Brookhaven, GA, November 15, 2016 – by Larry Felton Johnson for The Post – During the Brookhaven City Council’s November 9th Work Session, Councilmembers discussed a draft ordinance to form a Design Review Board for the city.
At the October 25, 2016 Brookhaven City Council meeting, Councilmembers voted unanimously to defer a decision to rezone land associated with a proposed MARTA Transit Oriented Development (TOD) planned for the Brookhaven/Oglethorpe Station. Much to the surprise of MARTA and their partner in the project, Brookhaven City Center Partners, Councilmembers said they wanted the City to have an Architectural Review Board (ARB) in place before they approve any rezonings associated with the proposed TOD.
City Attorney Chris Balch prepared a draft resolution for the creation of the ARB and presented it to Councilmembers. The draft ordinance names the proposed board the Design Review Board, and states that its purpose is to “encourage the construction of attractive buildings in order to protect and promote the general welfare of the public and prevent deterioration of the appearance of the City.” The board will regulate the external appearance of buildings based on standards approved by the Mayor and City Council.
“The city attorney has done a really good job of exploring other ones [architectural review boards] out there … I’ll stress to our listeners that it’s a draft to begin the discussion,” said Mayor John Ernst. “We won’t be voting on it today, but I think it’s a very good start, and it’s one of the more comprehensive ones I’ve ever seen.”
Leading the conversation and a brief presentation, Balch explained the staff examined a model ordinance from the Georgia Municipal Association, and similar ordinances in Greenville, S.C. and some of the north Fulton cities. City staff tried to adopt best practices from those models, he said. The staff recommended that decisions of the board be binding, similar to the Zoning Board of Appeals or the Alcohol Licensing boards – with an appeals process. Under the proposal, an exemption from review is allowed if the cost of a change to an existing structure doesn’t reach a $5,000 threshold. Balch also said that the review process would apply to every commercial, residential, multi-family, or detached residential project in the city – as the proposed ordinance was constructed – but changes in scope could be made.
Balch also mentioned the need to give the Design Review Board clear and specific guidance in making decisions, so that the ordinance could not be challenged on grounds of vagueness. “There is a balance to be struck, for the council to help struggle with, between being specific enough to define where the decisions can be made, and flexible enough to allow creativity and innovation in design within the community at large,” he said. Balch added, “Some of the developers are very unhappy with my office over this draft, and are demanding that we take it off tonight’s conversation.”
Councilmember Linley Jones asked about a discrepancy between the draft ordinance and a statement by Balch in his opening presentation. The written draft states that the ordinance applies to commercial, industrial, and multi-family residential zoning districts, while Balch said in his introduction that detached single-family homes were included. Balch replied that several versions had been prepared, and he thought that the most recent revision excluded single family homes, but he would resolve that potential conflict before a final version was prepared for the council to vote on. Jones proposed adding shape, height, and orientation of the buildings to the guidelines. She also said the review process should be designed so that it doesn’t unduly hold up the issuance of building permits.
Councilman Bates Mattison proposed that all five members of the board be credentialed professionals. Balch said that there was no restriction on the mayor appointing professionals to all five positions, but that if five professionals could not be found it could cause delays in implementing the board. Mattison also raised a concern that the review board might add a layer of complexity to building permits.
“I think it’s our responsibility as council to make sure that the projects that are being built in Brookhaven are of the quality that we expect, and I believe that we have not achieved that level at this time,” Councilman Joe Gebbia said. “We’ve had projects developed here in Brookhaven that don’t live up to the standards that I’d like to see done. I’m very much in favor of this [the Design Review Board]. And if this means that it puts an extra time period on the approval process, I think it’s a very worthwhile time element to put into the approval of a project, because the decision that’s made … it’s a 50-year decision.”
During Council conversation, Mayor Ernst noted it was important to decide whether single-family detached subdivisions would be required to get approval from the board. Balch said the more types of structures included in the ordinance, the more expensive the plan would be due to the need for additional staff to handle the applications.
Jones explained she would like to see the Design Review Board’s authority extend citywide, although she said she would not like to see it apply to existing detached single-family homes. A distinctive part of the character of her district is architecture that varies from house to house – even within the same community. Jones said she wouldn’t want to see an end to that sort of creativity and the rights of the homeowner. She did say she favors height restrictions, however, and new subdivisions should require approval by the board.
Councilman John Park supported exempting single-family infill housing, but noted the ordinance should apply to all building types mentioned in the draft, plus subdivisions. Gebbia said he would like the standards to apply at all levels, including single-family detached houses, noting that would help protect the character of neighborhoods.
Applying the rules to existing neighborhoods of detached homes was “moving into HOA (home owner association) territory”, Councilmember Jones offered. “I do not want to make the City of Brookhaven a giant HOA.”
City Manager Christian Sigman suggested in the interest of timing, because this topic came up [as] part of the Brookhaven MARTA TOD rezoning request which Council will see again in January 2017, that this initial draft be treated as an initial policy, applying specifically to the Brookhaven-Peachtree Overlay District and define specific uses there. He said Council will have the chance to review and refine the board’s scope during subsequent meetings.
Jones said the review requirements should be applied to the whole city “from the get-go.” Mattison said he was still struggling with whether the board is needed at all, since the city already had an overlay in place. Sigman responded that on projects with the size and impact of the MARTA TOD the overlay district was not sufficient.
Mayor Ernst directed several questions to fellow Councilmembers to help guide the staff in revising the draft ordinance before the January deadline. He asked whether the Design Review Board should be implemented at all and where it should apply. Councilmembers Jones, Gebbia and Park all said they supported the creation of the Design Review Board, with Gebbia noting it should initially apply to the MARTA TOD.
Mattison said it should apply to “buildings of a certain size”, although he didn’t know how to define that size yet. Park said that in the interest of time, the review should apply only to the overlay initially, and that the ordinance could be amended over time. Jones repeated her position that it should apply to the whole city.
Mayor Ernst turned the discussion to the makeup and size of the board. Jones, Park, and Ernst supported the draft’s current composition of three professionals and two other members. Mattison said he would like four out of five members to be from the architecture or planning profession. Sigman said that he considers a construction professional on the board necessary. Gebbia said he thinks the two most important roles on the board are an architect and a building professional, but that he would yield to Sigman’s experience as a City Manager to recommend the composition of the board. The Mayor said he supported the inclusion of a landscape architect because of the visual impact of landscaping.
Mayor Ernst said the discussion would continue during the City’s next Council meeting, and hopefully, the issues of where the guidelines should be applied and the composition of the board could be decided quickly.