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Decatur City Commission District 1 candidates discuss Legacy Park, tree ordinance, cycle track project

campaign coverage Decatur

Decatur City Commission District 1 candidates discuss Legacy Park, tree ordinance, cycle track project

Left: Commissioner Kelly Walsh. Right: Katie Bell

Decatur, GA — Two candidates are running for the District 1 seat of the Decatur City Commission, and they joined the Decaturish Twitch show on Sept. 25 for a virtual forum. Each candidate had time to educate voters about why they are running for the seat and discuss local issues ranging from affordable housing to greenspace and trees to the city’s face mask ordinance.

Incumbent Commissioner Kelly Walsh and Katie Bell are running for the seat, and the election will be held on Nov. 2.

Here’s the full video of the Sept. 25 forum.

Walsh has served on the City Commission since 2018. She has lived in Decatur for 16 years and is a residential realtor for Keller Williams in downtown Decatur. Walsh described the community as a unique intersection of urban and suburban, a mix of a big town and small city, where residents are informed, engaged and opinionated.

“Having said that, I think we live in a community that is ok to be what I call constructively dissatisfied. So we don’t rest on our laurels, and we want to do better and be better, and I think in general we work really well to move forward in a lot of challenging ways,” Walsh said. “It’s in that culture that I want to work to accelerate us out of the pandemic and into the next 10 years of planning using our vehicle of the strategic plan.”

She added that the strategic plan gives the city a platform for working on the hardest issues that are challenging to the city around climate change, housing, and racial and social justice, which is all underpinned by doing a better job of civic engagement and building trust.

Bell is a licensed professional therapist in private practice, a school counselor and a former educator at Drew Charter School. She has lived in the city of Decatur for three years, and lived in North Decatur for about five years. Her guiding lens throughout her campaign is making sure that the city is inclusive, equitable and diverse.

“Inclusive meaning that we are listening to everyone’s voices. I find that often people who don’t have a seat at the table have an answer to the hard questions and challenges that we face, and I want to represent those individuals,” Bell said. “I want to bring the passion that I have for advocating for all voices to the table and making sure that I’m bringing that to city hall, and really looking at stories that are similar to mine.”

She added that she is representative of the workforce as she’s a young professional, one who doesn’t have children yet, and makes below the average median income. Bell and her partner live in an affordable housing development off of Scott Boulevard. Bell’s story is similar to some individuals who live in Decatur or want to live in the city, she said.

“I want to make sure that I’m keeping a close eye on sustainability, whether that’s economic, environmental or social, making sure that we’re valuing our communities of color, making sure that we’re valuing our students, and making sure that we have communication between our board and our school board,” Bell said.

The community recently debated the uses of Legacy Park. The master plan for the park calls for some affordable housing and some people felt having more greenspace would be a better use.

The candidates were supportive of adding affordable housing to the park and also making sure there’s room for greenspace. The city completed a master planning process that engaged the public and set the vision for Legacy Park, Walsh said.

“Ultimately, I think we came out with a very balanced plan. The United Methodist Children’s Home always had housing. Families have lived there, so the idea that it would retain a housing attribute and some of the campus I think makes a lot of sense,” Walsh said. “But we have a social contract now with our community as of the master plan that we’ve adopted. Within that, we had another almost a year-long planning [process] on the affordable housing addendum.”

The park also includes 22 acres of preservation greenspace, orchards, a place for an amphitheater and opportunities for active and passive activities. She added the city has plans to build a competitive track and multipurpose field

Bell said it’s important to utilize the facilities that already are on the property and think of ways to use them to create affordable housing.

“I think it’s really going to take a close eye on inclusion and also making sure that we’re equitable in the city to make sure that we’re providing workforce housing, housing for our seniors and older adults, and also affordable housing for other individuals who are part of the work force,” Bell said. 

She added that creating greenspace is also important to create recreation opportunities for children and adults.

Bell, who is a member of Save Decatur’s Trees, has been advocating for an increased tree canopy goal along with other residents. The city’s Environmental Sustainability Board has advocated for a 63% tree canopy goal and Bell would like to see a 70% tree canopy goal.

“I do support a 63% [goal] and I also think that we should shoot higher, our goal should be higher and thinking that we can do a 70% canopy,” Bell said. “So when I looked closely to the way that we measure tree canopy, there are things that are measured, I think, in our tree canopy that specifically may not be inclusive of what our tree canopy actually reflects.”

The current tree ordinance does not set a tree canopy goal, but the Community Forestry Management Plan sets the citywide canopy goal at 50%. City staff has recommended increasing that goal to 60% in the draft ordinance.

Homeowners can cut down three trees within an 18-month period with a tree information permit. Bell said that it too many trees.

“We need to make sure that we are making very intentional moves to enforce our ordinance for our tree canopy. When we enforce that, I think that we can shoot higher for 70% tree canopy,” Bell said. “The reality is, is if we don’t protect our canopy, we are going to have problems with storm and water runoff.”

Walsh is also supportive of a 63% tree canopy goal and said the city needs a stronger tree ordinance as the current ordinance is not serving the city well anymore. In the draft ordinance, Walsh would like to see a very aspirational goal at the beginning of the document.

She added that 70% city’s tree canopy resides in the yards of single family properties and that’s where the greatest impact has to come from the ordinance.

“So in the room under the bright lights on a Monday night when the tree ordinance comes before me [and the City Commission], we’re going to pick the most aggressive number for the aspirational goal, and then we’re going to pick the number that’s rational and workable and supports our city the best from a compliance standpoint,” Walsh said. “There’s still some stuff to work out. This has been a work in progress. I think trees prove themselves to be trying and tedious and technical as far as working on the ordinance, but they’re such a tremendous natural resource.”

A reader asked what the candidates will do to address the sidewalks on Church Street and Clairemont Avenue. Bell said that it’s important for the board to find room in the budget and find creative ways to protect and repair infrastructure, and keep pedestrians and bicyclists safe.

 “So when listening to Carmen Sulton talk about our budget, and also Dan Baskerville, thinking about ways to use our budget, I think it’s really important,” Bell said. “They were both discussing ways to find innovative ways to fix things and make sure that infrastructure is being maintained in creative ways.”

Sulton and Baskerville are running for the District 2 seat of the Decatur School Board and recently participated in another Decaturish Twitch show. They discussed the school district’s spending and the priorities they would like to focus on in terms of spending.

However, City Schools of Decatur operates a budget and levies taxes that are separate from the city of Decatur’s budget. The city is responsible for maintaining infrastructure, not the school district.

The sidewalks are part of the road diet and cycle track project, which will reduce the traffic lanes on Church Street from four lanes to two lanes from the city limits on the north side to the intersection with Commerce Drive.

Each side of Church Street will get a dedicated bike lane and improved sidewalks that will tie in with the pedestrian and cycle-track improvements along Commerce Drive.

 “So it’s a great day to say that those sidewalks will be renovated and updated along with the project happening on Church Street, the build out of the cycle track the completion of the Bank of America building, and that whole intersection at Church and Commerce,” Walsh said. “Then as you go down toward Clairemont will be updated, made more pedestrian friendly, wider sidewalks and all new with that.”

More information about the Nov. 2 municipal elections

All Decaturish elections coverage can be found at Decaturishvotes.com 

The election will be Nov. 2. Early voting will begin on Oct. 12. The voter registration deadline for the upcoming city elections is Oct. 4. To register to vote, click here.

To see a list of important dates in the 2021 election year, click here.

Voters in DeKalb County are eligible to apply for an absentee ballot as of Aug. 16. The county will hold municipal elections on Nov. 2, as well as a county-wide E-SPLOST vote for DeKalb County schools.

To apply for an absentee ballot:

— Visit the Georgia Secretary of State website: www.sos.ga.gov.

—  Complete the absentee ballot application using the state’s official paper form or request an absentee ballot in writing. Use blue or black ink only.

Applications can be mailed to the county elections office and voter’s should use this address: DeKalb County Election office, 4380 Memorial Drive, Decatur, GA 30032-1239.

Applications can also be submitted through fax, 404-298-4038 or email, [email protected]

Voters may send an absentee ballot request for multiple people who live in the same household in the same envelope or email.

If an absentee ballot is not mailed to you, contact your county’s elections office. You may still vote in person, either early or on Election Day.

An absentee ballot application must be received 11 days prior to the election, which is Oct. 22.

In accordance with SB202, a new voting bill signed by Governor Brian Kemp in March, a voter ID is required to apply for an absentee ballot. A Georgia driver’s license, Georgia voter card, U.S. military ID, employee ID issued by any branch of the federal or state government, U.S. Passport, tribal ID, or a document verifying a voter’s name and address – including a paycheck, utility bill, or bank statement – are accepted forms of ID.

Voters can obtain a free ID at the DeKalb County Elections office at 4380 Memorial Drive in Decatur or at the following locations:

– On Aug. 25 from 3-6 p.m. at Doraville Marta Station, 6000 New Peachtree Road, Doraville 30340.

— On Aug. 30 from 3-6 p.m. at Indian Creek Marta Station, 3901 Durham Park Road, Stone Mountain 30083.

— On Sept. 15 from 3-6 p.m. at Chamblee Marta Station, 5200 New Peachtree Road, Chamblee 303041.

— On Sept. 14 from 3-6 p.m. at Kensington Marta Station, 3505 Kensington Road, Decatur 30032.

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