Post Oak tree near the stream is 43 inches in diameter, intercepting this year almost 22,000 gallons of stormwater and is likely well over 300 years old. This is critical information given that AECOM, the city’s stormwater consultant, has identified significant drainage concerns including flooding in neighborhoods above and below the proposed Weekes Street Development site. We are experiencing days of an air quality index of 119; trees for air purification are much needed. The heat island effect we are already experiencing will be compounded without planning for existing trees and stream buffer protection. These trees are not protected by Decatur’s Tree Ordinance, but the Stream Buffer Ordinance does. Smart development can happen with existing trees and streams.

And most concerning is the precedent set for future variance requests if Decatur’s Stream Buffer Ordinance is not upheld in this case and the variance is granted.

We encourage the Developer to work with the community to identify alternatives that will allow preservation of the streams and greenspace on the property and follow the legal requirement of our Stream Buffer Ordinance.

Please attend the hearing on October 14th and encourage smart development and preservation of the high quality of life we currently enjoy.  Our future is at stake.

Many thanks to Decaturish for the time and attention you have given to this important issue.


Tricia Appleton, Cherie Kunik, Erin Murphy, Betty Blondeau, Georgette Gafford and Catherine Fox with Save Decatur’s Trees

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