Carol Brown, president of Canton Road Neighbors, told the Board of Commissioners in early July she would like to see a Neighborhood Notification Initiative implemented that would encourage neighborhoods to voluntarily register with the county to be given information about planning and zonings that would affect their community.
“If you put a standard in place for notifying people who have signed up ... it will de-politicize the way the information is sent out to people,” said Brown, who is a researcher for the nonprofit Environmental Health News.
Zoning cases go before the county planning commission and Board of Commissioners when a property owner or developer seeks to do something with land that is not allowed under its current designation.
Brown fears the proposal isn’t going anywhere.
“I think that the Board of Commissioners and the existing civic group leaders are satisfied with the current status quo and don’t want change,” Brown said.
The county’s planning department will make a recommendation on the proposal to the Board of Commissioners at its work session at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 27, at 100 Cherokee St., in Marietta.
Concerns over cost, politicization
Commissioner Bob Ott, who represents southeast Cobb, says he’s waiting to hear the recommendation from staff, but he’s concerned about the cost.
“Especially in light of the fact that I think a lot of what Carol would like to see done could be done using some of the existing things we have in place,” Ott said.
He touted the updates each commissioner emails to registered constituents every Friday. Ott plans to distribute a series of updates that contain information about how the zoning process works in Cobb.
Ott also has different requirements for zoning applications than other district commissioners. He requires the applicant to meet with homeowners and other interested groups before going in front of the planning commission or Board of Commissioners.
Brown’s proposal includes hiring additional staff in the planning department to operate the program.
Rob Hosack, director of the county’s Community Development Agency, says the department isn’t understaffed for the projects it takes on now, but might need more employees if the initiative is approved.
“My concern is that we’re adding a layer of bureaucracy and cost that I don’t think is needed,” Ott said.
Still, Brown says her proposal is one of the least expensive of its kind, though she knows tea party members and other fiscal conservatives feel strongly about not spending in excess.
“To run a county this size effectively, you can’t cut corners for too long,” Brown said.
She maintains the status quo isn’t enough.
“Nobody that seems to object to this seems to understand that whatever they are doing at this point in time, eventually they’re going to be replaced on the Board of Commissioners (by someone) who may not be as good about notifying neighborhoods,” Brown said.
Along that same line of reasoning, Ott says just because the board changes policy now doesn’t mean that a future board won’t reverse that policy.
There’s nothing in the county code that lays out exactly how commissioners should inform the public about zoning changes, she said.
“They can notify you or they can ignore you,” Brown said. “And that is not right.”
Brown says objections to her proposal are political. Politicians, civic groups and homeowners associations with influence want to stay in power, she says.
“I think the objections to it are political and fairly self-serving and people are going to use cost as an excuse,” she said.
Ott turns that accusation back on Brown and says she is using the proposal to give her organization more influence.
Brown was to meet with all of the district commissioners about the proposal before presenting it to the full board, but canceled her meeting with Ott.
“She is treating me differently,” Ott said.
Brown only met with him, Ott said, after she was told she had to talk to each commissioner before her presentation.
Resident says access isn’t the issue
Keli Gambrill, of the People Looking After Neighborhoods group and a possible challenger to Commissioner Helen Goreham, says zoning information is readily available. It’s how things can change after a vote takes place that is at issue.
Anyone can access information on the county’s website where zonings are posted, Gambrill said, and those who do not have the Internet can call the planning department for information.
“I can’t give you an example of something I can’t access on the Internet,” said Gambrill, who lives in west Cobb.
She supports people being involved in county government and says, for the most part, they are.
“The neighborhoods are involved,” Gambrill said. “We don’t have to write new code. We don’t have to hire new employees.”
Gambrill finds fault with what can happen after zonings are approved. Sometimes the planning commission or Board of Commissioners will approve a zoning application subject to minor changes to be approved by the district commissioner.
Those minor changes aren’t always so small, Gambrill said. They can mean the difference between a 20-foot tree buffer blocking an existing neighborhood from a new development, she said, to a 5-foot buffer or even no buffer at all.
“The homeowner doesn’t know until they say, ‘Hey. They weren’t supposed to remove those trees,’” Gambrill said.
Neighborhood notifications a trend
Brown isn’t the first to think it’s a good idea to notify communities directly of changes that might affect them.
Athens-Clarke County, about 75 miles east of Cobb, has the initiative in place and 35 neighborhoods have taken advantage of the service, Brown said.
It’s more than just being informed. It’s about creating a sense of community.
“I believe, personally, that if you have stronger neighborhoods, it will encourage more neighborly kinds of behaviors, perhaps getting to know who your neighbors are (and) checking on the elderly in the neighborhood,” Brown said. “It might promote more neighborhood watch groups.”
Other forms of the program have popped up across the country.
Atlanta has had Neighborhood Planning Units in place since 1974 with 25 neighborhoods involved. That program is more rigorously structured as units have their own by-laws and are assigned a city of Atlanta planning employee that attends monthly meetings to answer questions.
Brown likens her proposal to the Cobb County Police Department’s Police Email Notification System, more commonly known as PENS. Cobb police precincts email registered residents updates on crime and events in their neighborhoods.