Zoning alert system sparks controversy
by Nikki Wiley
August 05, 2013 11:53 PM | 2437 views | 9 9 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Bob Ott
Bob Ott
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Carol Brown
Carol Brown
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MARIETTA — A leader of an east Cobb civic group wants to see the county implement a system of notifying neighborhoods about zoning cases in the area, but at least one county commissioner says the cost is greater than the benefit.

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.

Comments
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anonymous
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August 06, 2013
Carol claims to want to de-politicize zoning, but the NNI will do the opposite. Right now, information about zoning applications is equally available to anybody and everybody. Carol's proposal establishes criteria to make some people eligible, and other people ineligible. The NNI is really about her political squabbles with other neighborhood representatives in her area.

And incidentally, the NNI has nothing to do with the problem of secret modifications after the rezoning has been completed. The NNI will neither help nor hurt that problem.
Pay attention
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August 06, 2013
When there are changes to be made re a zoning, a sign is placed on the property to let us know.

A hearing date is usually also noted on the zoning sign. A call to the County code enforcement dept will tell you what's the upcoming re-zoning is all about.

If you don't want to be bothered or spending time doing research, and if you are fortunate to live in an area where "someone" else does the work you will soon know what this rezoning is all about.

Many people really don't care unless the zoning is a change from residential to commercial. Or, better yet - changing to have 25 cats running all over the neighborhood (not four).
Just Wait
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August 06, 2013
She just looks like the type of person you can never make happy.
anonymous
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August 06, 2013
The NNI is needed to stop the continual "minor changes to be approved by the local Commissioner".

There is no guideline in the County Code or Ordinances that details what constitutes a minor change.

There have been after zoning meetings where a Commissioner has waived sidewalks or traffic lights for a cash donation to the general fund or other fund, where a developed was given additional time to complete projects, or alter the landscaping, even though the approved zoning stated otherwise.

There is no procedure where affected homeowners even are made aware of these so called minor changes. And to make the situation worse the County does not follow up on a development to ensure that all zoning stipulations are met unless it directly applies to the certificate of occupancy.

The only way the inspect is if a homeowner makes a formal complaint and then the local Commissioner can still affect the outcome.

If you trust your local Commissioner to look out for your neighborhoods best interest then sit back and let them, but I don't and I won't. Demand that your neighborhood be included in the NNI and that the BOC adopt and fund it.
ole man
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August 06, 2013
I's the "and fund it" part is a major problem with the NNI concept. Each Commissioner already has an email list and news letter. If you want information it is available. Creating and maintaining a special list does not seem necessary.
Craig Kootsillas
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August 06, 2013
I have asked for and read every document the county possesses regarding this initiative and there are no provisions in it that deal with either "Minor Modifications" or "Administrative Changes".

This IS NOT a solution to that very real problem.

I have discussed a solution with Keli Gambrill which is to require Commissioners and staff to inform all involved in the zoning of any changes made after approval of a plan.

The most serious problem with this plan is that commissioners must approve anyone wanting to participate -- much like the attempt to keep Lance Lamberton off the SPLOST oversight committee.

Additional staff?
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August 06, 2013
Its as simple as sending a list of the few zoning cases by email every month. The list can be catagorized by location. There is no reason that can't be done for little or no cost.
Tammy Osborne
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August 13, 2013
Fair Oaks Community - Who actually gets the email updates on zoning changes, etc. how can we get the information trickled down to the actual property owners it affects in the first damn place!!
Tammy Osborne
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August 13, 2013
Fair Oaks Community - Dobbins District 4 - Marietta

How can information on zoning changes and revisions trick down to the actual Community Activist and property owners without getting a surprise announcement the day its in affect. Who is responsible for the communication of all these plans coming up? This Community is in dire straights and needs funds for improving this neighborhood, schools, community center, playing field, library and roads. But by the time word is out of even a Town Hall meeting, its on the very day of the gathering, no time for us to get the word out and plan rides for goodness sakes.
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