The process in question allows a district commissioner to revise a zoning decision by the Board of Commissioners after commissioners vote on that decision. The change is made by the district commissioner in secret and without a public vote. Commissioners call it a “minor modification,” but the problem is the county has no definition for what is minor, said Ron Sifen of Vinings, president of the Cobb County Civic Coalition.
Commissioner Bob Ott said he’s right.
“Back when Sam Olens was chairman, the county attempted to try to come up with a definition (of minor) and it didn’t come up with one that everybody agreed on,” Ott said.
Last week, Sifen and Tricia Clements, the group’s secretary, approached the Board of Commissioners with concerns and explained why they felt changes to the minor modifications policy were needed.
Sifen and Clements highlighted the case of a 2005 vote by commissioners to approve a new development called Jamerson Estates, a wooded property upstream from the Country Meadows neighborhood.
Country Meadows had a history of flooding and when neighbors heard Jamerson Estates was to be built upstream, they objected, Sifen said. The developer and Country Meadows neighborhood ironed out a compromise after the developer agreed to install two storm water detention ponds on the site.
Through open records requests, Sifen and Clements discovered the January after commissioners had approved the development in September 2005, the developer asked for permission not to build the two storm water ponds.
A “fee in lieu of detention” allows developers to pay a fee to the county rather than build a detention pond. Sifen said this is the vastly preferred option by developers since the fee to the county is $19,000 compared to the hundreds of thousands it would cost to build the detention ponds.
In their review of public records, Sifen and Clements found that the county denied “the fee in lieu of detention” request on Feb. 2, 2006. Later that same month, records show county Chairman Tim Lee, the district commissioner at the time, signed onto a new site plan for Jamerson Estates, removing both detention ponds as a “minor modification.”
Sifen said after the Jamerson Estates development was built, six of the flood-damaged houses downstream in the Country Meadows neighborhood were purchased by the county with the use of a FEMA grant to the tune of more than $1 million.
“That was the neighborhood’s concern,” Sifen said. “They already had flooding. They wanted detention facilities. That was the key issue. They were forced to move out of their homes. They lost their homes. And those were just the homes that were destroyed bad enough that they were forced to move.”
Sifen said he’s not saying the Jamerson development is the direct cause of the downstream neighborhood’s flooding.
“We can’t say ‘this’ caused ‘this’ damage to ‘this’ house,” Sifen said.
“But holy cow. I think the overall situation is pretty conclusive this minor modification was inappropriate.”
Homes were to be purchased anyway
Lee remained silent as Sifen and Clements made their presentation to the board last week, but he told the MDJ on Monday the group’s argument is wrong since the county had planned to purchase the six homes before Jamerson Estates was built.
In addition, Lee said he moved the two detention ponds from the site to a location downstream because county storm water engineers advised they would be more effective there.
Sifen said last fall Rob Hosack, the county’s community development director, presented language attempting to define a minor modification. For instance, one of the points says a minor modification does not include increasing the density of a residential project or the overall square footage of a nonresidential project.
Ott said there was just not enough support for the list to pass.
“I was willing to support the list but the majority of the board was not,” Ott said.
Ott said he has taken Hosack’s list defining what does not constitute a minor modification, a list he helped Hosack create, and requires it to be used when properties in his east Cobb district are rezoned.
Lee explained why he believes defining a minor modification was unnecessary.
“Minor modification is subjective by definition, and when you try to put a definitive definition to a subjective process you defeat the purpose of being subjective,” Lee said. “If I’m making a subjective opinion as to whether or not my kids are doing the right thing or not, but then I write a guideline as to what’s right and wrong, then I take away the whole subjectivity.”
Sifen said his group is not asking commissioners to do away with the minor modification process. He pointed to how DeKalb County handles the issue.
“One thing in DeKalb’s ordinance that’s fantastic is when they do a minor modification, there is a required public disclosure, even if it’s really minor, and the community has a brief time period where they can have input or object,” Sifen said. “They’re not trying to keep that decision secret and to prevent any public input. That’s how it should work. So we’re not trying to say ‘end minor modifications.’ We understand there may be appropriate situations where that’s needed. But do it something like the way DeKalb does it. That’s reasonable.”