Plans to pave over a pond to build a parking lot as part of a major Perimeter Center retail redevelopment hit a huge wall after it was discovered zoning conditions dating back more than two decades say the pond must remain.

Developer Branch Properties has to decide whether it wants to invest in a complete rezoning of the site that fits in with a strict Perimeter Center Overlay to allow the pond to be paved over.

Laurel David, attorney for Branch, said Branch is considering its options.

“The property is zoned C-1 [commercial], but zoning conditions from a 1996 zoning were put in the wrong file and have recently come to light,” David said in an email. “The 1996 zoning is conditioned on a site plan and shows four restaurants and detention pond. A zoning modification approval by mayor and City Council would be needed in order to redevelop the site as Branch envisions.”

The 1996 site plan for nearly 40 acres in Perimeter Center between Ashford-Dunwoody Road, at right, and Ridgeview Drive to the left, shows four restaurants and the detention pond adjacent to Ashford-Dunwoody Road. A proposal by Branch properties to redevelop the site with an anchor grocery store, new retail and a potential new hotel hit a wall when 22-year-old zoning conditions for the site state the detention pond cannot be paved over. (City of Dunwoody)

Branch Ashwood Associates, a division of Branch Properties, was set to go before the Dunwoody Zoning Board of Appeals on Feb. 7 with its project to build a new “prototype” grocery store, retail buildings, a gas station and a bank on about 10 acres at Ashford-Dunwoody and Meadow Lane roads. The property is where P.F. Chang’s is currently located and where the now closed McCormick & Schmick’s Seafood Restaurant and Brio Tuscan Grille restaurant were located.

Branch is seeking variances from the ZBA to reduce setbacks to allow the new retail buildings to be built close to the right-of-way along Ashford-Dunwoody and Meadow Lane roads to engage pedestrians and cyclists on sidewalks and to allow a future commuter trail. Branch did not require a complete rezoning of the property because it is zoned commercial, allowing for the redevelopment it envisions for the site.

The plans also called for filling the detention pond on the site, which serves as a green space in an otherwise dense area and is a favorite place for Canada geese. By paving over the pond, the property owners would be able to build a parking lot behind the retail buildings. Those proposals were allowed under the commercial zoning.

But those plans could be withdrawn after the city informed Branch last week the 10-acre site was zoned with conditions by DeKalb County in 1996 as part of a larger, nearly 40-acre property between Ashford-Dunwoody Road and Ridgeview Drive. The 1996 site plan for the 10-acre property shows four restaurants and the detention pond.

An illustration of the proposed redevelopment at Ashford-Dunwoody and Meadow Lane roads and Ashwood Parkway that includes a grocery store, restaurants and retail. A new hotel could also be part of the future development. Plans for this project are now threatened after zoning conditions from 1996 say the pond cannot be filled to make way for a parking lot. (City of Dunwoody)

The larger property was zoned with 10 site-specific conditions, including the types of signage, architectural design and the size of the parking lot. The fifth condition states, “The present detention pond on the subject property will be preserved as a water feature incorporated into the retail component of this project.”

Changing the site-specific plan to allow for the paving over of the pond means Branch would have to go through a complete rezoning process, which includes a public community meeting, the Planning Commission and the City Council. Rezoning applications can take about four months to complete. The area is part of the Perimeter Center Overlay approved by the City Council in 2017, which includes mandates on street design, sidewalks, multi-use paths, open space and building heights and designs.

Community Development Director Richard McLeod said the site-specific zoning conditions for the Branch property were only located late last week. In a Jan. 10 email obtained via an open records request, McLeod informed the mayor, the City Council and other city officials that it took his department a while to find the earlier zoning conditions because the property is tied to the larger parcel and not listed under the addresses submitted by Branch to the city for review by the ZBA.

“The owner and their attorney were under the impression that the property was zoned C-1 with no conditions. However, we searched the files that DeKalb County gave us and there was no address that matched the site,” he wrote in the email.

“We called DeKalb County twice and they did not have any records that they could give to us. After a thorough search, we found the case under a different address that was attached to the zoning for a larger parcel that included the building to the west of the site zoned [office industrial],” the email states.

In an interview, McLeod said he was “surprised” that Branch did not know the zoning conditions for its property.

“I was a little taken aback they didn’t know,” he said.

McLeod and city planners met Jan. 11 with Branch representatives to give them the news. He said Branch could decide to build restaurants on the site like what is there now or seek to rezone the property to Perimeter Center-2 within the Perimeter Center Overlay.

“They have to decide if they want to rezone … or put restaurants in those spaces again,” he said.

Branch’s original plans included tearing down restaurant buildings there now, including P.F. Chang’s. The proposed project included a 25,440 square foot anchor grocery store on the site. Besides the grocery store, the site plan includes a 2,800-square-foot bank building; a 5,411-square-foot convenience store and gas station with a total of eight gas pumps; and five new retail buildings ranging in size from 8,400 square feet to 6,000 square feet. For comparison, the P.F. Chang’s building is 7,666 square feet, according to DeKalb County property tax records.

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