As the new Sandy Springs zoning code heads into its six-month update, the Planning Commission largely backed community concerns at its March 27 meeting. Among its recommendations to the City Council: expanding lot coverage limits on large parcels; keeping large setbacks for schools and churches; cutting a compromise on grading and retaining walls in residential setbacks; and denying more retail uses in the southern Roswell Road corridor.

The commission also recommended further study of zoning to allow and ensure “higher-quality” extended-stay hotels, something the city planning staff is trying to squeeze into the code as three such hotels are looking for local spots.

Ronda Smith, president of the Sandy Springs Council of Neighborhoods, advised the commission that the “overarching connection” among community concerns was quality of life. It’s an approach the commission stuck to in its two-and-a-half-hour discussion and votes.

Besides the hot-button issues, the update to the Development Code contains dozens of other noncontroversial changes, such as fixing typos and rezoning some incorrectly zoned parcels. The code went into effect in September and is getting a routine six-month update for error and anything that doesn’t appear to be working in practice.

The commission makes non-binding advisory recommendations to the City Council. The council is scheduled to review the proposed changes in a non-voting “work session” on April 3, followed by a formal vote to adopt changes on April 17. For an overview of the code changes, see the city’s website here. Comments on any aspect of the Development Code can be emailed to the city planning staff at pz@sandyspringsga.gov

Lot coverage restrictions

A major point of contention has been lot coverage restrictions, which are new to the city zoning code. The idea is limiting the amount of hard surfaces that rainwater cannot penetrate to reduce runoff that damages streams and rivers – a major environmental problem in the city. The restrictions are certain percentages that vary among zoning districts.

Criticism from residents focused on the restrictions for “Residential Estate” districts 1 and 2, meaning minimum lot size of 1 and 2 acres. In the new code, RE-1 is allowed 20 percent lot coverage and RE-2 is allowed 15 percent.

In response to criticism from RE-2 owners, city staff propose increasing the limits and adding a bonus for stormwater runoff mitigation measures. RE-1 would be 25 percent and up to 30 percent with mitigations; RE-2 would be 20 percent up to 25 percent.

Some RE-2 owners still complain that different percentages are unfair and “discriminatory,” while city staff pointed out that percentages are relative and mean much larger absolute numbers on larger lots. The owners got a sympathetic ear from the commission, though members struggled with solutions. A proposal to increase all lot coverages by 3 percent was discarded, and staff said a proposal to somehow exempt long-term property owners might not be legal.

In the end, the commission recommended – in a 5-to-1 vote — approval of the proposed lot coverage changes, but boosting RE-2 to a 30 percent maximum.

That change did not resolve a complaint from architect Bill Caldwell that he cannot build an addition on a client’s house in an RD-27 district due to lot coverage restrictions, now set at 25 percent. The proposed code update would increase that to 30 percent and up to 35 percent with mitigations.

Civic uses setbacks

A proposal to decrease the current 100-foot setbacks for schools and places of worship from residential property was recommended for denial.

City staff said the idea was to simplify the setback system by making it more like a “transitional buffer” section of the code. But residents thought it was influenced by various plans that could expand church and school uses. City staff said such institutions are covered by use permits and the reduced setbacks would apply only to new buildings or modifications to the permits.

“I think we’ve got a really good protocol for neighborhoods and communities in place now and don’t see a reason to change it,” said commissioner Dave Nickles.

Southern Roswell Road retail

An effort to add “boutique retail” to zoning in southern Roswell Road’s new “Neighborhood Village Character Area” was quickly shot down by the commission.

In the process of writing the zoning code, city staff and area residents worked on a new “Office Neighborhood” designation there that specifically excluded retail to avoid traffic impacts. However, the city now proposes changing that to include retail up to 2,500 square feet.

City staff said the “Neighborhood Village” area in the land-use plan that informs zoning calls for retail. Matt Bowman, owner a business called Traditional Trees, said he wants to open a “farm stand market type business” in that area.

Commissioner Reed Haggard said the public comments amounted to a couple of business owners versus entire neighborhoods. Commissioner Craig Johns also was not swayed by arguments for a walkable area of boutique shops.

“To paraphrase a politician, I’ve lived and worked in New York City, and this is no New York City,” Johns said.

Grading and retaining wall setbacks

The code currently does not allow grading or retaining walls in residential setbacks, but the city staff wants to loosen that after finding many problems in practice with projects not having realistic room to work.

The city proposes a system that would allow grading and walls within certain rear setbacks in various residential zoning districts. And grading and walls would be allowed within side setbacks in all but RE-1 and RE-2 residential districts to certain degrees. In most cases, they would require tree-plantings as mitigations.

The commission struggled with the complicated issue. At one point, it almost adopted a proposal from Karen Meinzen McEnerny, a Cherokee Park Civic Association representative and former city councilmember, to allow greater rear setback encroachment in exchange for tighter side sidebacks, with various exceptions. But builders and architects in the audience said the proposal did not make enough practical construction space, and city staff said it lacked “simplicity.”

The commission approved the staff’s recommendation on a side setback system, but said the rear setbacks should stay as they are. That continued to cause some grumbling from the audience about impracticality.

Extended-stay hotels

The city is under a 60-day moratorium on hotel applications, approved by the City Council, as staff cope with what Community Development Director Ginger Sottile said are three such hotels looking to build here.

She said the city currently has several such hotels “that generally have code enforcement issues associated with them,” so staff members are trying to develop language in the zoning code to set standards for “high quality” versions.

In a late agenda addition that appeared to surprise the commission, city staff presented essentially a bullet-point list of extended-stay hotel attributes and a suggestion they go in Perimeter Center-area zoning districts. The overall idea was forcing them to be more expensive and higher-end.

Commission chair Lane Frostbaum said the proposal appeared “arbitrary and capricious…just looked like it was thrown together,” but agreed with the rest of the commission to recommend the City Council further study the concept of ensuring “higher-quality” extended-stay hotels.

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