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Decatur Planning Commission rejects Smarties Academy’s request to expand

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Decatur Planning Commission rejects Smarties Academy’s request to expand

Numerous Decatur residents attended a May 9 planning commission meeting. Photo by Angela Walker

By Angela Walker, contributor 

Decatur, GA — The City of Decatur Planning Commission, at its May 9 meeting, unanimously agreed to reject two requests from Smarties Academy, a daycare at 465 Clairemont Avenue.

The planning commission’s decision will go to the Decatur City Commission as a recommendation to deny the proposed changes to Smarties Academy’s conditional use permit and comprehensive site development plan. The city commission will make the final decision on the applications. The Decatur City Commission will consider the applications at its regular meeting on May 15. 

The first rejection was related to Smarties’ request for a conditional use permit to increase enrollment at the daycare, and the second rejection was related to a site development plan to expand operations at the daycare.

The vote from the planning commission came two and a half hours after presentations by representatives for Smarties Academy, 28 opinions expressed by concerned residents of Decatur, and questions raised by commission members. In total, 10 people spoke in favor of Smarties Academy’s requests, and 18 people spoke against them.

During a presentation by Smarties Academy’s, several updates to their initial requests were shared based on feedback from city staff and residents. Initially, Smarties Academy was seeking to increase enrollment at the daycare from 148 to 300 but amended their request to 255 students. Other changes included: 

— The construction of a two-story building with a total height of 34’ 9” to eave and 43’3” to ridge on the property

— Remove the original parking spaces proposed and replace them with bike and stroller parking

— Move the trash dumpster to the farther south corner of the existing parking lot

— Shift the building addition with the intention of entering from Erie Avenue and exiting only on the southern portion of the property

— Increasing parking lot spots from 47 to 67 

— Making the setback 22 feet to the adjacent single-family residential lot

Several city residents expressed concerns about children’s safety with increased traffic to and from the daycare. Residents were also concerned that an increase in enrollment and Smarties Academy’s request to host events and summer camps would cause traffic to overflow into neighborhood streets.  Commission members echoed residents’ traffic concerns and asked several questions after Smarties Academy’s presentation. 

The central themes from comments made in favor of Smarties Academy involved its culture of bringing families together by providing a loving, enriching, and nourishing environment where children can thrive, its low staff turnover rate, the overall program curriculum, the Spanish immersion program, and the parent support. 

Parents and neighbors who spoke out against Smarties Academy cited concerns about tree preservation and how increasing traffic would negatively affect parents’ commutes and negatively affect children who play in the area. Other concerns centered around other potential commercial uses if a conditional use permit is given, in addition to parking flooding neighboring side streets to accommodate Smarties Academy parents and guests. 

Jenna Lee, a Smarties Academy representative, had a chance to address the concerns of parents and neighbors. The Smarties Academy owner believes they have an ideal location for their expansion, with its proximity to Clairemont Elementary, its use as an emergency evacuation facility by the elementary school, and its location addresses their goal of reducing car trips because some Smarties families have children at Clairemont Elementary. 

In Lee’s final comments, she said Smarties wants to create a win-win that considers the neighbors’ feedback. She said if that means they need to take a little more time, Smarties would be happy to do that.

After all public comments were made and Smarties Academy made their final statements, Planning Commission Chair Harold Buckley, Jr., said it’s an issue of trust. 

“A year ago, we approved Smarties to increase enrollment with the condition that enrollment would cap at 148 students,” Buckley said. “Then almost a year later, a new application is filed to increase enrollment again to 300 students. During this evening’s session, we heard different dismissal times and unanswered questions about trees and scope of services, and Smarties says that traffic would not be negatively affected; but that’s clearly not the case. I don’t believe what we’re being told. The hardship on the applicant does not outweigh the impact on the community.”

Other commission members weighed in with questions and concerns, including current classroom size, how dismissal time coincides with Clairemont Elementary, reducing parking spaces, and echoing concerns about increased traffic and trust issues regarding Smarties Academy’s intentions for the property.

“The applicant was comfortable about the level of activity at 148 students,” Planning Commission Member Greg Chilik said. “We took the applicant’s word in good faith. I don’t feel we have a good faith relationship when we’re given an applicant’s intentions of what they plan for the future.”

Planning Commission Member John McFarland expressed concerns with timing.

“I found it odd one year later to ask for another 100 students. I’m concerned in another year, they’ll ask for another increase,” McFarland said. “Traffic and safety are valid concerns. Another thing I haven’t seen, is this truly the best location for Smarties expansion?”

In other business, the planning commission considered four applications as follows:

1. Changing the land use designation for the property located at 1121 and 1123 Clairemont Road from LDR – Low Density Residential (DeKalb County) to C – Commercial and High Density Residential (City of Decatur) and 1119 Clairemont Avenue from RL – Low Density Residential (city of Decatur) to C – Commercial and High Density Residential (City of Decatur).

2. Consideration of changing the zoning for the property located at 1121 and 1123 Clairemont Road from O-I – Office-Institutional and R-75 Single Family Residential (DeKalb County) to PO – Professional Office District (city of Decatur) and 1119 Clairemont Avenue from R60 Single Family Residential (city of Decatur) to PO – Professional Office District (City of Decatur).

3. Emory Heights, LLC has requested a conditional use permit to allow a medical office at 1119 Clairemont Avenue, 1121 and 1123 Clairemont Road.

4. Emory Heights, LLC has requested a special exception from Section 8.2.3.G.1. and 3. of the Decatur Unified Development Ordinance to construct parking between the sidewalk and the front of the building and within 30 feet of a public street for the proposed project at 1119 Clairemont Avenue, 1121 and 1123 Clairemont Road.

After a presentation in favor of the change requests and discussions and concerns from citizens, the planning commission unanimously recommended approval of the land use changes for three of the four requests. The exception request for 1119, 1121, and 1123 Clairemont was approved with the condition to limit the parking pad at the front of the building to one handicapped spot and that 60% minimum tree coverage at 1119 and rear parking to accommodate a landscape buffer or fence.

The city commission will ultimately consider these applications and an annexation petition for the properties at 1121 and 1123 Clairemont Road, but the planning commission only looks at land use and zoning. The property at 1119 Clairemont Ave. is already in the city limits.

In other news, Planning Commission Chair Harold Buckley, Jr. resigned effective immediately following the meeting. Buckley said that his untimely departure was to take care of family matters. Vice Chair Michael Travis will temporarily replace Buckley until the city commission appoints a new chair.

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