State Rep. Mike Wilensky (D-Dunwoody) has filed a bill that says local governments can deny apartments or other residential developments because they could further burden already overcrowded schools.

state rep mike wilensky
State Rep. Mike Wilensky.

Dunwoody parents and city leaders have been battling with the DeKalb County School District for years about overcrowding in local schools. Chamblee and Doraville, also in Wilensky’s district, are facing the same overcrowding issues. Brookhaven schools are overcrowded. Wilensky said it is a statewide problem.

He said House Bill 898 would put language into Georgia code that clearly states local governments can deny zoning applications due to overcrowded schools. A co-sponsor of the bill is state Rep. Scott Holcomb (D-Atlanta), whose district includes a portion of Brookhaven.

State law already allows municipalities to consider the effect a zoning decision could have on schools, he said, but it is not clearly defined. His bill would amend Georgia code on the exercise of zoning powers to “allow counties and municipalities to consider the effect of a proposed zoning action on local school systems and the potential overcrowding of schools within such school systems.”

“The current law allows municipalities and counties to use overcrowding to deny zoning applications … but [the law] doesn’t say it anywhere,” Wilensky said. “It’s not in the code. It needs to be codified if that is the law.”

Wilensky said he was told by legislative attorneys that city and county attorneys have been telling elected officials they cannot deny zoning applications based on school overcrowding. That apparently started happening in the 1970s and 1980s when federal discrimination lawsuits were filed against cities that denied apartment projects due to overcrowded schools, he said. Because local attorneys did not want their cities sued, they would tell elected officials not to deny zonings based on school overcrowding, Wilensky said.

“And over the years it turned from ‘don’t do it’ to ‘it is against the law,’ but that is incorrect,” he said.

That has created confusion of what state law says, he said. He did not give specific examples of where that has taken place.

“All I’m doing is codifying the current law so it is clear that cities can protect the safety of children and the schools by denying zoning when schools are overcrowded,” Wilensky said. “All city and county officials should know they have this right.”

The law, with the amendment, would be:

“… [E]ach local government shall adopt standards governing the exercise of the zoning power, and such standards may include any factors which the local government finds relevant in balancing the interest in promoting the public health, safety, morality or general welfare against the right to the unrestricted use of property. Such standards may include the consideration of the effect of the proposed zoning decision on local school systems and the potential overcrowding of schools within such local school systems. Such standards shall be printed and copies thereof shall be available for distribution to the general public.”

Wilensky said he is not targeting apartments and that major home-ownership projects also could be rejected.

“It has nothing to do with being for or against apartments,” he said.

“We have schools that are far over capacity. I am not creating anything new,” he said. “This is the law as it currently stands. The confusion is the rights cities and counties have.”

This story has been updated to include state Rep. Scott Holcomb (D-Atlanta) is one of the co-sponsors of the bill. 

Dyana Bagby is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers and Atlanta Intown.