Zoning frustrations won’t vanish with new city

I have my own frustrations with the letter to the editor entitled “Zoning Frustrations lead to a ‘yes’ vote for city” in the June 1 edition of the Brookhaven Reporter.

To begin with, I am disappointed the author elected to promote their cause under the banner of the Brookhaven Peachtree Community Association (BPCA), a non-partisan community organization dedicated to preserving the vision of pedestrian-friendly commercial development in ‘downtown’ Brookhaven. To hijack the BPCA to legitimize comments to advance a personal political agenda is absolutely unacceptable.

Yes, there have been a number of challenges to the Brookhaven-Peachtree Overlay Standards and, with the exception of one case, the BPCA has been able to either defeat the challenge or negotiate a compromise solution that was a win for all. The one case we did lose, the proposed variances requested for the Savi Market expansion, was approved by the Zoning Board of Appeals on a motion put forth by Rebecca Chase-Williams, a greater Brookhaven resident and a board member of the original group promoting the proposed city of Brookhaven. Her motion to approve was preceded by the comment “I know the applicant/owner is a good guy and he will do the right thing if we approve these variances.”

Fortunately, Ms. Chase-Williams will be joined on the ZBA in June by Bill Draper, another Brookhaven resident who was instrumental in writing the Brookhaven-Peachtree Overlay Standards. His nomination was approved by Kathie Gannon in an effort to elevate the ZBA’s understanding of the more complex zoning issues that it deals with on a regular basis. With two of the seven ZBA members from the Brookhaven area, we’re halfway to a majority on any future vote.

To think that pre-existing relationships between board members and applicants or their attorneys will automatically disappear, that new relationships will not be established over time, that impartiality will immediately be restored when the board has the name of a city in front of it is naïve and unrealistic. Also, that city boards will immediately respect guidelines for approval and that control over neighborhood zoning matters will be returned to its citizens is a fallacy at best and a dangerous misconception at its worst. Ask the hundreds of Johns Creek residents who recently packed a city council meeting to oppose an apartment rezoning in their neighborhood, only to hear the mayor and council approve the rezoning “because we know what is good for the city.” How much respect does the city board have for the approval guidelines or how much control do the citizens now feel they have over zoning changes in their own neighborhoods?

If you take the time to sit through a few board hearings in metro cities large or small, old or new, you will see board members with a political agenda, board members with a relationship with an applicant or their attorney, board members with a pre-conceived notion what is right for the community and board members making decisions for any number of reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with the guidelines spelled out in local codes. While it is quaint to think city board members can be readily removed, the fact is they are appointed by an elected official and removal is virtually impossible without a serious ethics violation or the defeat of the appointing official in a future election.

Finally, it is important to remember there is no guarantee the proposed city of Brookhaven will even carry the Brookhaven-Peachtree Overlay Standards forward to the new city’s zoning code. The founding mothers/fathers of the new city may very well decide the overlay standards are too restrictive, are detrimental to the growth of the commercial tax base along the Peachtree corridor and therefore, are not consistent with their desire to grow future tax revenue for the city. The proposed city charter has no requirement to transfer the DeKalb zoning code verbatim or no safeguards to prevent future elected officials from dramatically reducing the standards soon after adoption. The author’s zoning frustrations could very well be resolved by the simple fact there may be no overlay standards to defend at future city of Brookhaven board meetings.

With time, the author will realize that zoning issues are nothing more than a continuous game of wac-a-mole. Property owners will continue to pop up with applications that are counter to the quality growth of the area, and citizens will need to mobilize to “wac” them down time and time again. My experience over 30 years on both sides of various zoning cases in cities large and small has shown me time and again that things will absolutely not be different if the name of the board should change from the DeKalb Board of Whatever to the city of Brookhaven Board of Whatever. And for that reason, I am not interested in adding another layer of government to simply receive more of the same – I will vote no on Brookhaven on July 31.

Jim Eyre

City or no city, which is greater risk for Brookhaven?

To the editor:

Those in DeKalb County opposed to incorporating a city of Brookhaven would have you believe that the risk is too great, that there are too many unknowns.

Who will be on the city council and who will be mayor? Will revenues be strong enough to sustain the level of service? Will the police force be sufficient to protect us? Will our taxes and fees rise?

But what of the unknowns of the status quo? What happens if the referendum fails and we remain unincorporated? The opponents are correct, we know more about the status quo, and there are fewer unknowns.

We know the long history of the dysfunctional relationship between the DeKalb CEO and the DeKalb County Commission. We know that dysfunction leads to inaction and inefficiencies.

We know our elected DeKalb officials, and we know they do not live in Brookhaven. We know that even if our commissioner’s opponent wins the next election, he will still only be one vote of seven on the commission, and still will have to represent nearly 135,000 voters, stretching all the way to Tucker and Smoke Rise.

We know DeKalb’s bond referendums and revenues have shifting priorities and the Brookhaven library has not benefited from those bonds.

We know DeKalb’s property tax digest has weakened and the county will be forced to either raise taxes or reduce services. We know the ease with which taxes can be raised when there is no need for voter approval. We also know that property values in the Brookhaven footprint are stronger than the county as a whole and will likely recover more quickly.

We know the reported discussion about consolidating DeKalb’s north police precinct south to Memorial Drive, potentially leaving our area without a facility.

And we know that our parks budget will remain insufficient for DeKalb to maintain and improve our beautiful green space.

So I agree with the opposition. We do, in fact, know more about the status quo. But which is the greater risk for Brookhaven?

Stan Segal

Brand Brookhaven: Selling the new city

To the editor:

To all of us deliberating the merits of a city of Brookhaven, consider this: A city council with the power to enact ordinances without public notice, to regulate land use and zoning, levy business taxes and fees, condemn property, and issue bonds. A Brookhaven Convention and Visitors Bureau “to promote tourism, conventions and trade shows.” A committee already researching marketing and branding, the power of which is promised to lead to higher property values and larger revenue streams for the city. Brand Brookhaven.

The proposed city charter grants the city council enormous power, easily wielded, with little oversight. I understand the desire for local control of tax money, but by voting “yes” to cityhood, you will grant the city council the power to regulate just about every aspect of your property and the property around you.

In essence, the new city council can enact city ordinances and zoning regulations that will make our streets look like neighborhoods with restrictive covenants, backed up by a local police force.

Just ask anyone in Avondale, which regulates where you put your garbage can. At least Avondale requires its council to post hearing notices on its website at least 48 hours beforehand. The Brookhaven charter requires monthly council meetings at a given time and place, but the council can recess and continue its meeting later, and the public notice requirements are not spelled out.

Do not think that you can wait until the new city begins to speak up about its course of action. If the referendum passes, the governor will appoint a commission of five residents, which will conduct a training seminar for all qualified candidates before the general election.

The commission also will present a written report to the new mayor and city council on candidates for city manager, city attorney, city clerk, and city accountant, a plan to privatize as many city services as practicable, and locations and pricing of leased city office facilities.

The leadership of Brookhaven Yes has questioned who the people are who oppose the new city, as if the motives of people against the city are questionable. No City Brookhaven is a grass-roots organization of folks who support the presentation of an opposing viewpoint.

I’m a lawyer, too, but I’m not a politician, just a civil servant working for the state judiciary. My family has lived in our modest house on Drew Valley for my entire adult life, which is more than 30 years. I live on a quiet street. I like my neighbors and I don’t want my property values to go up because I’m not planning to cash out and move.

While I agree that county management needs improvement, I don’t care that my property taxes might be $10 or $20 more in the county than the city, or even that some of my taxes go to less-developed areas of the county.

My family contributed to No City Brookhaven because we know and trust our neighbors who belong, and we have identified ourselves by putting up yard signs. I also spoke publicly about the legislation at the House committee. There’s nothing underhanded about not putting our names online, which I generally avoid due to safety concerns. With the flame wars erupting out there, I don’t want to debate the issues online either.

The insinuation that those opposing cityhood have unsavory ulterior motives and are aligned with bad, old DeKalb County is a stretch, although I would hope our county commissioners and CEO support the county.

Those issues are red herrings anyway. They have nothing to do with whether voting yes and adopting this city charter is a good thing or a bad thing. Don’t get bogged down in debating budget details that are subject to change — look at the charter.

Figure out how this new city will operate, and decide whether you are willing to trust that whoever is already lined up to run for office will market Brand Brookhaven the way you think they should.

Christina Smith