When property owners want to use land or buildings in a way not specifically 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.
That process allows neighbors to speak their mind on the issue at hand and see the rationale behind a decision made by the boards.
But sometimes what is approved in a public meeting can change in the weeks or months following.
Rezonings can be passed subject to any minor modifications approved by the county commissioner who represents that area.
Minor changes are needed because developers may encounter unexpected situations, said Bob Ott, who represents southeast Cobb on the Board of Commissioners.
Requesting a re-zoning can be a lengthy and expensive process with fees levied for applications and cases being held for sometimes months by commissioners as they gather public input. Minor modifications are a way to prevent a developer or property owner from having to restart the process, Ott said.
But the problem has been a difference in opinion on what is minor.
“Everybody kind of said, ‘OK, what are the changes that caused you the most headaches?’” Ott said.
Still, the new rules aren’t law. County commissioners aren’t considering adding them to the county’s code. They are simply guidelines.
Ott said that gives flexibility and allows “the homeowner groups to feel comfortable.”
It’s a practice that invites trouble, said Kelli Gambrill, of the west Cobb watch group People Looking After Neighborhoods.
Gambrill said while she isn’t accusing commissioners of participating in backroom deals, the ability to make changes to a zoning case that had to be approved by a majority lends itself to trouble.
She’s questioning the legality of those modifications.
“Are minor modifications legal?” Gambrill said. “The reason I ask that question is because if it takes three board members to approve the stipulations then how can one undo them?”
County legal staff sees it differently. Minor modifications are legal because when commissioners vote to approve a zoning case they are also authorizing the district commissioner to oversee those minor changes, said Robert Quigley, county spokesman.
Rezoning cases near established neighborhoods often include a laundry list of stipulations the developer must meet. That can be anything from requiring a large landscape buffer protecting existing homeowners to limiting the hours and days of construction.
“Questions have persisted over the definition of minor modifications, and we have found it difficult to articulate this definition,” said Mike Terry, planning commission member. “Recently, the county legal staff and the zoning staff have worked with the Planning Commission to clarify this issue.”
Instead of restricting what a district commissioner can do, zoning staff have provided a list of what they cannot do. The guidelines were used for the first time at Monday’s Planning Commission meeting.
Commissioners can’t 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.
Gambrill would prefer to see the practice thrown out completely and said she’s experienced the aftermath first hand.
When a condominium-style senior living community was set to be built behind her west Cobb home, the rezoning was approved with a condition that the developer construct a 40-foot landscape buffer to maintain the privacy of current homeowners.
That went away when the developer opted instead to build the community in the style of townhomes with personal back yards.
“Sure enough, the 40-foot buffer was supposed to be all trees, but they decided grass was a buffer,” Gambrill said.
Rezonings can be difficult for the average person to understand, Gambrill said, because the process involves legal jargon and technicalities.
She tells homeowners who are concerned about a zoning not to take the county’s word but to keep in mind anything can happen.