By Bill Draper

Bill Draper
Bill Draper

After almost a year on the county’s zoning agenda, the strange request for the Groves at Roxboro is about to be decided. It was delayed by a text amendment to the only zoning ordinance in DeKalb that allows detached condominiums.

On Tuesday, Aug. 24, the Board of Commissioners unanimously approved the latest text amendment for the Residential-Neighborhood Conservation District zoning classification. It greatly reduces the significance of conserved green space, and pushes residential density far beyond current county policy.

Morris Land Development requested and received a 60-day deferral on the separate decision allowing the Groves at Roxboro to use the conservation district. The application for the Groves will go directly to the commissioners in October and bypass community council again.

According to DeKalb’s planning staff, the 10 month long “rush” to change zoning policy is driven by this proposed condominium development on North Druid Hills. Last November, the developer of Groves at Roxboro applied to rezone the 8-plus acres between North Druid Hills, Roxboro and Wright roads from R-85 to R-NCD.

The application did not meet the requirements of the previously revised conservation district. Even though the Groves could have met the current code, the applicant opted for a different plan that required more dwellings than code allowed and less greenspace than intended.

In 2007, the community opposed the same site layout filled with long walls of tall, attached townhouses (60 to be exact) and almost no greenspace. Back then it was called the Overlook at Roxboro. Now the dwellings are a dozen fewer, detached, and spaced out with what we are told will be a little more landscaping than proposed by the defunct Overlook.

Now there is no limit on the size of the footprint of these planned, communal homes. The detached condominium dwellings can be three-story mini-mansions. How big they end up being depends only on the preferred density.

Before the latest amendment, all dwellings in the conservation district met a maximum of eight dwellings an acre, excluding land set aside as greenspace and anything else that cannot be developed. It left about 70 percent of the property to calculate density, and allowed the Groves 44 dwellings. The applicant wanted 47.

The new amendment allows 66 dwellings on 70 percent of the Groves’ property, or roughly 5 1/2 acres.

In the new density amendment the word greenspace is removed, making the buildable property one third denser. It ensures that no developer will even be physically confined by a density maximum. In developments like the Groves, it allows 12 single-family, detached dwellings an acre – unless the applicant builds on conserved greenspace.

“Open space,” county staff told the council in June, “should never inhibit a developer.”

The conservation district is designed to preserve significant open space, but it changed anyway. In the June 7 draft, parking lots, driveways, sidewalks and even houses were to be allowed in the 30 percent greenspace. It would leave no green space.

The hidden change was questioned at Community Council on June 16, and the council recommended denial. A new draft dated June 21 quickly added back the exclusion of impervious surfaces. The applicant publicly rebuked the board of commissioners on July 24 for not approving the amendment when expected, as written.

This time last year the Residential Neighborhood Conservation District required 15 percent of the property to be one large green area (a park or forest, for example). In November 2009, commissioners agreed that 50-foot-wide patches of grass strung together with a concrete path, adding up to 15 percent, would suffice.

The Groves still could not meet the requirement. This year it was changed to 50-foot-wide patches NOT connected. Then the 15 percent rule was dropped, and it was changed to a single 50-foot-wide patch. Then it shrunk to 15 feet for a moment. In the July 20 draft, it dropped to 200 square feet. A 5-foot-wide, 40-foot-long cement path now fills that greenspace requirement.

What the Groves at Roxboro is actually gaining with this new amendment is remarkable. It is basically everything the commissioners did not allow in the 2009 amendment–and more.

It all but eliminates contiguous greenspace for the Groves. It increases density in the Groves by a third. Detached condominium dwellings in the Groves are not limited in size as are all other types of dwellings. It reduces yard size in the Groves, and allows conserved greenspace to be used as yards. It reduces street width and cuts minimum parking requirements in half for the Groves.

Many other changes have been made; some good and acceptable while others are still conflicting, confusing, repetitive and wrong. Developers may start lining up with proposals that don’t meet code, expecting policy to change in their favor. It only takes about a year.

The 2009 density maximum was written for all dwellings, but the applicant claims that condominiums are not dwellings. Last year’s revised density did not apply to the Groves, the applicant said, and a new density statement was required. In the amendment, the new density paragraphs call them dwellings – as does the definition of condominiums for this district.

Bill Draper represents District 2 on the DeKalb County Community Council, a citizens’ zoning review committee.