The city of Dunwoody may allow developers of smaller projects to apply for a kind of master-plan zoning that essentially allows for blanket approval of variances from the code. 

The City Council will consider reducing the land requirement for the “Planned Development” (PD) district from 5 acres to 1.5 acres, a change that city staff said would help streamline the zoning process. But members of the Dunwoody Homeowners Association worry the change would make it easier for large developments to infringe on residential areas.

The change could “open [the PD district] up for abuse,” said executive board member Bill Grossman said at a March 14 DHA meeting.

The council was expected to review the change to its PD district at its April 12 meeting. 

Planned Development Districts

The PD District is a special zoning district that is intended to allow for property developments that might otherwise not be allowed by the city’s zoning restrictions. According to Dunwoody’s zoning code, part of the PD district’s purpose is to “provide flexibility, unity and diversity in land planning and development.”

Dunwoody has zoned projects to the PD district in the past. According to city spokesperson Jennifer Boettcher, “Project Renaissance,” an urban redevelopment plan covering about 36 acres encompassing the Georgetown area of Dunwoody, was zoned to the PD district. Project Renaissance includes Pernoshal Park and Georgetown Park, and has two residential sections. About 2.5 acres have been designated for commercial use in the development, where at one point there were plans for a food hall.  Boettcher said the development’s commercial section is still on the market.

In a regular zoning or rezoning process, applicants would go before the Dunwoody Planning Commission, which would then make recommendations to the City Council about whether to approve the zoning. In the simplest of cases, the council would then approve or reject the zoning. The Planning Commission and city staff can also recommend approval subject to conditions that the applicant must follow through on, such as a building not exceeding a certain height or limiting the types of commercial establishments there could be at a certain site.

The applicant can also ask to bypass the zoning code by requesting a variance. Those variances must go before a separate board, the Zoning Board of Appeals. That opens up the possibility of situations where the City Council approves a rezoning, but the ZBA shoots down associated variances. 

The PD District is a bit different. Applicants who apply to be zoned for the PD district must apply with an Overall Development Plan (ODP) already in place. That requires the applicant to have a much more detailed plan at the beginning of the process, which must include items like parking analysis, a tree plan, expected gross land areas, and anything else deemed necessary by city staff.

If the ODP conflicts with the zoning code, the ODP governs. Variances would be addressed in the ODP, so the development would not have to go before the ZBA, just the City Council. By broadening the land requirements for the PD district, more developments would qualify and would not have to go before two boards during the zoning process.

DHA and Planning Commission 

At the DHA meeting, Grossman said the PD district was implemented with multi-use and retail developments in mind and originally the land size requirement for these developments was at least 10 acres. Since Dunwoody became a city, that land requirement lessened to 5 acres, and now the city’s Planning Commission is recommending 1.5 acres. 

“When the city started, we put a provision in the zoning code that would enable for a Planned Development that didn’t fit our rules,” said Grossman. “We wanted to be open to new ideas and proposals, so we had that in the code so that we could entertain something that didn’t fit our comprehensive plan.”

“I’m worried it will open [the PD district] up for abuse,” Grossman said of the change. “As opposed to what we originally envisioned, which was a 10-acre minimum.”

The Planning Commission recommended the suggested changes to the PD district at a March 9 meeting. Planning and Zoning Manager Paul Leonhardt said part of the reasoning for decreasing the land requirement was to streamline the zoning process.

Leonhardt said 84 Perimeter Center, a multi-use project that includes age-restricted apartments, was one of the developments that brought forth the desire to change parameters for the PD district. The City Council recently approved 84 Perimeter Center for rezoning, but with 27 zoning conditions. 

“This is a trend we’re seeing … all throughout metro Atlanta, where every single year there are more zoning conditions added,” Leonhardt said. 

Originally, staff recommended the land requirement for the PD district be lowered to one acre, but the Planning Commission increased that to 1.5 in its recommendation. In trying to streamline the process, the Planning Commission also recommended it have up to three 30-day deferrals for any PD district cases so it could have enough time to thoroughly review the project before the proposal went to the City Council. Currently, the Planning Commission can only defer a matter once for 30 days.

Jared Abram was the only Planning Commission member who voted against the recommendation. He said he thought too many deferrals at the commission’s level might delay the process, not streamline it. 

“When we have developers come into Dunwoody and they have a great project, it’s our duty to give our opinion … and to pass it on,” Abram said. “I don’t think we need to delay it a certain amount of time, because when you delay it too many times then sometimes they will take that project elsewhere.”

Abram said the acreage had nothing to do with his vote against the recommendation. 

“I understand the interest in speeding up the process and making it more business-friendly,” Grossman said at the DHA meeting. “But, at heart, we’re a homeowners’s organization trying to protect the neighborhoods, and keep the single-family detached neighborhoods as protected as possible. I’m a little nervous about encroachment when we start allowing one-acre planned developments.” 

Councilmember Tom Lambert, who attended the March 14 DHA meeting, said the city is considering taking a “wholesale look” at its zoning code. 

“I think this is a part of the clean-up process,” Lambert said.

Possible changes to the zoning code were discussed at the City Council’s annual retreat, but according to a city spokesperson, a comprehensive zoning code rewrite is not in this year’s budget and is a longer-term plan. 

Sammie Purcell is Associate Editor at Rough Draft Atlanta.