A preview of new ideas in Sandy Springs’ forthcoming new zoning code drew the City Council’s attention at a special March 29 meeting. But most of all, consultant Lee Einsweiler drew thanks for promising a simpler, clearer update to a code officials and residents alike say is a mess.

“Well, Lee, this has been a huge, huge step forward—a massive step forward” in fixing the city’s seemingly endless zoning disputes, Mayor Rusty Paul said.

Einsweiler runs Austin, Texas-based Code Studio, which boasts big rezoning expertise. Code recently updated Denver’s zoning and is spearheading an enormous code rewrite for Los Angeles. Einsweiler’s work on a new Unified Development Code for Sandy Springs is part of the city’s “Next Ten” process, which also includes a new citywide land-use plan and more detailed “small area plans” for areas like Roswell Road.

Einsweiler said at the City Hall presentation that even if he made no substantial zoning changes, the code would still be better because he’ll put it in “plain English.” But he does have changes, large and small, in mind and ran through his top 10 “big ideas”:

Talk about zoning in terms of three simple categories. From the city’s existing Comprehensive Plan—the land-use plan—Einsweiler takes the term “Protected Areas,” meaning traditional single-family neighborhoods, which wouldn’t see much zoning change. “Evolving Areas” are places, especially older apartment complexes, where the city might want to push for redevelopment. And commercial centers are “Opportunity Areas” that should get more mixed-use zoning.

A map in Code Studio's presentation on new Sandy Springs zoning concepts shows "Protected Areas" in beige, "Evolving Areas" in gray and "Opportunity Areas" in purple.
A map in Code Studio’s presentation on new Sandy Springs zoning concepts shows “Protected Areas” in beige, “Evolving Areas” in gray and “Opportunity Areas” in purple.

Council members were interested in those words translate into action. Council member Tibby DeJulio said that on the one hand, he’s concerned about the loss of affordable single-family homes to infill projects. “I don’t think we want to be a community of teardowns…We don’t want to be a city of McMansions,” he said.

On the other hand, DeJulio said, the city wants to spur redevelopment of apartments that are “crime-ridden… ones where people run out and rob the Waffle House and run back.”

Einsweiler said incentives could be the answer. Allowing bigger infill projects in exchange for preserving part of the existing house is one anti-McMansion tactic. And in “Evolving Areas,” he said,  the city needs to encourage much higher-density replacement housing—over the 30 units per acre that’s the current high point. “We need to consider cranking this [density] up” and using a “bonus system…[that] allows a little arm-twisting” in exchange for public amenities, Einsweiler said.

Rename the residential zoning categories. Many existing categories aren’t even in alphabetical order, and many, like “agricultural,” should probably go altogether, Einsweiler said.

The neighborhood “compact.” This is not zoning code, but a policy stance the consultant says the city should take. It’s basically an agreement that residents will support redevelopment in major commercial areas and developers will avoid big projects in residential neighborhoods.

Form-based zoning. This modern zoning idea spells out the shapes, sizes and dimensions of buildings in various zoning areas.

Better “transitional” zoning. Instead of places where massive developments sit near small ones, zone for projects that “step down” gradually.

Use the Next Ten’s “small area plans” as if they were zoning and write the code tightly to match their priorities. This is another way of tying the Comprehensive Plan and the zoning code directly together.

Eliminate overlay districts in Opportunity Areas. These special restrictions to the basic zoning are too confusing, Einsweiler said. “Right now, you’ve got one hand giving [zoning permission] and the other hand taking away,” he said.

Create separate zoning categories for the area covered by the Perimeter Center Improvement Districts. The mini-city of Perimeter Center is different from the rest of the city’s development priorities and zoning should reflect that, the consultant said.

Allow speeded-up zoning review in certain areas. That could mean “administrative staff review” rather than the Planning Commission and City Council, and could even cover every Opportunity Area, Einsweiler suggested. The idea is faster redevelopment.

Eliminate any existing zoning conditions attached to approved but unbuilt Perimeter Center projects or at least toss out the approved site plan. This idea drew the most concern from council members. Einsweiler said that “old conditions are old news” and should be replaced by the new zoning. But council members worried that it could cause a rush to get new plans approved.

Council members raised a couple of big ideas of their own. The mayor wants a way to require use of “high-quality materials” in construction, which sparked some talk about how design review does or doesn’t work. Another idea is possibly requiring gas stations on Roswell Road to meet certain standards of greenery, lighting, and pedestrian access by a deadline.

With the generally positive response, Einsweiler’s team will begin writing the actual new zoning code, which will take several months. There will be more public meetings, and residents can view and comment on Einsweiler’s preview at thenext10.org.

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.

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