Northwoods: Learning about Historic Districts & Overlay Zones

On Tuesday, September 11, 2018, I hosted an educational meeting for people in Northwoods to learn about zoning overlays and Historic Preservation Districts.

Northwoods is a special place, and feels very cohesive – with its housing mostly made up of ranch homes and split levels built in the 1950s. With that said, the  homes that make Northwoods special are slowly disappearing. While many owners love the style of their homes and have invested a lot to improve them, others are absentee landlords who have build on cheap additions to maximize the number of people they can fit in one house. We have other people who have been pushed out of more expensive areas and think our property values are relatively cheap – they see our houses as great tear-down opportunities for building McMansions.

Regular zoning cannot prevent these things, because it is primarily meant to deal with new construction. There some tools however, that might be able to help us shape the future development of our neighborhood in ways that we decide: creating either a Historic Preservation Ordinance, or an “Overlay Zone.”

A Historic Preservation Ordinance is a set of laws that the state has empowered cities to enact. Passing one would involve setting up a Historic Preservation Commission. This commission would work with council to determine the appropriate boundaries for any Historic Preservation Districts. The commission would then work with those communities to develop guidelines for the care and maintenance for their buildings or the construction of new infill buildings.

Overlay zones do not require a special set of ordinances, or another commission. They would be enacted through a regular zoning process, and would apply to specific house traits (height, set-back, etc). They would not restrict the types of materials people could use on their home or the style of architecture that people could build.

The learning session was very interesting, Many Northwoods residents – as well as a few residents from other neighborhoods – came out to participate. We heard from three speakers:

  • Amber Rhea – Dekalb County Historic Planning Commissioner
  • Allison Duncan – Atlanta Regional Commission
  • Art Hanson – President of North Briarcliff Civic Association

Amber and Allison primarily spoke about Historic Preservation Ordinances and Districts; Art spoke to his experience living in an area with a specific type of zoning overlay that Dekalb County calls a “RIOD” or “Residential Infill Overlay” that only restricts building height.

Everyone in attendance was very engaged – the general sense I got from people in the room was that they feel like we need to do something to start protecting the character of Northwoods.

I recorded the session – it was 1.5 hours, so it’s broken into two 45 minute videos:

Video 1: Introductory Discussion about RIODs and Historic Preservation Districts

Video 2: Community Questions & Answers

Someone asked me about next steps – I think the  first next step is for you to talk with your neighbors about these ideas and to let your council members know whether they are tools you’d like the city to consider implementing for Northwoods.  The second step is for the council to start discussing these ideas at work sessions.

What do you think? Please let me know at