Brookhaven, GA, April 13, 2015 – Brookhaven Citizen, Thomas Porter, AIA, LEED® AP, provides the following Letter to the Editor:
To the Editor,
I have a narrow field of vision, generally focused on the built environment of Brookhaven. I’ve written previously about the ZBA, Community Development, and the general lack of leadership in Brookhaven. Haven’t written in a while, I thought maybe things would be get better… after all, there’s a new ZBA Chairman and a new Director of Community Development, Ben Song. The ZBA is reaching higher levels of analysis, yet, things are worse, not in the issues that come before the ZBA, but by the issues that don’t. Those are the issues where Community Development “interprets” the zoning ordinances that never make it to the ZBA, and, the impact of those interpretations is staggering.
One great example: An infill house in Brookhaven Fields, the zoning ordinances establishes the front-yard setback for every zoning classification (i.e. R-75, R-60, RA-8 etc), those front yards are supposed to be inviolate from intrusion, a flat front stoop is an exception. Well, on April 15th, the ZBA will hear three other requested variances this property, but they will not hear a front yard variance request even though there is a two-story, roofed structure built fully in the front yard setback. Why? Community Development has “interpreted” that it is a stoop! So what’s the big deal?
Community Development’s interpretation has just shortened the front yard setback by nominally one-third for all residential zones and this has happened without public input nor process of any kind; no Planning Commission approval, no ZBA recognition, no City Council ratification.
This is a much larger blanket change to all residential zoning classifications than any of those other City entities have undertaken to date, yet the inexperienced Community Development department seems to have done just that. It causes one to question whether this is unethical, another political favor, or simply inept. Regardless, it’s wrong & sets precedence.
When speaking of inexperience and how it affects us, after 2 1/2 years of being a city, we should be well on our way to an experienced, smooth running governing machine, with processes and consistent application of rules thoroughly in-place. We’ve got nothing – zero/zilch/nada/squat. [Police excepted]
Ben Song is the THIRD Director of Community Development, the prior Director (& Assistant City Manager) Susan Canon recently vanished from Brookhaven like so many have. Mr. Song is working with his THIRD contracted consulting firm that forms his staff where consistent interpretation of code and ordinance is one of the most important factors. It’s like starting every morning with a new class… like the movie Groundhog Day – but you never get it right.
There’s a difference between ordinances and codes: Ordinances are laws created by a county, city or town. Codes are standards, aka, administrative interpretations of the code.
Thus, when Community Development “interprets” the zoning ordinance that a stoop (open and unenclosed, open to the sky) as being a two-story roofed porch, they are doing that without authority to do so. That should be clarified, if necessary, by the Planning Commission and/or City Council, but that’s not necessary though because the ordinance is clear, however, neither the City Manager, our Mayor or Council will respond, I think they’ve all heard too much bad news recently… from losing $1.5M, to losing the Communications Director, to losing Century City, ETCETERA, ETCETERA.
Mr. Song’s Community Development department is responsible for many things: zoning ordinances enforcement, building codes, code enforcement, issuances of building permits, the tree ordinance and our City Arborist. Rather than insuring the reviews and processes go correctly, the focus is on “everyone gets a building permit in a ten-day process” which, only sounds good – our Mayor likes to regurgitate that when speaking to the public, but with an inexperienced staff it’s like trying to corral water. Can’t be done well. Kinda right is good enough for Brookhaven. There are many, many mistakes being made daily, both big and small.
Consequently, as a group, Community Development picks things that matter to them;
- Many home builders draw tapered driveways to appease the Lot Coverage ordinances, then build them full width – Community Development doesn’t care, they won’t enforce, even when notified.
- Loose trash blowing around a construction site – they might say something to the builder if they think about it.
- Sediment and Erosion controls – well, construction will be over soon.
- Retaining walls built in the Right-of-Way – it was reported a bunch of times, they could have handled it months before, but now the matter is in court and the City is named, so they won’t enforce.
- Builders who add patios & the like after construction but before sale – the final inspection was approved, they don’t inspect after that.
- Trees cut down – they were diseased or dying, the builder has a paid report saying so!
Like our City Manager, our Community Development Director is loath to actually manage, and, he can use the excuse he doesn’t have the tools (like a real staff). Also, the home being built next to you isn’t nearly as fascinating to him as thinking about Buford Highway, or the next “Gateway” project to Brookhaven. So, as a City, we will limp along until we get a new Mayor (this one seems to be eying the District 80 seat), a new City Manager (she was never in this for the long haul), two Council seats are up for election, and perhaps a new Community Development Director, and then, we will finally be able to start from ZERO. Again.
What a waste of three years with nothing to show for the efforts except the physical scars of bad civic management and the legacy of bad precedents – little base to build upon. Not even trust!
Thomas Porter, AIA, LEED® AP