Amendments & Referenda – Georgia 2018 Ballot

It’s election season again, and early voting has opened up in Dekalb County. You can cast your ballot at the locations listed here. You can also request an absentee ballot from the registrar’s office by filling out this form and sending it to  voterreg@dekalbcountyga.gov – that’s what I did earlier this month. I like the option of a paper ballot, and also knowing that my vote will be counted even if something prevents me from making it to my polling place on November 6. Just be sure to remember you need to use two stamps when you send the ballot back to the county.

This year, there are several amendments and referendums on the ballot that you may not be familiar with. I’m going to assume that you know what individuals or party-tickets you’re voting for. The amendments and referendums are probably less straightforward, though, so I wanted to at least share my thoughts on each. Some of them will have a direct impact on Doraville. You can view the full text of the amendments, along with the list of candidates on the ballot at your Georgia Voter Page.

Amendment 1: A percentage of tax funds from sporting good sales would go into the “Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Trust Fund.” This is a fund that – in addition to conservation and water safety uses – could be spent on parks and trails in municipalities (like Doraville!). I voted yes and hope you do too!

Amendment 2: Creates a statewide business court. This is a specialized court that would give businesses a venue to take complicated disputes. The cases would be presided over by judges who will specialize in technical business issues. The devil is in the details, because the specifics of how judges are chosen and how the court will be paid for have not been identified by the legislature. That will all be decided next year if this amendment passes. I’m not a huge fan of voting for judges, so the fact that they will be appointed does not bother me.  In general, I think the addition of this court will help make Georgia a stronger venue for business from around the world, so I voted yes.

Amendment 3: This amendment is being sold as a  “win” for conserving Georgia’s forests, but actually weakens conservation incentives and gives big landowners a tax break. I voted no.

Amendment 4: Enables “Marsy’s Law,” which would require authorities to notify victims of crimes when their accusers are up for parole, etc. I voted yes

Amendment 5: This is a law that allows a large school district in a county to authorize a SPLOST referendum without getting the permission of smaller districts in the same county. The reason that this is on the ballot is that sometimes a school district with a minority of children in the county can hold the decision hostage unless the larger district agrees to give them an unfair proportion of the revenue. I voted “yes”

Referendum A: This law would cap property taxes in the city of Atlanta only. Every year, the max that property tax in the city would be allowed to go up would be 2.6%. I don’t support giving the people of Atlanta a special deal that does not apply to the other people in the state. I also don’t support the state getting that involved in the details of one city’s tax situation. I voted “no.”

Referendum B: Provides a tax exemption for nonprofit homes for mentally disabled people – even if they are financed by for-profit businesses. This exemption already exists, but the language about how they can be financed needs to be clarified. Under this law, nonprofit organizations may set up Limited Liability Corporations to finance these homes and still receive the tax credit. I voted “yes.”

Special Doraville Election: Would allow restaurants in Doraville to serve alcohol starting at 11am on Sundays. I voted yes!

 

Notes from Doraville Council’s October Extended Work Session

At its extended October work session, Doraville’s council discussed the following important issues.

– Creating a citywide traffic calming policy

– Code Enforcement Challenges and Improvements

– Finalizing the list of SPLOST projects

Watch the entire video here.

Here’s my perspective on each:

Traffic Calming Policy:

I was surprised when I joined the council early this year to discover that the city had no written policy about how residents of a street could request traffic calming measures if they thought their street was unsafe. There had been some discussion about creating something a few years before, but it had been dropped and never picked up again.

I think giving residents a clearly stated process for initiating some action on traffic complaints on their street is important. I first introduced this issue in a May 21st work session, and then did work behind the scenes with the city manager to work towards a first draft of a new process. When our new Public Works Director (Larry King) came onboard, he further refined the process, which was presented to the council in this October session.

A concern of mine would be that if we limited participation in the traffic calming petitions so that only property owners on a street had a say, that might make  getting a majority of homes on the street to sign a petition an insurmountable hurdle. We came up with a process that will solicit input from all residents of a street, but that will also survey the property owners. If a property owner does not respond, then the response from the person living in the house will be prioritized..

A few people in the meeting questioned allowing to give renters a voice, or why we should have a process at all (they felt the city should be measuring street safety based on number of crashes). In the end, though, it appeared there was a consensus to have a clear process for residents who want traffic calming installed on their street to petition the city. I expect staff to roll something out very soon based on the feedback we’ve provided.

You can view the presentation that Mr. King shared, showing the proposed process, here.

Code Enforcement

The code enforcement part of the meeting was very interesting. We learned from our code enforcement officers that many of our ordinances are poorly written, and hard to enforce. With a few changes, we could make some big improvements in enforceability and reduce the time they spend doing busy-work. Most notably there is an ordiance limiting “business vehicles” that has the officers digging into whether or not the vehicle is used in a business. Code enforcement is spending a huge amount of time trying to track down whether a business is being run out of the home, rather than just focusing on vehicles that are not in compliance.

We instructed staff to come up with a more clear-cut ordinance that banned certain types of vehicles from being parked in residential neighborhoods (semi-trucks, dump trucks, school busses, etc), but excluded other vehicles that could be used for personal or business use (pick-up trucks, vans, etc).

We learned that the majority of code enforcement visits are for trash left out on the street. Council has instructed the city manager to include curbside pick-up of bulk items in the sanitation RFP that she is sent out. If we are able to do that, it will free up the code enforcement officers to focus more on business-districts in the city. My only concern with the curbside pick-up is the pricetag. Council Member Koontz made the good point that we’ll need to factor the time savings from dealing with other complaints into that price.

If we are able to streamline the focus of the code enforcement officers, we should free them up to spend more time in our business districts – which is sorely needed. Council Member Koontz stated, “It’s a starting point,” which is an understatement. I am glad we’re finally starting to take a second look at the way these codes are written, though.

You can view the packet our city manager shared with us here.

SPLOST

Finally, we went over the list of SPLOST projects a second time, and talked at a high level about what projects we would prioritize. I think the council generally thought that we should be prioritizing any projects that have already been started, as well as projects that have been already promised or previously budgeted.

Because of language in the ballot measure we voted on to approve SPLOST, Doraville can only use SPLOST money as it comes in. This slows down the time it takes to complete projects, and means we can’t take on as much at one time.

I hope the council will consider a future ballot measure that our citizens would vote on which  would allow us to get a bond based on expected SPLOST revenue. It’s too late to do this in 2018, but hopefully we’d be able to get it done by 2019. I fear that if we let too much time pass without doing this, we’re never going to maximize the value of our SPLOST money.

Overall, it was a good work session. I feel like the council is finally starting to do some work. Watch the whole video hereDownload the full work session packet here.

A Statement About Doraville’s Participation In Atlanta Pride

I would like to take an opportunity to applaud and publicly stand by our city manager for her decision to register Doraville in the 2018 Atlanta Pride Parade. This is the premiere event in the Southeast promoting pride, unity and visibility among lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgender people.  Participating this year is a big move that will help tell our city’s story about diversity and inclusiveness to the rest of the metro area. It’s also an opportunity to both publicize job openings at city hall (highlighting the city’s long-standing non-discrimination hiring policy); as well as a way to promote the city to employers and businesses in the area that value inclusiveness when looking for a jurisdiction in which to open up shop.

The city spent a minimal amount of money to register for the parade and to get a booth in the festival grounds. Council Member Koontz and I have spent our own money on shirts and giveaways for participants in the event. I speak for myself when I say that I am doing this because I am excited the city has decided to get involved in this way, and I want to personally support that decision in any way I can – including monetarily.

A failed anti-LGBT politician – who will do and say anything to get in the spotlight – is protesting Doraville’s participation in this year’s Pride. We should not be distracted by this person’s anti-LGBT agenda, or question the city’s participation in this event as he does not represent most of the people I know in our city.

The Doraville that I know and love is a diverse, accepting place – the first municipality in Georgia to elect an openly transgender official (my friend and colleague, Stephe Koontz)! We were one of the first small cities in Georgia to elect an openly LGBT person to city council (Brian Bates)! We are proud of our non-discrimination policy for hiring city workers! We should celebrate our history as an inclusive city, which is why I support the city manager’s decision 100%.

Doraville is an amazing, diverse, and welcoming city. I encourage anyone reading this to march with us on Sunday, October 14th (send me an email at Joseph.geierman@doravillega.us for information)

Inconsistent, Outdated Zoning is Holding Doraville Back

There is a question I have heard many times over the past year – variations of wanting to know why Doraville has not seen the same kind of development that has blossomed in other nearby communities.  Ultimately, there are lots of reasons – only some of which have been in the city’s control. That said, there are some mistakes the city made that I hope it can rectify. One of these is the inconsistent zoning along Buford Highway.

In 2014, the city was evaluating a new zoning tool (called the “Livable Community Form Based Code”) to use for re-zoning Downtown Doraville and Assembly. The code was meant to encourage more walkable mixed-use development (like what is being built in Chamblee along Peachtree Industrial).

Somehow, a few people in the Northwoods neighborhood (where I live), just south of Buford Highway, got the idea that this re-zoning effort applied to our neighborhood. Let me be absolutely clear: this re-zoning was slated for the commercial properties along Buford Highway only – not Northwoods. Rather than try to educate the public about the misinformation, however, the council at that time made the decision to include the North part of Buford Highway in the new T-5 Livable Communities Code zoning, and to leave the South part of Buford Highway with the old C-2 zoning that encourages strip mall development and no residential.

While this may have seemed like a good compromise, I believe the city shot itself in the foot by only re-zoning the North side of Buford Highway, and leaving the South side to languish with a code that was mainly written in the 1960s and 70s. The result is that we have been sending mixed messages to developers, and indicating that we’re not a serious player in the region. Who is going to want to spend a lot of time and money building a mixed use community on one side of Buford Highway when it will face strip malls and parking lots on the opposite side of the street? How do you build a community that way?

In our most recent work session discussion about Downtown Doraville, I brought up the fact that the city cannot credibly redevelop its downtown when it has half of its main street zoned using an outdated code from the 60s. We can’t keep making bad compromises and then wondering why we aren’t seeing the development we want. It’s time for us to show leadership and do the things we know are best for the city.

September 2018 Work Session: Storm Water & Downtown Doraville

At our retreat in August, the council agreed to hold one stand-alone work session each month. These sessions are where we plan to talk about big picture issues; to learn the ins and outs of particular plans or city functions; and are a way for staff to get some general direction from the council about the projects they’re working on. The goal of having these extra work sessions is to get out of reactive mode and become a more proactive city.

On Thursday, September 24th, we had the first of these meetings – our discussion covered storm water planning and the development of Doraville’s Downtown.

Downtown Doraville is exciting to discuss. I think everyone on the council agrees that they want to get this project off the ground. Councilwoman Koontz has written about it already – I mostly agree with her assessment. In that essay, Koontz talks about courage – it’s the courage to invest in our city and believe it will succeed. Getting this done and taking the many small steps it will take to make this happen is one of the key reasons I ran for city council.

Storm water is probably the topic that is harder for people to get excited about – but it’s very important. Much of our infrastructure was built in the 50s and is at the end of its lifespan. For many years, we’ve made little patches here and there, but because we didn’t fix underlying problems, it means we have even bigger repairs (and repair costs) looming over us. The challenge if we don’t get this right is that we can see increased flooding and sinkholes – so it’s an issue everyone should care about.

At the same time we have this huge need, we’ve kept the storm water mitigation fees we charge all residential property owners in the city at the same low rate of $48 a year since we took over responsibility of storm water from the county. We are still waiting for a full list of storm water infrastructure projects that are needed and what the cost is, but the expectation I take away from the meeting is that the list is going to be more expensive than the revenue we take in.

The council talked about different strategies for raising fees (basing it on the square footage of impervious structures on a property, basing it on the size of a lot, looking at other strategies like bonds). Whatever we do, there will be more discussion of it ahead of next year’s budgeting process. I do not think continuing to bandage over a bad situation is the way to go, however.

Additional Materials

 

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 joseph.geierman@doravillega.us.

Doraville Joins Welcoming America’s One Region Initiative

At its August 20th meeting, Doraville’s city council passed a resolution supporting Welcoming America’s  “One Region Initiative.” This is a group of local government entities around metro Atlanta who have agreed to pursue policies that  support immigrants and  refugees who live in our communities. This is the first regional welcoming plan in the USA, and I’m proud that Doraville is a founding member.

By joining this initiative, Doraville has committed to work towards inclusion – by doing things like providing municipal information in multiple languages, providing opportunities for civic engagement, and doing general civic outreach to immigrant and under-represented communities.

There were a couple of votes against joining this initiative – they boiled down to two arguments from opposite ends of the spectrum:

  1. “Doraville is already a very welcoming place, so there is no need to join this initiative”

  2. “Doraville has not done enough work to support immigrant communities, and joining this initiative would not change that. “

From my perspective, these arguments don’t hold up to scrutiny. If Doraville is a welcoming place, then we should be actively pursuing opportunities like the One Region Initiative. If we aren’t doing enough today, then we should welcome the One Region Initiative, because it will give us a structure and support for doing more to reach out to immigrant and refugee communities.

I’m proud to support this effort, and that our city has voted to be a part of it. I appreciate the work that Council Member Koontz did to represent the city while the initiative was being planned, and for making the resolution we recently voted on to join the initiative. Our participation in this from the beginning means that our city is helping shape the regional conversation, rather than just playing catch up.

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:

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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
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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.