Friday, December 19, 2014

Do Advocates for New Cities Understand Zoning?

There are several pro-city incorporation groups that have formed in DeKalb County, GA, recently and they may be looking for legislative sponsorship of their plans in the upcoming session at the Gold Dome in Atlanta this coming January.  There has been a bit of a city-frenzy that has also caused existing cities to start looking at their own long-term growth plans in terms of annexations.  Many residents have been concerned that they must side with "someone" or they might get "left behind" as Sen. Fran Millar (R-Dunwoody) called it.

So, the groups are currently attempting to prove their worth to the Intergovernmental Affairs Committee, which has taken the initiative to assist in the carving up and handing out of the DeKalb County pie.  It seems as though the county will be gobbled up before it erodes completely as was the case in Clayton County not too long ago.  Both Clayton and Dekalb, part of the greater Atlanta metro, were facing serious allegations by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) in the recent past, but Clayton's board lost the district's accreditation.  DeKalb only came close.

But, DeKalb is not out of the woods, yet.  The "divisions in the county" are part of the SACS analysis about what went wrong in the first place.  So, the legislators, who claim they support the Governor and his decision to replace some on the board, have determined that the best thing to do is to make those divisions permanent.  One would have expected them to read the full SACS report and work toward actually fixing the problem and encourage working together for the sake of the children.  But, this is DeKalb and things just don't work the way one would normally expect anywhere else.
Former Tucker-Northlake Representative Kevin Levitas
is no longer on the board now that it has been renamed
"Lavista Hills."  Is this a sign of trouble or is it part of a
strategy designed to remove the element of government
for the government instead of "for the people?"

With the help of some former legislators like Kevin Levitas, who represented Tucker - Northlake at one point and now favors a rival proposal for a city named "Lakeside" or "Lavista Hills," new  cities are going to end up on ballots possibly this coming May.  Residents, mostly unaware of the impact, will be asked to vote for inclusion or exclusion if they are personally located inside the boundaries.  Nevermind that they may have never heard of such a community or have any idea what is in the proposed charter documents.  They will be asked to vote based on their own reasons which might be correct or completely off  base.  And they will not have any details about what will happen to those left outside their boundaries, either.   When in self-preservation mode, these consequences too often come as after-thoughts.

Levitas, coincidentally, was also a member of the Tucker Civic Group and the Northlake Business Association.  The latter is the same one that disagreed with the "compromise map" that he had  personally agreed to only hours  prior to their opinion being sought.  He was also on the Tucker Business Alliance, the group that has favored the city of Tucker and that was involved with the city feasibility report that was conducted by Georgia Tech in 2006-07.  It showed Tucker was feasible as a city back then, but the community decided at the time to hold off on incorporating.  Now, Lakeside / Lavista Hills is pushing Tucker or threatening to divide it for good.

Levitas is not the only one wearing multiple hats in the group.  Michelle Penkava has been listed as the contact in the state documents for Tucker Together and Tucker 2015. She also is in control of the Tucker Parent Council, which has not held elections for its board of directors in the past three or more years nor has it posted contact information on its website or on the school system website. She was also the finance manager for a school board member who was the PTA President for the rival Lakeside, the same one that she now claims she is standing up against in an effort to preserve Tucker.

The first group to propose a city based entirely on a community that does not know its own boundaries and cannot decide what to call themselves, was announced in 2013 as "Lakeside City" and they touted that they would be required to take on three services.  Parks, Police and Zoning /Code Enforcement  were the three they thought they would start with.  Later they discussed "Paving" but now that they have had most of their roads paved by the county at large, they have been keeping quiet on that one.  They have spoken a lot about police lately, although that was not their concern when they first started their community discussions. They made a big deal about needing a park in order to manage one, but they have since redrawn their boundaries and left most of the large Henderson Park on the outside of their map.  So, that leaves one other item:  Zoning, Permits and Code Enforcement.  They grouped these together as "Public Works."

Are they just trying to make all their services start with the same letter, or are they really this confused about what each of these things actually involves?  And, if they are confused,  how will we know if they provided correct estimates when they worked with Carl Vinson business colleges to determine city feasibility?

What's worse than a misunderstanding of expected costs, is that there may be a misunderstanding about the actual requirements of the job and the important role it plays in the development of a safe and attractive community where people will want to live and where businesses will want to operate.

And, now more city groups are popping up and basically just copying the Lakeside  plan and putting it into their plans, too.  The main reason?  They all tell their audiences, "because it is one of the least expensive things a new city can provide while getting started."  So, essentially, because zoning is cheap on paper and sounds simple to the untrained layperson, it was service deemed to be good for starting a local government that no one asked for.

Zoning Nightmares Breed Need for More ...  
More Money, More Knowledge, More Time 
to Consider the Consequences of Decisions

We wonder if the new city committees have much insight or expertise on what a zoning board must really do and how the county has made major cutbacks in this area during the time of the recession, when there was little new construction going on and therefore the workload was light.

However, Get the Cell Out - ATL followers surely recall the big zoning issue that arose in 2011.  DeKalb County's school board approved large cell towers for 9 schools without much more knowledge or insight than the average layperson might have on the subject.

They also found themselves in quite a bit of trouble with their constituents over that approval, too.  Here are just some of the things that a county zoning official would have looked for that the average school board member would probably not know they should even be considering.  In fact, should we even want them to know about zoning when they were elected to focus on education anyway?  But, who will run for the city council where you live, if you are inside one on these maps?

Next time you hear a city advocate tell you or someone else about why they want "zoning" control.  Ask them about some of these issues so you can decide for yourself just how wise they are when they say they want to make these decision instead of letting the county handle it:

"The few, specific services that transfer are the ones we would know best 
how to govern for ourselves," says Jim, for the Tucker 2014 group.

What do our residents know about zoning for cell towers and what they should be looking our for when it comes to size, shape and placement of them, especially if they plan to allow them in residential areas or near schools?

The school board thought they knew what they were doing when they approved the old, outdated style of mounting hardware for cell towers that were being planned to go right next to elementary schools, high schools and one school for the disabled.  The outdated hardware had already been reviewed as insufficient by the telecom industry in certain high wind conditions.  And the weight allowed for the top of the tower (based on number of antennas and type of antenna) would have exceeded the maximum wind speed that the hardware would tolerate without fail.

When it was brought it to the attention of the school board members, they had no idea about the hardware issue.  Why?  Because they are not zoning experts.  They were willing to approve contracts based on the money without realizing that they were approving something that could potentially be a huge liability and could  result in an accidental or negligent death or injury lawsuit.

If the towers would have been built according to the old specs, then the laypeople on the board, who should have never been allowed to make zoning decisions, would have been at fault because they were willing to put a substandard structure next to an elementary school building, a busy road and nearby homes.

Another issue that came up was the standard set-back requirement for a cell tower.  The school board did not have any questions about that subject and approved plans to put the towers right next to the schools.   When local parents complained, the process went to the Planning and Zoning Department for review, but if we were all incorporated into cities, this issue would have been one for the city council to consider instead.

The county, which has a lot of experienced employees who know what to look for when approving or denying these type of applications, caught the error right away and returned the application as "incomplete" for a variety of items that were missing or against the existing zoning code.  But, the big error was that the cell tower plans did not follow the county's required set back of one and half times the height of the tower.  That means the school board was willing to violate the code in order to put towers with substandard hardware and too heavy of a load at the top right next to school buildings where children are attending school, well within the expected "fall zone."

The point is:  the average resident who steps up to run for city council seat may or may not be aware of what it takes to hold the office responsibly.  And, city advocates should not be simply "glossing over" the subject of zoning and using excuses about how it is a cheap thing to provide and then moving on to the next subject.   In reality, any of the county provided services could likely be provided in a "cheap" manner.

But, just because something appears cheap right now, does not mean it will remain that way.  And, just because some groups with experience can provide something in a quick or streamlined manner does not mean that a city created by "regular" people will be able to walk through the same steps and end up with the same quality of results.  Maybe they can do better, or maybe they will end up making decisions like the school board once did  - based on what they know and oblivious to what they don't know.

Zoning Isn't a Driver in New City Starts... so, What IS?

Do we really have an uprising of individual residents who want to take zoning away from the county so they can place it in their neighbors' hands?  (Or, one neighbor to represent 7,000 - 10,000 of them?)

Most people in our county don't even vote.  Are we really supposed to believe they are now suddenly aware of these types of administrative processing decisions that take place in our county every day so much that they want to control the entire process themselves?  We have nothing against local control if there is clearly a group of people who can show that they can do something better that would improve the overall quality of life for everyone affected.

So far we have only heard about the general desire to take away power or control from a perceived "other" group, but how will that shift of control benefit us? If we really want a better, stronger county we have to realize that we are the only ones who can decide for ourselves if the solutions before us will really be better, or if they could potentially be worse.  And the "trust me" sales pitches coming from politicians have to be thrown out if they aren't backed up with real information and details here.

This isn't Sandy Springs.  But, this idea of keeping the details quiet so that the public doesn't  have any reason to doubt you is something in the Oliver Porter book on incorporation that is discussed near the very beginning. The city groups aren't the only ones who know how to read.  If you are truly curious about their plans, we suggest you order a used copy on Amazon and follow along, chapter by chapter, with what is unfolding in front of you.

But, this isn't the same year it was when Sandy Springs started and don't share as much in common with Sandy Springs as we wish we did.  We don't have all this "extra" money that we can just shell out to make sure that what we are doing is going to be top of line.  That's simply not possible under the current economy and in this particular  part of the county.  Sandy Springs had 30 years of complaints behind them, driving their residents closer together as they became more involved in their desire to become their own city.  They let as many people into their circle of volunteers as  possible.  But, that's not happening here.

And, some of the same people who were a part of the school system and who were pushing that deal with the cell towers are involved in these city groups, too.  School board members, former school board members,  school system employees.  What do their maps resemble?  They look just like the Tucker and Lakeside high school attendance zones,  not necessarily the "communities" of interest and definitely not anything that shows respect or consideration for the business district being fought over.

If these cities were going to fix the problems, how?   Because a large part of the problems we have right now are directly tied to the schools, where most of these "leaders" were leading before their power was taken away by SACS.

If we can't count on them to lead our schools out of trouble, then what makes us think they can be trusted to control zoning, police, fire, water, sanitation and all the other services that a city will either start out controlling or seek to control eventually?

And, if they really aren't offering anything new, 
then the hassle and expense is all for naught.

We have problems in DeKalb, but the problems call out for CHANGE,
not more of the same.

*  Note:  A previous version of this article made reference incorrectly to ARC, Inc. as the Atlanta Regional Commission.  In context, the ARC actually referred to Ann Rosenthal Consulting.  We apologize to Ms. Rosenthal for the misunderstanding of her company.  She is the lobbyist for the Tucker CID and her own company, ARC Inc. and NOT the Atlanta Regional Commission.