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John Ruch Posted by on August 16, 2017.

Sandy Springs approves new zoning code with big changes

After more than two years of work, Sandy Springs has a new zoning code – with some big last-minute changes, including the killing of an affordable housing mandate and a ban on new gas station locations.

The Development Code unanimously approved by the City Council Aug. 15 also wipes out most existing “conditions” on previous rezonings  and allows storage units in more areas – two other points of contention.

The culmination of the city’s “Next Ten” urban planning for the next decade won council approval and general support for achieving its main goals: simplifying the code, protecting most single-family house neighborhoods from large infill redevelopment, and targeting certain “small areas” with more detailed and refined plans.

However, there was some saber-rattling about possible lawsuits from attorneys and residents unhappy with the new zoning categories for particular properties.

It is likely the code will get further tweaks – possibly even before it takes effect on Sept. 15, when moratoriums on rezonings, special use permits and applications for new gas stations and convenience stores will end. Three months later, lead consultant Lee Einsweiler of Austin, Texas-based Code Studio will return to review and update the code.

Affordable housing mandate gone, task force to come

In the biggest policy shift, the council killed the affordable housing mandate in the code, but kept various incentive programs, while also announcing a new affordable housing “task force.”

Affordable housing for primarily middle-income, but also lower-income, households is an issue the city is grappling as real estate prices and rents skyrocket. Various drafts of the code changed tactics repeatedly, including a unique incentive formula later discarded as confusing. Until the council vote, the latest draft combined various affordable housing incentives, such as permit fee discounts and density increases, with the city’s first-ever mandate to make a certain percentage of new multifamily units affordable or pay a fee in lieu of building them.

That inclusionary zoning system – a term used by cities nationwide but avoided by Sandy Springs’ leaders – was controversial, drawing criticisms that it was both insufficient and too restrictive. Big developer advocacy groups, including the Council for Quality Growth and the Atlanta Apartment Association, opposed it.

City Councilmember Ken Dishman expressed concern the mandate could have “unintended consequences” and prevent redevelopment. That’s especially an issue in the northern section of the city he represents, which the city is targeting as its top redevelopment priority now that the “Next Ten” is done.

While the mandate is gone, the city will instead form the task force to study the best practices in affordable housing and add them to the code later. It will look at serving all income levels, all types of residents, and both rental and ownership affordability, city spokesperson Sharon Kraun said.

The city of Brookhaven had a similar affordable housing task force that recently issued recommended tactics – among them, inclusionary zoning.

Conditions mostly gone, but more survive

Perhaps the mostly widely controversial part of the new code is its erasure of most existing conditions. The council stuck with that plan, though it expanded the short list of types of conditions that will survive.

Conditions are limits or improvements that a developer agrees to in exchange for rezoning a property, often with neighborhood input. Conditions can be nearly anything, from new roads to landscaping, building heights and landscape buffers.

With many rezonings dating back to before the city’s 2005 incorporation, conditions can be hard to apply years later, officials say, and the new code aims to do without them as much as possible. City planning officials want to wipe out most existing conditions, except for green space easements, traffic-related mitigations for large-scale developments, and landscape buffers and setbacks.

But residents who have won other types of conditions wanted to keep them, as do the attorneys representing some of them. The city Planning Commission previously recommended the preservation of all existing conditions, and that was written into a previous draft.

City staff had recommended keeping only three types of conditions: those relating to green space provision, traffic mitigations and buffers between properties. The council added two more types to the final code: restrictions on lighting and sound at ballfields/playgrounds; and restrictions on vehicular access to or from a site.

No new gas station locations

Redevelopment of aging gas stations was another hot point in “Next Ten” meetings. Among the tactics the city considered in earlier drafts was a “cap and trade” approach, where developers could build a new gas station if they tore down an old one somewhere else. As a constraint, the new gas station could not be within a half-mile of an existing gas station – a limit that industry representatives criticized.

The council resolved the issue in the final draft by simply killing the option to build a gas station at a new location. That essentially freezes the number and location of the city’s gas stations, with any redevelopment happening on those sites.

Church redevelopments

An issue that emerged late in the code discussion, and might become a lingering topic, was the zoning status of churches whose leaders might want to sell out for redevelopment.

Following what officials have said is a zoning rule of thumb, the code gives existing religious institutions a default zoning status that also allows use as residential development on 2-acre lots.

Life Center Ministries on Mount Vernon Road in the panhandle made a late request, quickly withdrawn, to the city Planning Commission to gain a higher-density zoning category for possible redevelopment.

At the Aug. 15 council meeting, Highpoint Episcopal Community Church – formerly and apparently still officially known as Church of the Atonement – made a similar request via an attorney, an architect and a church member. The well-known but struggling church wants the option to possibly sell for redevelopment, they said. Randy Young, the architect, said the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta’s officials “rarely like to give up land,” but it’s something “they may have to look at doing.” He suggested a zoning designation for 1-acre residential lot sizes.

Life Center Ministries came up again at the Aug. 15 council meeting in a different context: the lack of any historic protection language in the new code. Resident Carol Niemi noted the possible historic status of a cottage on the church’s property, said to date to 1876 and reputedly where authors worked on famous novels, including Margaret Mitchell editing “Gone with the Wind” and Pat Conroy writing “The Great Santini” at a time when it was owned by a publishing company agent.

Niemi noted that the city’s lack of historic protections means the house could be lost to any redevelopment. “It’s not just a Sandy Springs treasure,” she said. “It’s world treasure, given what happened there.”

“We’ll look into it,” replied Mayor Rusty Paul.

Historic preservation debates in the city peaked in 2015 with the demolition of the Glenridge Hall mansion by its owners, who later sold the Abernathy Road property for the Aria housing development that is now under construction.