By Amy Wenk
Some residents question the way Sandy Springs city officials handle zoning cases that have gone to court.
Trisha Thompson, zoning chair of the Sandy Springs Council of Neighborhoods, says residents are uneasy when the city takes the role of “applicant” in land use and zoning cases, such as the pending redevelopment of Lakeside Office Park. Last year’s approval of CityWalk Towers also raised eyebrows about that process.
Normally, city officials consider zoning cases filed by the applicants seeking the zoning — usually land owners or developers. But when the city negotiates an agreement on a zoning case, the city itself becomes the applicant.
“There must be other solutions available,” Thompson said.
“When the city is the applicant there is an immediate psychological reaction,” Thompson said. “It creates a feeling that if the city is proposing this plan or design, and the city’s own staff has now guided and shaped the plan, then the city will be biased toward its own presentation.”
But city officials reply that the process is as fair as any other. They say each case under city review is considered individually, regardless of who makes the application.
“These things get sent back all the time,” said Pete Hendricks, the attorney representing Lakeside. “It really almost is a matter of semantics that the city is the applicant.”
After nearly two years in court, the Lakeside redevelopment is back under consideration.
The city has negotiated with Lakeside developers and submitted an application with a revised plan under the city’s name. The Sandy Springs Planning Commission will hear the case July 15 at 7 p.m. at City Hall.
City Council denied the original plan for Lakeside in 2008 after deciding it provided for too much development on the 26-acre site on Glenridge Drive at the intersection of Ga. 400 and I-285.
Instead of waiting for a judge to say whether the council’s ruling would stand, City Attorney Wendell Willard encouraged the developer and city officials to talk. The two sides met until a compromise was reached on the development, and the city submitted a new application late last year.
Willard said he prefers that the city decide land use and zoning issues, not a judge, even if a case is caught up in litigation.
“The courts do not like being put in the position of a decision maker on questions of land use and zoning,” he said.
Once an agreeable resolution is reached with the developer, the city submits the revised application and it goes back through each step of the zoning process.
“We keep the process as open and transparent all the way through,” Willard said. “I think it’s a better approach.”
The new Lakeside plan proposes to keep four of five existing office buildings and add 520 apartments, a 16-story office building, covered parking and a restaurant to the 26-acre site.
The original plans that council denied in 2008 would have kept three office buildings and added 300 apartments, two 16-story office buildings and a 200-room hotel.
A resident recently expressed in an e-mail his concern that the City Council would be pressured to approve the new Lakeside plan since it helped negotiate it. He said public input could be ignored.
But two City Council members don’t see it that way.
“I don’t share the concerns of the Sandy Springs Council of Neighborhoods,” Dist. 6 Councilwomen Karen Meinzen McEnerny said. “I believe this is a fair course of action.”
“We’re not pressured. It’s a completely new case.”
Dist. 5 Councilman Tibby DeJulio said, “I feel like I have to re-examine every fact” on zoning cases that list the city as applicant. He said it’s just like any other case he hears.
McEnerny said if the city lets the courts make the final decision “you run the risk of getting a complete reversal.”
She referred to a zoning case at Fountain Oaks shopping center from the early 1980s, before the city of Sandy Springs was created. Fulton County, which handled zoning in the area, and a developer disagreed about appropriate zoning for the shopping center that had no zoning classification on the books.
The case went to the Georgia Supreme Court and the justices gave the developer the zoning he sought, even though the neighborhood was against it.
“That was an extreme situation that the neighbors didn’t want,” McEnerny said. “They didn’t get a say.”
McEnerny added that those cases in litigation that go through the system twice usually end up being less “objectionable” then the original proposal.
Thompson said she would like city zoning decisions to hold up in court.
“Would this take a change in the language of our ordinances or would it be a change in mayor and City Council voting and discussion procedures?” Thompson said. “I don’t have that answer, but since a lot of money is being spent because of the problem, there should be some huge push for a solution.”