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Zoning discussion dominates Clarkston’s first in-person city council meeting since 2020

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Zoning discussion dominates Clarkston’s first in-person city council meeting since 2020

L to R City Clerk Tomika Mitchell, City Manager Shawanna Qawiy, Council member Susan Hood, Vice Mayor Debra Johnson, Mayor Beverly Burks, Council member Jamie Carroll, Council member Awet Eyasu, Council member Laura Hopkins, Council member YT Bell. Photo by Sara Amis

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Clarkston, GA — The Clarkston city council’s work session March 28 was their first meeting in person since March 2020. Most local government entities returned to face-to-face meetings after vaccines for COVID-19 became widely available, but in January 2022 Clarkston voted to continue virtual meetings amid a rise in Omicron variant cases. The council decided to return to City Hall at their work session in February.

The three-hour plus meeting covered a good bit of ground, but most of the time was devoted to the city’s zoning ordinance rewrite.

Rosie Mathe of Pond & Co. presented an overview of the community engagement process that Pond used as a foundation for the changes they made to the zoning ordinance.

Mathe said that the priorities that they heard were revitalizing downtown, providing a variety of housing for all incomes, improving walkability along with multimodal transportation, and protecting historic neighborhoods. The code was also re-organized to make it easier to read and use.

Alterations aimed at increasing available housing include increasing building height in one residential neighborhood, reducing minimum lot size, decreasing setbacks for alternative dwelling units (ADUs), and allowing more types of ADUs. Adding mixed use and multifamily dwellings in some zones will also potentially increase available housing.

To preserve the character of a historic Black neighborhood, the new zoning ordinance would create a Clemsil Overlay District that would require additional architectural standards to be applied to new construction.

Mathe listed some concerns expressed by the community in her presentation, including lot sizes, adding live-work projects to Clarkston’s downtown area, adding duplexes to neighborhood residential zone 1 (NR-1), and adding apartments as permitted buildings in NR-3.

Debate among both the council members and residents during public comments focused on the strong need for additional housing both inside and outside of Clarkston versus the potential downsides of creating more rental properties and reducing the already relatively small number of single-family homes in Clarkston.

City Councilmember Awet Eyasu expressed concerns about additional density and changes to residential neighborhoods but spoke in favor of added height for buildings in the downtown area.

Vice Mayor Debra Johnson said that she favored most changes to the zoning ordinance, but disliked allowing ADUs to be built in basements or attics of houses, or adding apartments to NR-3.

Councilmember Jamie Carroll said that the background for the discussion is that the apartment complexes in Clarkston are 99% full and rents are rising because of it. Carroll also said that he didn’t think adding duplexes to NR-1 will change the character of the neighborhood since some duplexes already exist there, but that having nowhere for resettled refugees to live will profoundly change the character of Clarkston.

“Clarkston should continue to be a welcoming city for everyone who wants to live here,” Carroll said.

Councilmember Susan Hood said that Clarkston has only 14% of its land zoned single family, and that she feared that by expanding multifamily uses that those single-family neighborhoods could disappear.

Hood warned that without constraints, developers will buy single-family houses that need repair and replace them with apartment complexes. Hood added that in her view, an additional dwelling unit built in the basement or attic of a house was simply a duplex.

Hood suggested using the Clarkston’s affordable housing fund to help people put down payments on homes to increase homeownership in the city.

Councilmember Laura Hopkins said that the original intention for the zoning rewrite was to address inconsistencies due to changes over the years, to make sure that the ordinance fits the vision that the residents have for the city, and make the zoning ordinance clearer and easier to use.

Hopkins said that the changes in the ordinance are outside the scope of the original intent, but that the attempt to eliminate single-family zoning has recurred over the last few years.

Hopkins warned that increasing density will increase the population without increasing taxes, and that making it easier to buy homes would benefit the city much more than increasing rentals.

“Nothing drives poverty like rentals. We currently have 90% rentals,” Hopkins said. 

Councilmember YT Bell said that she is the only member of the city council who still resides in an apartment, and that her neighbors want to own a home. Bell said that single-family dwellings take up a lot of land, and one way to reduce the cost of housing is finding ways to put more residences on the same amount of land.

While most of the council members seemed against increased density in the residential neighborhoods, public comment leaned more in favor, although several stated that they preferred smaller lots or other ways to increase the number of purchasable homes available.

Guled Abdilahi said that some of the suggestions sounded good, but that adding apartments was not the solution. Abdilahi was born in Clarkston and his family was one of the first Somali families to move to Clarkston. Abdilahi said that now he is grown up and has a good job, he’d like to move back, but there’s nothing available. He said that he and his siblings and neighbors aren’t interested in renting an apartment, they want to build generational wealth.

“I want to come back to Clarkston. I was raised here, grew up here,” Abdilahi said. 

Mark Perkins said that the density of the neighborhood in Argentina where he grew up contributed to how close-knit the neighborhood was. Perkins said that he felt that the tiny houses on Vaughan Street have been mischaracterized in previous discussions about affordable housing.

MicroLife is not a developer, they’re a policy institute,” Perkins said, adding that the project was intended to create a prototype and a model for affordable housing.

Others felt that adding to the amount of housing and reducing the cost was of primary concern.

Dr. Sean Lindsey who lives in NR-1 said that what he hears over and over from neighbors and patients is that they are struggling to afford necessities including rent.

“We need to create opportunities for those people,” Lindsey said.

Dr. Chris Villangco said that even as a young MD, he’s had trouble being able to live in the community he serves in Clarkston because housing just isn’t available.

“I think adding duplexes, triplexes, quadplexes would help,” Villangco said.

Joshua Deaton said that zoning has origins in segregation and that some of the same language is being used today. Denton expressed disappointment that the city spent money to seek community input, but now seems to be disregarding it.

“I feel like you’re lecturing us about what the city wants, instead of listening to us,” Denton said.

On the other hand, Ira Jenkins said that he bought his house because he wanted to live in the neighborhood and wants to preserve existing single-family zoning. Jenkins also said that affordable housing and density are two different things.

“Allowing multi-dwelling units does not mean affordable housing,” Jenkins said.

There will be a public hearing for the zoning rewrite ordinance at the city council’s regular meeting April 4, and it will be placed on the agenda for a vote.

Council members and the public also spent time discussing the Clemsil overlay, but that topic was much less controversial.

Mayor Beverly Burks said that the Clemsil neighborhood has been very gracious in allowing projects like Friendship Forest and the cottages on Vaughan Street, but that before now the neighborhood hasn’t received the same kind of care in return. Burks said that she felt that it was important to recognize the importance of Clemsil as a historic African-American community, and the contributions that residents of Clemsil have made to Clarkston.

Bell said that when members of the community sought ways to preserve the historical nature of the neighborhood in 2019, they were told that the best way was to wait for the city’s zoning rewrite.

Hopkins said that the residents of Clemsil wrote what they wanted into the overlay, and she expressed strong support for the overlay as written.

Carol Davis and Molly Wynn, who are residents of the Clemsil neighborhood, praised the Clemsil overlay as it appears in the zoning rewrite. Davis said that she appreciated the work being done and was confident that what they want in their neighborhood will be accomplished. Wynn said that she and others have worked for years to preserve Clemsil, and she’s glad to see that it’s finally happening.

Burks asked the city attorney about the best way to approach getting to an agreement about changes that council members might want made before the council’s regular meeting next week. 

“This is a very extensive document,” Burks said.

City Attorney Stephen Quinn said that according to the city charter, the zoning ordinance has to be in writing to be approved. Quinn suggested that either the council could try to reach a consensus ahead of time, or could put different options in writing to be considered at the next meeting.

Quinn said that there was no requirement that the council had to vote on the ordinance next week.

“Based on what I’ve heard tonight, It sounds like there’s a lot of negotiating and compromise left to be done,” Quinn said.

However, council members expressed a desire to move forward more quickly if possible, which prompted a discussion of the pros and cons of trying to do so via email, including the need for everyone to participate in order for it to be useful.

Quinn clarified that an email discussion among a quorum of council members is not considered a meeting for public notice purposes, but that the public is allowed to see the emails after filing an open records request.

“Well, I guess it’s time to start that email chain,” Burks said ruefully.

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