This was my first time attending a community meeting like this one. I’m new to community involvement such as this, so it was fascinating being at the meeting and hearing how neighbors work on these zoning issues. I brought my high school daughter along who is taking Civics this year as I thought it would be educational for her. These are my notes as best as I could record them. If I made any errors or misrepresentations, please contact me and let me know ASAP so I can correct them!
The August 14th meeting was held in the Avis Williams Toco Hills Library. The room was packed, standing room only. There were all sorts of cases. One restaurant wanted to extend its hours into the early morning. Another homeowner wanted to build on a plot of land that was too small for a house. And yet another wanted to sub-divide her own lot and build another house. In each case, the owner or representative of the land owner spoke and presented his/her case. In general, it appeared that owners themselves do not attend these meetings, but send lawyers and delegates instead.
It is funny – somehow I think that the neighbors could work together better if we could have a public discussion with each other instead of lawyer to neighborhood. Would love if somebody is reading this blog and can tell me if this is done differently elsewhere.
The Stephens/Briarcliff Townhouse (Briar Cove) was the last thing on the agenda, and that only left 15 minutes. The room was still packed (the previous cases had already left), and there was definitely some disappointment when they announced that we had to get through it in 15 minutes. Two people spoke for the development. The first was Marian Eisenberg, DeKalb’s Zoning Administrator. She presented Dekalb’s case, that this was a minor administrative fix. In the view of Dekalb County, the changes were minor and did not necessitate a hearing when first approved. Now that there is concern, the hearing is being held to fix the oversight. Since the change only consisted of relocating 1 unit from the back row to the front, it was not seen as a major change. She also had consulted with GDOT and said they wouldn’t permit egress onto Briarcliff. The next person to speak was the owner’s lawyer Carl Westmoreland Jr. He represents Alexander Quarters LLC, the LLC which was formed on May 4, 2017 and bought the land from Eitan Varon on November 21, 2017. His position was that since the zoning was approved by Dekalb prior to the purchase by the LLC, his client was acting within his legal right to build on land for which he already had approval and zoning.
That left about 8 minutes for community comment.
Jay Starkman, a local resident on Stephens Drive, made the most of his time. He handed out a brief he had written that laid out the issues with the development. He started by objecting to the 5 days notice. This started some back-and-forth. The county claimed the notice was there, but just “hidden by the grass”. It was noted that the neighborhood has a lot of walkers, and they would have seen the notice even if in the grass. The point was conceded but we proceeded.
Jay Starkman proceeded to make the argument that the changes approved were not minor changes. He first noted that the person who approved the changes without public review is no longer in the office – nobody knows who signed, but whoever it is isn’t there anymore. This leaves everyone in the tough position of not knowing why these changes were deemed minor.
Jay laid out that the developer had made major changes from the approved 2006 plan in traffic routing, increased size of the development, and drainage problems. Jay noted that making the units wider was the same as adding 2 unapproved units in terms of ground cover. He also pointed out that simply moving the unit from the back to the front blocked the egress. Jay also noted that no work appears to be progressing on the promised sidewalk. He also commented that the developer wasn’t even acting in good faith. He noted that when a stop work order was placed on unit 11, the work crew kept working on it, and even seemed to focus on getting it done quickly before the county could see what they were doing.
Nobody else has time to comment but it was immaterial at that point.
The council said that everything was so confusing they were having trouble following it, which led them to conclude that obviously the changes were more major than previously thought, and they needed further review. So they unanimously voted to recommend to the Planning Commission to deny the application. As I understand it, the votes of the council here are just recommendations, so it is important for people to show up for the Sept 6, 2018 Planning Commission Meeting at the Maloof Auditorium (1300 Commerce Drive in Decatur), and the September 25, 2018 Board of Commissioners Meeting at the same place.
Even if you don’t have a concern on the board, these meetings are fascinating and I highly recommend more people from the community get involved in local affairs and attend.