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Avondale Estates residents voice concerns about zoning code rewrite

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Avondale Estates residents voice concerns about zoning code rewrite

The Avondale Estates City Commission met on Wednesday, June 23, at City Hall and held a public hearing on the zoning code. Commissioners heard many comments from residents. Photo by Zoe Seiler.

Avondale Estates, GA — Avondale Estates residents voiced many concerns about the city’s zoning code rewrite at the City Commission meeting on Wednesday, June 23. About 20 residents attended the meeting and raised concerns, mostly about the planned unit development section of the zoning code draft.

Planned Unit Developments, or PUDs, allow the city to consider projects that don’t fit with current zoning law. But residents want to know why PUDs would be needed for single family residences outside of the historic district and whether PUDs would increase the density of residential areas, among other concerns.

The City Commission and staff have been completely rewriting the code for the last 18 months and most of the code that is being rewritten was boilerplate language that was adopted largely across the country in the 1970s and 1980s, City Manager Patrick Bryant said.

Many cities, including Avondale Estates, have since rewritten their zoning codes to be a more design based code. In 2017, the City Commission authorized an audit of the zoning code and a consultant was then selected to develop the draft zoning code.

“The reason that we are presenting a rewritten code is because the board had previously found via a zoning audit that our code to be outdated and inapplicable to the vision that was created by the board in the downtown master plan, so the code needed to be rewritten to match that vision to the reality of how the city is zoned for future development,” Bryant said.

Anyone can ask for any property in the city to be rezoned to fit their use, even under the current zoning code, and that request would be considered by the City Commission.

All areas of the city, including the residential area, have retained their zoning designations from the previous zoning code. The zoning map in the code is also the same map the city has previously used. Some residential areas have different designations, but the zoning code rewrite does not change the uses of the property, Bryant said.

Zoning is what dictates the kind of use for a property. A home would be zoned single family residential and home improvements made to the property would not be a zoning change. The use of the property would still be the same, City Attorney Stephen Quinn said.

A homeowner making improvements to their home would not have to go through the zoning process to make those improvements like someone who lives in the historic district would have to go before the Historic Preservation Committee.

What is planned unit development?

The planned unit development has been in the city’s zoning code for about five years but is new in its specifics and requirements, Bryant previously told Decaturish. It is a zoning designation that someone can ask for and is not automatically given.

“The purpose of a PUD is to provide the flexibility to consider projects that meet the long-range vision of the city but might not fit well within an existing zoning classification,” Bryant said.

At the Feb. 24 City Commission meeting, Bryant said that the PUD provides the city with a safety net for those types of developments that the city can’t envision right now. Throughout the process, Bryant has said that PUDs would be a rare occurrence in the city.

“Just because somebody meets the criteria to apply for a PUD rezoning does not mean that they get to do it,” Bryant added. “That just means that they can apply and get a hearing with the PZB and the BOMC. The BOMC would have to approve that application in order for that project to happen. So just because they meet this criteria that allows them to apply doesn’t mean the project’s necessarily moving forward.”

A developer must acquire at least two contiguous acres of land, or more, and must have a minimum mix of at least two uses for a development in order to apply for a PUD.

“The PUD classification requires an applicant to draft a completely new and unique zoning code that is tailor-made for the subject property, tied to a plan, and consistent with the city’s vision and long-range plans,” Bryant previously said.

For property under two acres, developers would go through the regular zoning process and would be able to build any project that fulfilled the zoning designation if the request is granted. A site plan is not required to be submitted for a regular rezoning request.

Within the historic district, developers would also have to follow the city’s historic district guidelines if they apply to have a property rezoned.

If someone applies to rezone a property to a PUD they would have to fulfill several requirements, including submitting a site plan, meeting streetscape requirements, landscape requirements, height requirements and design requirements.

“They have to define exactly what they’re going to do,” Mayor Jonathan Elmore said. “It just gives us the leverage to make them define exactly what they’re doing, and then they have to build it that way, so their plan becomes the zoning.”

Zoning decisions are legislative decisions, so a developer would have to have hearings with the city’s planning, zoning and architectural review board and the City Commission.

“As the process exists today, if that were granted then we wouldn’t have any control over what would be built outside the use, so the PUD actually provides more protection than what currently exists in the code,” Bryant said at the June 23 City Commission meeting.

Rezoning is a question about whether the elected officials are answering yes or no to the request, City Attorney Quinn said.

But residents in attendance wondered why the PUD has anything to do with the residential area of the city. Some also asked about if the PUD could be taken out of the zoning code, at least in the residential area.

Bryant said that can’t be done, as anybody has the opportunity to ask for a rezoning. The City Commission did take a table vote to remove the PUD, but the vote resulted in a 2-2 tie. Mayor Pro Tem Brian Fisher attended the meeting virtually, but was not present on the Zoom call during the vote.

Resident Paul Dorroh said he was having trouble understanding why there is a compelling need for PUDs in the single family residences outside the historic district.

Resident Jan Hover raised concerns about the mixed-use nature of a PUD potentially increasing pedestrian and automobile traffic and increasing the density of the residential area.

“If you ask people what they like about Avondale Estates, the answers invariably include lower residential density, large green lawns and flowers, beautiful older homes and charming ranch houses with spacious grounds and walkable streets, and street peripheries unimpeded by population compression,” Hover said. “It is also a fear of mine that this is the way that some of our residential areas could disappear.”

Resident Klaus van den Berg suggested placing an overlay zoning district on the residential area to potentially provide more protection for the area.

“For those of us who lived through Trammell Crow we’re a little jittery about this assurance that it has to go through all of this and PZB and whatever, so we’re a little bit gun shy,” van den Berg said.

Other aspects of the zoning code rewrite

The zoning code also dissolves the Architectural Review Board and combines it with the city’s Planning and Zoning Board. The board would become the Planning, Zoning and Architectural Review Board and two seats would be added for design experience.

Commissioner Lisa Shortell explained at the Feb. 24 board meeting that the recommendation to abolish the ARB came from the zoning audit, which suggested putting the architectural review guidelines into the zoning code.

The board also heard comments about accessory dwelling units throughout the amendment process. The city staff recommended in the code that the setback requirement be 20 feet from other property lines, so a structure doesn’t impact neighboring properties.

The board additionally discussed the development vertical transition zone and height plane during the February meeting.

“In the zoning code, it is recommended that commercial development begin that break at 45 feet,” Bryant said at the Feb. 24 meeting.

Staff recommended this height in an effort to achieve a balance between human scale and what the market will bear.

“[Our contractors] believe that 45-foot breakpoint is the sweet spot and that’s what the market will bear,” Bryant said. “That keeps development both friendly to the community, but also friendly to the developers, so that we are a more attractive locale in which to develop.”

One of the biggest changes made to the draft zoning code in May involved the city’s street grid. The draft previously seemed to require that developers build a street in accordance to the street grid. But the city cannot require that a developer build a street for public use, so the staff had to get creative with ways to incentivize developers to construct the street grid.

City staff and the consultants also added an arts provision to the draft in May. The art could be visual public art, an outdoor performing arts facility, an open air market or an arts space or venue like a museum, gallery or production space.

The City Commission will meet next on Wednesday, July 14, at 5:30 p.m. at City Hall, 21 N. Avondale Plaza. The board is set to vote on the zoning code at the July meeting.

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