After fears that a new ordinance could give the city manager the exclusive power to approve some zoning variances without public notice, the Sandy Springs City Council passed a reworded version that says it only applies to minor changes in sidewalk and road projects.

The confusion was based on the use of the word ‘variance,’ which city officials say was intended to mean design modifications in a project, not variances from the city’s zoning code.

“Language is important. Words are important,” Mayor Rusty Paul said. “The confusion is something I regret and we will try to avoid nomenclature issues going forward.”

“I think this is a way for us to be more efficient and more effective to what we do,” District 5 City Councilmember Tibby DeJulio said.

The amendment with the changed language was approved unanimously by members of the council at a Nov. 19 meeting.

The amendment, which falls under the city’s ordinance code, allows the city manager to approve design modifications to public works projects without public notice as long as the modifications are within the existing or proposed public right of way, a type of easement reserved over sidewalks, pathways and roads by the city.

The amendment says that “these design modifications sometimes vary from certain standards in the Sandy Springs Development Code” – the city’s zoning code — to mitigate damages to a property, such as adjusting a sidewalk to save a tree or preventing the costly relocation of a utility pole.

But city officials say that those “certain standards” are not zoning code requirements, and thus the city manager is not gaining the ability to approve zoning variances.

“What [zoning variances] are referring to deals with buildings and land use, which is different,” city spokesperson Sharon Kraun said. “Both use the word ‘variance,’ but when you read the ordinance, it is clear on the use of the word — to vary the existing design for public works projects in the right of way.”

Lee also said design medications will not trigger zoning variances.

“This is the city designing its own right of way,” Lee said. “We are not changing zoning laws; we are changing designs.”

DeJulio used the example that if a design for a city sidewalk proposed the sidewalk plows through a tree, the city manager can approve a modification in the design that would move the sidewalk to instead go around the tree to preserve it.

“Most of the projects we are talking about have to do with projects that have been approved on an agenda in the public,” City Attorney Dan Lee said.

Lee also said the amendment will not allow the manager to expand a project in any way.

“It would never be an expansion of a project,” Lee said. “It would be the reduction of something that had been approved by the council.”

Previously, the changes would go before the council after a 2010 amendment stopped them from gong through the variance process through the Board of Appeals.

“As projects…are presented to and reviewed by the mayor and City Council before adoption, any such project that may require a variance can be identified early in the process and reviewed by the City Council for approval, instead of then going before the Board of Appeals, saving both time and financial consideration in the process,” the 2010 amendment read.

Any changes on city-owned property for city projects will still require public notice and to be presented as a vote by the council.

On Nov. 5, an amendment to the ordinance code was presented to the council that would allow the city manager to approve design modifications on the city’s own projects involving both public right of way and city property without public notice or hearings.

The amendment caused both council confusion and public concern, resulting in the vote being removed from the agenda and moved to the Nov. 19 meeting.

“I think about every member of council had the same issue with the language,” District 6 City Councilmember Andy Bauman said at the Nov. 19 meeting.

Interim City Manager Peggy Merriss said it is not out of the ordinary for a city to have this type of ordinance in place.

“That is how it would be handled almost everywhere,” Merriss said.

Shea Roberts, a resident and zoning attorney who also is running against Deborah Silcox for the District 52 seat in the Georgia House of Representatives, spoke in opposition to the original ordinance, but spoke in support of the ordinance amendment with the changed language at the Nov. 19 meeting.

“I have reviewed the revised language and because it now restricts solely to the right of way, I am not going to object to it tonight,” Roberts said.

But Roberts still argued that the ordinance was, in practical effect, a zoning code change and should have been given full public process as such and the city should have been more transparent.

“The minimal manner in which this item was published to the public was totally insufficient,” Roberts said.

“Sometimes the minimal notice you’re providing the public about significant changes and the way things operate is fostering distrust within the community.”

At the Nov. 5 meeting, Lee said that only minimal notice and discussion was required because it would be an administrative change.

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