Brookhaven, GA, January 7, 2017 – by Trey Benton – Brookhaven Planning Commissioners voted 5-1 Wednesday evening to recommend City Council approve the recently completed Comprehensive Plan Character Area Study. Back in June, City Councilmembers approved an $83,250 contract with Sycamore Consulting to conduct the study. The content Sycamore compiled was a result of several public participation meetings aimed at more or less “deciding” what type of development goes where in the City. The Character Area Study is intended to be a key contributor to the Zoning Code rewrite effort.
Commissioners were lukewarm on the content in the study, however, although they said the ideas enclosed were good. But they said the study didn’t exactly provide them with what they were hoping to get, a roadmap of how citizens would like to see the City approach development in specific areas. They said another expected output of the study was to provide a guide for residents that provides a reasonable understanding of what they can expect with less surprises on the types and locations of future development.
When the process was just getting started back in August, then Community Development Director Ben Song explained the study as having many benefits to City residents as well as the City Staff, City Council and the Boards. He said once this study is complete and the resident participants have laid out how they would like to see the City approach development in these areas, it will serve as a guide moving forward.
During Wednesday’s deliberation, Commissioners expressed discomfort over approving the Character Area Study content, which they said they did not necessarily agree with. “But as long as it was faithfully produced based on the feedback from the citizens who attended their individual character area study sessions that’s all, I guess, we are being asked to do, then I’ll make a motion to approve,” said Commissioner Rob Francour.
Commissioner Connor Sen amended Francour’s motion to include the language the Commission’s approval is in support of the process that was followed during the study, but not necessarily agreement with any of the recommendations made within it.
Commissioner Bert Levy said he agreed with Sen’s and Francour’s sentiment of approving the study as to form. “I think from when the very first Comprehensive Plan came up before us, as a member of this Commission, I felt like everything was pretty much done and I didn’t feel like I had a lot of opportunity to comment,” Levy explained. “I feel like this is one of the rare opportunities we have to really plan.”
Levy said he will take it on faith from Staff there was ample public participation in the study process, but he said based on the silence in his own neighborhood discussions, he wonders how robust the participation actually was. He said going back to the original Comprehensive Plan, there was “a nice schedule where there was going to be infill regulations…a lot of things were going to be put in place…to really give meat to it.” Levy encouraged Staff and the City to get that done so there is something more in place other than platitudes that really can provide protection.
Commissioner John Funny said the City cannot expect that type of detail in this Character Area Study, which he called a “visionary document.” In his profession, which Funny said does these types of studies regularly, he would not expect the consultant to add in any specific code language because that was not in their scope of work and if they did, they would essentially be giving that work away for free.
“This is a guide to lead in to the [Zoning Code] rewrite, of what we need to have on place to help translate the vision in to what technically needs to be in the codes,” said Funny. “Now it’s time to put the code together so that everything is in front of us so that we can follow that and know exactly what the citizens want to see. I think we need to do that expeditiously.”
Board Chair Stan Segal did not support the approval recommendation. He explained with the CONNOLLY (Dresden Village) project on the agenda, people have not had a chance to internalize the Character Area Study, what it says and what it means. “That’s why I was hoping to defer the item 30 days and look at the study when we have more even heads and we’re all calm about it,” Segal added. “It’s the basis for the [Zoning] ordinance. It’s the basis for what’s going to happen.”
Commissioners did eventually recommend City Council approve the study, however, in a 5-1 vote. The information derived from the Character Area Study will be used to make adjustments to the Zoning Ordinance and will be implemented as part of the Zoning Ordinance re-write.
Originally, DeKalb County’s Zoning Code was brought over when the City of Brookhaven was formed. Since then, Brookhaven Officials have been making periodic tweaks. The Zoning Code review will include going through all aspects of the Code and making modifications in order to arrive at a Brookhaven specific Zoning Code of Ordinances.
Kirk Bishop, VP of Chicago based Duncan Associates and acting Project Manager, is working with the volunteer Zoning Rewrite Steering Committee and the Community Development Department to tackle this all important task.
The City Council will take up the Character Area Study item during their January 24th meeting.