By Jody Steinberg

The rewriting of the DeKalb County zoning ordinance is “like taking a turn-of-the-century steam engine and replacing it with a bullet train,” Ron Sprinkle, the president of the Ashford Alliance Community Association, told his neighbors at the association’s April meeting. “Any time you make these changes, you need feedback from constituents.”

The zoning ordinance, public safety, reduced tax revenues and the need to cut costs are top priorities for the county, Dist. 3 Commissioner Larry Johnson told the group, which also heard from state Rep. Mike Jacobs (R-Brookhaven).

The Ashford Alliance is a nonprofit community association that encompasses as many as 60 neighborhoods.

Property tax revenues are taking a serious hit from lower property values and a recent legal decision awarding a percentage of DeKalb’s Homestead Option Sales Tax (HOST) revenues to Dunwoody, said Johnson, the Board of Commissioners’ presiding officer. To keep homeowners from feeling the pinch of higher millage rates, the county will spend less HOST money on infrastructure improvements, but that diversion will cost DeKalb because the state matches infrastructure improvement funds.

Increased development, enterprise zones, incentives to attract industry and the collection of license fees could increase revenues, Johnson said, while cost-cutting initiatives include reducing waste in Recorder’s Court, lowering cellphone bills and reviewing the way DeKalb County funds Grady Memorial Hospital.

Johnson repeatedly encouraged citizen input, suggesting that residents lobby to keep police officers from the Dunwoody-based North Precinct in the area, but he didn’t seem sold on the necessity of a director of public safety.

“I want us to really think this strategy through. Will a public safety director be a panacea for the community?” he asked, emphasizing that the initial budget for the director with an assistant is $282,000. “I need more cops on the street right now. That high visibility helps us keep the criminal element in check.”

The long-term impact of an updated zoning ordinance was raised by everyone who spoke at the meeting. Local issues that zoning changes can affect include the density and mixture of developments allowed in areas such as Perimeter Center, Georgetown, the I-285 corridor and even residential neighborhoods.

While environmentally friendly ordinances are important, Dist. 6 Commissioner Kathie Gannon wants rules in place to ensure that “green” initiatives are done properly, resident Wendy Butler said.

The possibility of light rail or bus rapid transit in the area is on the table as the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) develops a long-term regional transportation plan, said Dick Lyon, who directed Brookhaven-area residents to follow the issue at the department’s Web site (www.dot.state.ga.us) and attend a May 21 community feedback meeting.

Expressing satisfaction with the recent state legislative session, Jacobs emphasized the importance of a regional transportation plan and explained that a shake-up in GDOT was designed to take the politics out of transportation projects.

“I’ll vote on which plan is put on my desk, but I prefer a regional plan that allows jurisdictions around metro Atlanta to control and not compete with the rest of the state,” he said.

The state budget spared tax relief grants, which average $200 to $300 per residence, but this might be the last year for the grants. The General Assembly also enacted a three-year cap on property assessments, Jacobs said, adding that counties should stop manipulating property values to increase tax revenues and should instead raise millage rates, a more transparent process.

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