Sandy Springs planning officials admitted they waived required public meetings about a new affordable housing deal, apparently without legal authorization, triggering a backlash from city Planning Commission members on Dec. 21.

Most commissioners said they liked the plan to put 10 affordable units in a new apartment building on Cliftwood Drive. But they feared the precedent of violating the city’s brand new Development Code and its meeting requirement in the very first case to come before the commission since its passage. The commission voted 6-1 to recommend deferring any decision – which is a rezoning case for technical reasons – until community meetings are held.

The Cliftwood apartment complex as it appears in a marketing photo on its website at thecliftwood.com.

“Are we going down a slippery slope by allowing this to go forward?” asked commission chair Lane Frostbaum. “My concern is, we worked hard on this Development Code and this is the first matter we’re hearing, and we’re saying, ‘Let’s ignore the Development Code.’”

Ginger Sottile, the city’s Community Development director, gave no explanation for why staff waived the meeting requirement, but suggested that it was OK because the public does not care about the case. And she angered some commissioners by pointedly noting that the commission’s votes are merely advisory.

The commission could vote to require more meetings, Sottile said. “However, we may not necessarily take that path by the time we get to the next meeting,” she added, meaning taking the plan straight to the City Council for a vote.

“I’m kind of pissed about that statement,” said commissioner Dave Nickels. He said that if the staff ignores the commission’s advice, he and hopefully other commissioners would “disrupt” the City Council meeting and make clear that allowing city staff to circumvent the code is “like putting inmates in charge of the asylum.”

The case involves The Cliftwood, a new luxury apartment building at 185 Cliftwood Drive. In an unusual deal, the city proposes allowing the owner, Sandy Springs-based ECI Group, to convert three model units into rentable apartments in exchange for making 10 units affordable for 10 years. Three of the units would be made available to city public safety employees for $500 a month, and seven of the units would be priced at rates affordable to middle-income households.

The deal was crafted entirely in private, and while commissioners responded favorably, there were some questions from them and from a Sandy Springs resident in attendance, Tochie Blad, about why there could not be more affordable units for a longer period. Due to the focus on whether the process is proper, the substance of the proposal was not discussed in detail.

“That deal was proposed to us by the city” and is modeled on one of its previous affordability programs, Jack Misiura, ECI Group’s vice president for development, told the commission.

Lack of input defended

While the affordable housing deal would be done through a contract, allowing the three new units requires a rezoning, largely as a technical move. A city planning staff report about the proposal notes that the process involves two community meetings, followed by votes by the Planning Commission and the City Council. However, the two community meetings were “waived, per city management.”

Saying he had just reviewed the language of the new city Development Code, Frostbaum asked Sottile whether it has any provision authorizing her to waive such meetings, and she replied, “There is not.” He then asked her whether the code requires a community meeting in the rezoning process, and Sottile said, “Yes, it does.”

No one asked Sottile directly why she, or someone on staff, waived the meetings anyway. But she defended the action by saying the “lack of public input” following notices about the Planning Commission meeting agenda showed the city was right to cancel the earlier meetings. She said only one person, Sandy Springs Council of Neighborhoods president Ronda Smith, submitted a comment about the proposal, and only one resident attended that night’s commission meeting.

“No one else cared to call or write in any comment,” she said.

Commissioner Andy Porter blasted Sottile’s argument as “circular logic in the extreme.” And among the input from Blad, that one resident in attendance, was a call for more public input, as she complained about the canceled meetings and the first hearing coming at a Planning Commission meeting held near the holidays.

The public notice for the Planning Commission meeting described the case only as “rezoning to reflect existing conditions,” with no mention of the affordable housing topic or its details. While the Reporter published a preview article about the details, the only formal notice of them was by clicking a link on the city’s online calendar and combing through a 47-page packet of largely technical documents.

Nickels said he could not recall any prior rezoning where meetings had been waived and said that public input from them is important to the commission’s decisions. Frostbaum noted that the new code was presented as a “compact with the community” that promised good public input.

Commissioner Andrea Settles said she did not like the precedent that at the “first opportunity to follow those rules, [the city says], ‘Oops, we’re not doing it.’”

Commissioner Craig Johns tried to find a middle ground, asking, “Is there any way we could accept the staff’s suggestion [and approve the rezoning], but make a statement we’re never going to do this again?” But there was not.

Sottile and other planning staff members warned that there might not be time to organize community meetings and meet legal requirements for advertising them in time for the review process. But what is required and what is optional about that timeline was unclear. There also was some confusion about the length of a deferral the commission can request under the new code.

Commissioner Reed Haggard was the only “no” vote as the commission voted to recommend deferral until community meetings are held.

After the vote, Frostbaum apologized to Misiura, saying, “I’m sorry if this is going to cause a hardship, but this is what the code says.”

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