Cobb has long allowed commissioners to make minor modifications after a rezoning vote to projects in their districts as a way to ease burdens on developers when unexpected problems or needs arise.
Minor modifications are items that can be changed after a vote, usually with the approval of the commissioner who represents the district, and can be things like changing the orientation of a building or paint color.
In an effort to increase transparency, the Planning Commissioners and the Board of Commissioners have for the last month been abiding by a set of guidelines recommended by county staff for what should not be included as minor.
County staff recommended in a minor modification that commissioners should not increase the density or size of a project, reduce the size of an approved buffer, move a building closer to a property line, increase the height of a building or move the entrance to a different roadway.
Still, commissioners opted during a work session on Tuesday not to adopt guidelines into county code or mandate the guidelines be used. Individual commissioners will be able to decide if they are necessary for a given zoning request.
Bob Ott, representing southeast Cobb, said the discussion came up because of a discrepancy between what staff and the county attorney recommended.
Recourse for homeowners
Some civic groups argue that minor modifications eliminate the transparency provided in an open meeting and can undo requirements residents lobbied for.
When property owners or developers want to use land or buildings in a way not allowed under county ordinances, they file for a rezoning and make their case first to the Cobb Planning Commission and then to the Board of Commissioners, which makes the final decision.
This process allows neighbors and concerned residents to speak their mind and understand the decision made by commissioners at zoning meetings that Chairman Tim Lee said can sometimes be “very emotional.”
There is sometimes disagreement about what can be considered minor, as the county has no formal definition.
It takes away the nearby homeowner’s ability to speak out, said Kelli Gambrill, of the People Looking After Neighborhoods watchdog group based in northwest Cobb.
“We understand things happen,” Gambrill said. “We understand you find rock or something that requires slight changes, but as long as that doesn’t take away the adjacent homeowner’s right to appeal, that’s the question that has yet to be answered.”
Sometimes, commissioners will tell nearby property owners that landscaping buffers or density restrictions will be required to protect their property values and quality of life, but minor modifications can give a commissioner the chance to go back on their word, Gambrill said.
“The things that have been ‘minor modified’ are the things that have been promised to adjacent property owners to quote-unquote protect them,” Gambrill said.
She says minor modifications give a district commissioner the power to change things staff, like those in the storm water and transportation departments, have required.
“Is it the place of the district commissioner to make changes to storm water when they are not educated, qualified, whatever word you want to put in there?” Gambrill said.
Up to a judgment call
It’s up to district commissioners to make a judgment call, Lee said, and they have shown “great constraint.”
If a commissioner shows poor judgment, Lee said it can be corrected every four years at the polls.
“I trust the judgment of the district commissioners, current and the ones that I think this community would elect in the future,” Lee said.
Minor modifications have grown in complexity, said Rob Hosack, the county’s community development director, during a presentation to commissioners.
“These conditions come up usually because of something that was not anticipated at the time that the zoning was prepared,” Hosack said.
He recommended against creating a formal definition and moving forward on a case-by-case basis. There could be numerous “innocuous” changes, Hosack said, that developers might request that might not be included in a definition.
If developers want to change something that a commissioner doesn’t think is minor, they are sent back to the Planning Commission to restart the process and seek a variance from county code.
Commissioner Helen Goreham, who represents northwest Cobb, says the county’s process works.
“I’d be very happy if we would run business like we have, and I know that there are some citizens groups out there that feel differently, for whatever reason, but why fix it if it ain’t broke?” Goreham said.
Commissioner JoAnn Birrell, representing northeast Cobb, said she is fine leaving it out of the county’s code, or including it, but wants to see consistency.
Southwest Cobb Commissioner Lisa Cupid asked for more information about the process.