Microbreweries, Microdistilleries and Brewpubs

Doraville is considering changes to its zoning for alcohol manufacturers. There have recently been several businesses that were interested in opening microbreweries or microdistilleries in many different parts of the city – but our current zoning does not allow them to operate.

The city’s staff has brought us a re-work of our zoning code that defines “microbreweries,” microdistilleries,” “microwineries,” and brewpubs. The proposal suggests that they be allowed to set up shop in areas that are zoned industrial.

Most of the concern I have heard comes from residents of neighborhoods that are adjacent to industrial zones. To address this, Councilmember Koontz has proposed a buffer of at least 500 feet between any micro-alcohol producer and a residential neighborhood. We will be deciding this at the August 20th meeting.

At the same meeting, we will be deciding on whether or not to allow an open container district in Assembly, along with a question about allowing a large microbrewery. I support allowing the open container district, but need more details on what they are proposing for the microbrewery before making a decision on that.

I want Doraville to be a place that welcomes business and that allows start-ups to thrive. I also want it to be a place where residents can walk to local establishments and enjoy a drink together. I hope we will have taken a step in that direction when we finish voting on the proposed legislation.

You can read more about the proposed legislation in the packet for the August 20th meeting agenda.

Notes from Doraville’s 2018 Council Retreat

On August 4th, Doraville’s council held its first retreat in several years. This was a great session where we identified some of our core values and top goals. Our city manager had expressed that it was important for her to get some direction about what issues are most important to us – I think we were able to accomplish that in this meeting

We spent a full day in a room together, hashing out a vision and finding common ground. My notes from the session are what follow.

Our core values as a council were the first thing we discussed. These are the the principles that we will operate by as a body, and keep in mind when working on legislation. They are:

  • Transparency
  • Honesty & Trust
  • Respect
  • Ethics
  • Equality (All people are Equal)
  • Courage
  • Considering Future Generations
  • Responsiveness
  • Communication
  • We are a Welcoming City

Our goals for the day included:

  • Defining a path forward for how we operate
  • Defining priorities
  • Identifying our common goals as a group
  • Having a path to implementation
  • Having measurable goals
  • Being on the same page
  • Having discussions ahead of action
  • Being able to communicate and bring up new ideas
  • Allowing staff to know the council’s collective thinking
  • Defining our “lanes” in terms of what council and admin do

The council members did an exercise where we did multi-voting to determine which goals are most important to us as a group. These goals will help the city staff determine how to allocate resources. Here is the ranked list (including some specific goals for each one):

Economic Development

  • Market the city to businesses
  • Make zoning codes more efficient
  • Speed up time it takes for us to approve businesses
  • Enable easier permitting
  • Publicize our openness, diversity and inclusiveness
  • Utilize commissions more effectively
  • Understand what other cities do with developers
  • City should invest in itself (including development projects)

Transportation / Transit

  • Ensure a comprehensive multi-modal plan
  • Bike trails to connect to MARTA
  • Connectivity between all segments of our city
  • Work with the state, GDOT and other governments where it makes sense
  • Connectivity to ourselves, our neighbors and the region. Be more focused on projects that have regional drivers when appropriate
  • Improve pedestrian access
  • Improve sidewalks – especially around bus stops
  • Look at improving bike paths and making wider sidewalks

Infrastructure

  • Do something with private sector to fix up and decorate unsightly buildings
  • Need a city wide stormwater plan
  • Include a sidewalk plan
  • Replace horizontal buildings at the city complex to build a town center (near MARTA). Should become a cultural center and create foot traffic
  • Plan to tie septic properties into the sewer system – educate homeowners about options
  • Require tie-ins to avoid having to re-patch roads
  • Demolish derelict buildings
  • Evaluate city’s assets and decide what to keep, fix or get rid of

Well Managed Government

  • Responsiveness to questions from residents, businesses and developers
  • Show respect to staff; offer incentives and recognition
  • Fill vacant positions and retain the talented individuals we have
  • Research best pay practice
  • Report to the public on a monthly basis
  • Put any typical open records request items on a website

Neighborhood Preservation

  • Maintenance and installation of sidewalks
  • Have a plan for infill development
  • Historic preservation – develop a plan
  • Develop a policy on burnt down or blighted properties; have a processs to address
  • Develop a list of problem properties
  • Define the enforcement priorities of code enforcement
  • Identify codes that are poorly written or that are unenforceable

Housing

  • Research developable tracts within the city
  • Consider “Small Houses”
  • Consider allowing inlaw suites
  • Consider allowing smaller square footage minimums
  • Incentivize developers to build workforce housing
  • We need an overall housing policy that covers all types of housing
  • We must protect the integrity of our existing neighborhoods
  • Produce flyers to help people make their homes ADA compliant

When it comes to capital projects, there are many that have been identified, and we need a way to prioritize them. We agreed to use the following criteria when deciding which ones to focus on first:

  • Align with strategic focus areas (including adopted planning documents, comprehensive plans and LCIs)
  • Consider the health and safety impact
  • Look at asset preservation vs asset expansion – consider preserving first
  • Look at return on investment
  • Complete a project before starting on a new one
  • Look for public private partnerships and prioritize those to leverage funding
  • Look for projects that will have the highest private good, but don’t let any neighborhoods be left out
  • Consider the ongoing operational impact of projects (we need staff feedback on this)
  • Invest in quality – if we are going to do something, do it well or else shut it down
  • Coordinate with developers

The retreat was extremely positive, and I feel like we have a team that has laid the groundwork to accomplish great things.

A shot of the mayor, council, and city manager at the 2018 retreat

Assembly is Quickly Moving Forward

I heard a few comments recently about Assembly – the former site of Doraville’s GM Plant – saying that it looked like a “parking lot.” This is because cars from the nearby dealership have been lined up along Motor’s Industrial for the last few weeks. These comments surprised me, because I ride MARTA every day, and every time I look at Assembly from the platform or the train, it appears to me to be an extremely active construction site.  

On June 26th, I took some photos of the progress at Assembly from the Doraville train platform.  I could barely see the cars people had been talking about (I think these are more visible if you’re driving on 285 or Motor’s Industrial), but I was actually impressed by how much work has been done in just a few months:

IMG_20180626_171606
A view of the Serta Simmons Bedding Headquarters building, plus the parking deck they are starting to work on at the back of the building
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To the right is the research facility being built next to Serta Simmons Bedding’s new headquarters
MVIMG_20180626_171635
There is a wide swath of  construction activity across Assembly – very little of it bears a resemblance to a parking lot

I’m gratified so many people are excited about this site, and want to see more happening there. In fact, I largely ran for office because I believe:

  1. Redevelopment of Doraville’s former GM plant is essential to the future of the city
  2. The city must prioritize the covered road (slated to go under the MARTA station) that will connect Assembly and Downtown Doraville

I hope that all the people who are  concerned about that small portion of Assembly being used for overflow parking will join me in advocating for the covered road that will connect the site to MARTA and the rest of the city. That connection will accelerate growth, and help encourage even more of the development that I know many of our residents would like to see.

I’m excited about Assembly, and very proud that our city was able to secure the Headquarters of a prestigious company like Serta Simmons Bedding. It’s been a treat to watch this facility come out of the ground!

The total scale of this development is huge at 165 acres, so it’s important to keep the “big picture” in mind, to realize that this is a 10 year project that has only just gotten started. We also need to prioritize whatever steps (like the covered road) we believe will encourage quality development. I’m grateful you elected me as one of your leaders to make sure this project gets the support it needs. 

2019 Operating Budget Wrap-Up

On June 18th, Doraville’s city council voted to approve the 2019 operating budget – which also required raising the city’s millage rate to 10 mills. The votes in favor of this were Koontz, Hillard, Patrick, and Geierman. Council members Naser and Fleming voted “No” on both the budget and millage rate increase.

I did not take my own vote to raise the millage rate lightly, and I spent a lot of time weighing the options. While there are some things in this budget that I personally think could have been trimmed, getting agreement from the rest of the council on those between now and the end of the month (our state-imposed deadline for having an approved budget) was not realistically going to happen.

Also, there were several things in this budget that I think are necessary to the city’s future: namely investments in professional staff. Our planning department and economic development department have both been starved for resources for years. In my opinion, that’s one of the reasons that growth in Doraville has not taken off the way it has in neighboring cities. If we don’t start investing in these departments, I don’t think we’re going to see the change we want. The new budget gets us moving in that direction

I spent a lot of time grappling with how to deal with city’s very real need to invest in itself, while also struggling with my concern that the council this year has never gotten together for a retreat or had real work sessions to identify its collective priorities for the city. I believe the budget would have been tighter – or at least we’d be sure what the consensus was – if we’d done this work ahead of time. I did not want to approve this tax increase and then have things continue status quo for another year. I wanted a commitment that the council would change the way it operates (most importantly, improving the quality of the work sessions and holding the retreat that has been promised since I was sworn in).

A conversation with a resident gave me an idea about how to reconcile those two things – he suggested a resolution that the council would look for cost savings over the next year that could be used for future investments or to reduce the millage rate. Some of the other council members questioned the value of this, but I felt that it was an important public commitment from the council to work together and also an acknowledgement that we need to be stewards of taxpayer money and be working to find efficiencies wherever we can.

The draft we agreed to is here. It was approved by all members of council before the millage rate and budget votes.  I would have preferred setting a goal amount of savings that we would look for, but went with the softer version of this that would get everyone on board.

This resolution wouldn’t have gone anywhere if it weren’t for Council Member Koontz, who helped me a lot in the hours before the public meeting to get this into a form everyone would agree to vote on. She was able to see what the roadblocks to getting other council members on board were, and made suggestions for improvement that I didn’t feel compromised the most important parts of this resolution. She showed a lot of leadership and I appreciate her support on this.

In the end, while I did not want to raise the millage rate,  I am happy that the city is finally going to be investing in itself and that the council has agreed to a collaborative process for evaluating the city’s spending and priorities. I think this is a step forward for Doraville, and may be looked back at in the future as a turning point.

FY 2019 Budget Discussions

Last week, Doraville’s city manager presented a proposed budget to the city council. Even though our property values (and the tax digest) are going up in 2019, several of the city’s costs are going up as well. There are also several needs the city has which have been ignored for many years.  Because of this, her budget proposes raising our municipal property tax from 8.951 to 10 mills.

In a meeting I had with her this week, the city manager gave me this document showing the anticipated expenditures in 2019 if we make no increases in service, along with the expected changes in revenue. To help myself understand it a little better, I reorganized this data into a spreadsheet:  

Budget-same

If we leave everything the same, while factoring in the non-discretionary increases above, we would have a deficit of about $350,000. To cover just this, we would need to raise taxes to about 9.46 mills.  

There are some important other things that the city needs to do which will also cost money – these include hiring a full time public information officer (who would be responsible for the city’s overall communications – including on the web, its newsletter and social media) and setting up an economic development contract for branding, marketing and small business retention. The city  could also use a Research analyst and GIS specialist and some other positions that will help it accommodate businesses and developers that want to come to Doraville.

Here’s the revenue increase we can expect at each step in the millage rate. I show our current millage rate, the rate at which we would need to make no cuts in services (9.46) , and how much would be generated if we raise it to 10.

Mills

This budget process has been a frustrating one for me, because I believe there has been a lack of leadership from the city council when it comes to deciding the city’s priorities. I accept ownership for my part in that lack of leadership. We have not given the city’s staff any meaningful direction about what is important to us as a body or where we want to invest our resources. I tried to have some of these conversations at our budget work session, but it was too little too late.  

Expecting 6 people to agree on all of our collective priorities for Doraville and to achieve a consensus that the city’s staff could work from during a 1 hour work session a few weeks before the budget needs to be passed was unrealistic. I can’t fault the staff for prioritizing everything in this budget, because the council has not given any direction about what our priorities are or where it would be OK to make cuts. I’m hopeful that we can provide better guidance in the future and that the council will restructure the way it handles work sessions altogether (a 1 hour work session before the public meeting is not cutting it).

Based on my own priorities, I have suggested that the council look at these areas of the budget if it wants to offset the impact of tax increases:  

  • We spend over $700,000 on “Recreation.” Is this money well spent? Who are the people taking part in the programs being offered? How many of them live in Doraville? Are we providing the activities that people who live in Doraville want? Could the amount we spend in these budget line items be reduced?
  • Homestead exemption is a tool that can help us promote home-ownership. I would like to offset tax increases by increasing our homestead exemption. I think this would help encourage landlords who haven’t invested anything in their properties to sell to people who would hopefully decide to live in our neighborhoods.
  • Doraville police do a great job. With that said, they make up a huge part of the budget, and I don’t think we’ve really given them much direction about where their resources should be focused. Given that our police force makes up 60% of the budget, the council should be focusing more on this line item every year.  

Comments I received in the last work session and in one-on-one discussions with some council members lead me to believe there’s not a lot of appetite to tackle any of the above  areas right now. That said, I am going to continue pushing that we look at these areas, even after we are through budget season.

I still want to hear from you – at the upcoming budget meeting on Monday night, or via email or phone call. I can be reached at joseph.geierman@doravillega.us or 678-373-9137. I am sure that the other council members want to hear from you also. They can be reached at:

If you do not support raising the millage rate, I’m especially interested in what areas of our services you think we should cut back on.

Property Tax Assessments – Appeals Process Reminder

Property taxes provide a large chunk of revenue for municipal and county governments, as well as for public schools. These taxes are calculated based on an estimate of property value that is made by the county’s tax office annually.

While I think that the assessors are generally trying to be fair, they may not always get it right. We are lucky that in Georgia, all property owners have the right to appeal their property tax assessment within 45 days of receiving it. You are able to file your appeal online, and you will receive a hearing date with the assessor and a board of other property owners (who may judge your case if you and the property assessor can’t work out a fair value) sometime in the Fall.

It’s an easy process, and won’t take more than a few hours of your time. It could also save you hundreds of dollars annually. You can find instructions for the entire appeal process here: https://www.dekalbcountyga.gov/property-appraisal/appeal-process.

Hat tip to Dunwoody Councilman, John Heneghan, who has posted reminders about appealing property taxes annually for many years. The deadline to file is 45 days after your assessment was sent out (so around July 16).

Doraville Press Release on Pending Litigation

There have been several news stories recently about a lawsuit filed against the city of Doraville. Unfortunately I cannot comment on the pending litigation, but I can  point you to this statement that the city has released:

 

City Statement Regarding Revenues Collected for Fines

Stepping Down as a Nextdoor Lead

About 5 years ago, I heard about a new “private social network” called “Nextdoor.” It seemed to solve a lot of the problems that I had seen with neighborhood email lists:

  • Each “Nextdoor Neighborhood” was only open to people who lived within the boundaries of a physical neighborhood.
  • Members had to use their real names.
  • Discourse was meant to be civil. It was a national network, so people outside of a core group would eventually hear about it.
  • People did not have to follow every discussion (a lot of complaints about email lists was often that peoples’ inboxes were being spammed by vocal advocates of one position or another)
  • There were light moderation tools, but it was still meant to be a forum that was open to pretty much everyone who lived in a particular place.

I was sold, and became the founding member of the Northwoods Nextdoor group. I’ve actively promoted the tool since, because I think it’s valuable for neighbors to connect with each other and to know what’s happening in their area.  I’m proud that the Northwoods is the largest Nextdoor neighborhood  in Doraville with over 530 members (about 19% of Northwoods households are represented there).

As the founding member of the Northwoods network, I’ve also been the primary lead (moderator) for Northwoods for the past 5 years (I just received a “badge” from the site for doing this). I’ve tried to use a light touch with moderating – opting to close conversations that were just people arguing the same points back and forth only after they had gone on for a while, gone off topic or if there were other threads that were commenting on the same thing; only voting to delete comments that were truly insulting to others, and trying not to let my personal feelings about comments someone made affect how I chose to moderate.

Since being elected to city council, I’ve been concerned about how effective I can be as a Nextdoor lead. I feel like I cannot fairly moderate discussions that are commenting on issues that I will vote on or have voted on in my capacity as a Councilman. At the same time, the moderating on Nextdoor function is necessary – especially to close conversations that have gone on too long, or to delete particularly insulting comments aimed at individuals. After considering this for a while, I decided last week to nominate several people as Nextdoor leads and to retire my “Nextdoor lead” status.

The people I nominated into these lead positions are community leaders in Northwoods, or else have been active on Nextdoor for a long time, and do not have a history of getting involved in a lot of back-and forth arguments with others. I nominated several of them so that no individual has the burden of having to make the call on every single post. It’s going to take them a while to learn how the site works – I’m sure they’ll all do a great job.  It’s not always an easy job, so please be patient with them while they get their bearings.

I appreciate all the people who have joined Northwoods’ Nextdoor site over the last 5 years, as well as the new leads who are filling in for me now that I’m stepping down.

 

Doraville Budget Season – Initial Presentation

At the June 4th Doraville city council work session, ahead of month-long deliberations on the city’s 2019 operating budget, the city manager gave an overview of where Doraville stands today with its budget and what she and other members of staff recommend we do going forward.

You can read the entire presentation here.

Some key points:

  • The city gets the bulk of its revenue from property tax collection. The value of the tax digest has gone up, so the taxes the city estimates it will get in 2019 have also gone up.
  • Taxes for the city are calculated in “Mills” of assessed value – one thousandth the taxable value of property. A Mill in Doraville is still worth much less than in neighboring cities – a function of having more residential than commercial properties.
  • Healthcare costs will be going up $310,000 for the city in Fiscal Year 2019
  • There are some other obligations the city has that are going to be due in 2019
  • Because of this, she does not recommend rolling back the current property tax rate, even though expected revenue is up.

In addition, there are a number initiatives that the city might want to embark on that are not currently funded (and that there is no funding for) with the current tax levels. These include several building improvements, IT upgrades, and staff hires. The city would need to raise 10.451 mills in order to achieve everything that was presented to the council on Monday night, it would require a tax rate of 10.451 mills (this would be an increase of $90 a year for someone who’s home is worth $175,000). The city’s millage rate is capped at 10 mills, so in the next presentation they give to us, they will show the cost of each initiative in an a la carte fashion. We’ll need to decide whether we want to raise taxes even to 10 mills.

There are several meetings that will be happening in June where the budget is going to be discussed.

  • June 11th at 11:30am: Millage rate Public Hearing #1 (No Council Action to be taken)
  • June 11th at 6:00pm: Millage rate public hearing #2; Budget Public Hearing #1. First read of ordinances to adopt the millage rate, budget, and other associated ordinances
  • June 18th at 6:00pm: Millage rate public hearing #3; Budget Public Hearing #2
  • June 18th at 6:30pm: Regular Meeting: Adoption of ordinances for millage rate, budget, and other associated ordinances
  • June 28th at 6:00pm: Possible meeting date if adoption of ordinances does not occur on June 18th.

For those that are interested, I’ve uploaded a copy of the county’s preliminary tax digest estimates that you can view here.  

The millage rate and budget must be adopted by June 30th, 2018. I would like to hear more from you about what you think of this presentation – where you would like to see the city spending more money, and where you would like to see it spending less money. You can email me at joseph.geierman@doravillega.us or call me at 678-373-9137.

Conditional Use Permit for St Martin’s Episcopal School (Former Star Towers)

At its May 21st meeting, Doraville’s city council voted in favor of granting a conditional use permit allowing St Martin’s Episcopal School to take three parcels of land along Stewart Road and to use them for athletic fields for their students. These properties currently house several vacant buildings (including “Star Towers”) and have been an eyesore for at least 10 years. I’m excited that we’ll be seeing a transformation of this area into active sports fields and well-maintained green space.

I spoke with many people who were in favor of this development, but there was also some vocal opposition to  this development – especially from people who live in the neighborhood that directly abuts the property. Opponents are primarily concerned about nuisance sound from a loudspeaker system at the side of the property closest to Buford Highway, as well as increased parking and traffic on Stewart Road.

  • To mitigate the sound concerns, council limited use of the loudspeaker at the soccer field to the hours of 9am – 9pm on weekdays and 10am – 9pm on weekends.
  • Traffic concerns are legitimate, but right turns onto Stewart will be prohibited from the property, which is a good start to addressing those concerns. The exit will be designed in a way that will hopefully reduce the likelihood that people try to make right turns there.
  • The parking for the site meets the city’s zoning requirements. I don’t think this could be used as a reason to deny an application.  

I was one of the 5 council members who voted in favor of this conditional use. I voted this way, because I think these sports fields will have economic and social benefits for the city. Specifically:

  • Cleaning up the blight on Stewart should encourage nearby landowners to improve their own properties. I also believe removing this eyesore will increase the property values of surrounding parcels and also raise the overall tax digest for the city. .
  • This is a use that will bring more people with money to spend (parents of children in private school) to Doraville. I’m hoping they will spend their money in our town on the way to or after a game.
  • The school seems to be willing to partner with the city on allowing us to use their venue for certain events – it also is providing a pocket park and will be preserving green space, which I think is positive for the community. 

I heard a few other negative comments about the proposal, which I’ll address below:

  • “This development will remove about $25,000 in annual property taxes from the tax digest” (because it’s owned by a church).

Federal law prohibits discriminating against religious institutions based on whether or not they’ll pay property taxes.  This was not an argument that I could consider even if I agreed with it.

I will say that the overall drag that these lots have had on property values up and down Stewart and Buford Highway probably far outweighs the $25,000 a year that they have been bringing in as vacant eyesores. After the improvements, I believe that we will see a broad increase in property values that far exceeds the value of $25,000 a year.

  • “Our community won’t benefit from this field, because it’s not open to the public.”

I think there are plenty of ways that our community will benefit from having an actively engaged landowner controlling these properties. The school has stated that they are willing to work with the city on allowing some local use of the facilities, based on availability within their schedule. They are maintaining a 40’ buffer between their property and the homes on Stewart Court the that will maintain much of the existing tree canopy there. They also agreed to creation of a pocket park on Stewart Road, which is mainly going to benefit people who live in that immediate vicinity.

I think there is actually quite a lot of general public benefit being offered here – certainly more than we’d see in most developments that might have happened at this location.

  • “Money was already spent to demolish these buildings.”

I cannot speak to anything a council 4 or 6 years ago may have voted for and then did not follow through on. As far as I know, nothing has been paid for demolition of Star Towers by Doraville, nor is anything budgeted for this.  

  • “We should have delayed this vote.”

I believe that a lot of consideration was given to this matter. This development came before the planning commission twice: it was first presented to them at their April 12th meeting, and they recommended we vote “yes” on it at their May 2nd meeting. We then held the council meeting 19 days later. There was a lot of time for people to speak at public meetings and otherwise advocate for and against.  I don’t think delaying the vote would have added anything to the process.

  • “We should build housing on those lots.”

I think there was a proposal to build town homes here a while back, and it was sunk by concerns about parking, traffic, etc.

I imagine that any builders that would have wanted to build housing here would want to put in multi-family housing, which would have a much larger impact on the surrounding neighborhood’s traffic than the sports fields would.

I believe I am protecting the interests of the neighborhood by approving this less intense use.

  • “Approval of this project was a done deal before the public council meeting”

I can only speak for myself, but no one told me how to vote, nor was I sure what other council members were going to do. In fact, I was actively waiting for the open meeting to hear the public’s comments, as well as to see what conditions the school might be willing to agree to. There are people who felt strongly on both sides of this issue, and I heard from many of them. I believe that I gave full consideration to all sides, and believe that other council members did as well. In the end, I did what I thought was best for the city, based on the knowledge that I had.

This was not an easy decision, or one I took lightly. As a member of city council, I can’t comment on a case before I’ve considered it, which is why I remained silent while someone was spreading the untrue rumor that “the fix is in.”  I don’t expect people who disagree with my vote to be happy with the outcome, but I want everyone to understand my rationale for that vote and to understand that I did give full consideration to all sides.   

View the video from the meeting where this vote took place here. 

Read the agenda packet from this meeting here.