By John Schaffner
Flanked by lawyers and members of his design and development team, 82-year-old architect-developer John Portman once again presented his case April 12 to win approval for a planned development before a city board — not for a skyscraper in downtown Atlanta, but for his private residence in Sandy Springs.
This time, the man who shaped the look of much of downtown Atlanta in the 1960s-90s, was unable to persuade the seven-member Sandy Springs Board of Zoning Appeal that his proposed 27,000 square foot residence off Northside Drive, reaching to heights twice that allowed by the city, was “in harmony” with the intent of the zoning ordinance.
“Everybody certainly respects the applicant and what he has contributed to the city,” said Chairman Al Pond, before the board’s unanimous denial of Portman’s zoning variance request. “But I do not think the applicant’s proved our city fathers intended to have homes built more than 40 feet (in height).”
The board’s decision delighted almost all of the 200-plus residents who filled the City Council chambers to demonstrate their objection to allowing Portman to build this home on land he has owned for 40 years.
Norman Underwood, of the Troutman Sanders law firm, led off the presentation on Portman’s behalf stating, “The question before you is whether you would be acting in harmony with the intent and purpose of the zoning ordinance if you grant Mr. Portman a variance to build a house that he has designed for this specific 12-acre parcel, which because of its size, acreage, the typography, the density of mature trees, makes it, if not unique in today’s Sandy Springs than certainly very rare for a single house.”
There are two alternative standards for a variance of this type Underwood pointed out. One is an overall harmony with the intent of the zoning standards and the other is a hardship standard for the particular property.
“The applicant has to meet one of those standards, not both, Underwood told the board. “Many of the neighbors told us Mr. Portman cannot show hardship. But that showing is not required. The standard that fits this application is harmony with the intent and purpose of the zoning code,” Underwood contended.
Underwood said Portman has designed this house to fit into the natural environment and it will be surrounded by mature trees which are taller than the house. He said the proposed house “will have very limited visibility through the trees.”
Portman, who sat in the front row with his attorneys, personally presented the emotional part of his argument, moving slowly back and forth between his seat and the podium to present and answer questions from the board.
“I have been working on this for a number of years now,” Portman told the board and audience. “As I have said before, I never assume and never presume. Apparently I have done both.”
“I felt that preserving the natural integrity of this great tract of land was more important than the 29 feet,” he explained. “To use this property in another way would be going against everything I believe in. I have owned this property for over 40 years. My neighbors have enjoyed the fact that I have kept this property clean of this use. They don’t pay any taxes on it. They haven’t even thanked me for it. But now comes the time when I want to use the property and use it sparingly.”
Portman said he has located the home down in a ravine “because I don’t want it seen. I don’t want anything ostentatious. I don’t want rubber neckers. I am a private person,” he said drawing to the end of his initial presentation. “I like being close to the city. I like having all these trees. My family loves it and I have a very large family. We all talked about this and decided it was in the best interest of the family, the best interest of this property and the best interest of Sandy Springs,” he concluded.
But spokespersons for the opposition did not agree.
David Cole, who lives on Finch Forest Trail, told the board, “My home shares a common property line with Mr. Portman. The 45 homeowners on the streets adjacent to the property strongly oppose the granting of the variance. Most of these are downhill from the proposed structure and would be visually impacted by it.”
Cole said, “The elevation would tower 90 to 100 feet above our homes.” He pointed out that at some points the house would be 42.5 feet above code. He said 27,000 square feet “is a fraction of the structure. The home footprint is 58,000 square feet” — 29,000 square feet, plus 22,000 square feet for the patio, plus 7,000 for an auto court. “It would equal the footprint of 10-20 typical Sandy Springs homes,” he concluded.
In rebuttal to those objections, Portman told the board, “What I have proposed is appropriate. I have been a professional for a long time. I have been paying taxes on that land for 40 years. There are very few people who would be affected. I ask you to look at 12 acres of land with a house that no one can see unless they are flying in a helicopter or looking through acres of trees. And, that’s detrimental? I find that incredulous.”
Portman complained that the code was being compared equally for two acres as for 12 acres.
Portman and his attorneys have not yet decided if they will seek court action to overturn the decision by the Board of Zoning Appeals.