Recap: Doraville Council’s November Work Session

On November 14, Doraville City Council held a work session to discuss possible changes to our ordinances and fee schedules. The topics covered included:

Parking in Residential Neighborhoods: this was a follow up discussion related to code enforcement. We currently have codes on the books that restrict “commercial” vehicles. It is difficult to define what vehicle is or is not used for a business. We are considering a change that puts vehicles into different classes, and prevent certain types (dump trucks, tow trucks, heavy construction equipment) from parking in residential neighborhoods at all. Given the nature of our neighborhood, and the fact that most homes do not have garages, we are considering a allowing limited number of vehicles with ladders attached to be parked in driveways – none may be parked on the street. The goal is to make what is allowed and not allowed in our residential neighborhoods much clearer so that code enforcement does not have to try to interpret fuzzy concepts like whether a van with a ladder is “commercial” or not. I expect a draft of a new ordinance sometime early next year. I’m glad that the city is finally working on this – we need better written codes in order to be able to successfully enforce them.  View the presentation here.

Permit Fees: Doraville has run into some complaints from developers that our permit fees and processes are out of line with those of our neighboring cities. Our city staff is in the process of comparing what we charge compared to what other cities charge. The end goal is to have permitting fees pay the cost of administering the process, which is the same goal of other cities. I believe we should look at what successful cities like Brookhaven and Chamblee are doing and mirror their processes as much as possible. Staff is going to report back to us next year after doing more research. View the presentation here.

Zoning Updates: The Planning Commission and Community Development Director have been working for several months on an update to our zoning. Our codes are currently very difficult to read, and that makes it harder for a business trying to open in our city, or a developer interested in a project, to know whether or not they would require a conditional use permit. The zoning code would be moved into a grid format where you can easily see whether something is permitted by right or needs a conditional use permit. I fully support this, as it should make Doraville an easier place to do business in. View the presentation here.

 

You can watch the full meeting here, and download the agenda packet here.

 

Banquet Hall/VR Arcade – Conditional Use Permits

At our December meeting, the city council voted to approve a conditional use permit for a new banquet hall in the Treasure Island shopping center. The woman opening this business got her start renting furniture to people throwing parties in their backyards (quinceañeras and other birthdays, weddings, etc). She said that many people would ask her about renting space, too, because their yards were too small to accommodate the party. Under our C-2 zoning, banquet halls require review by the Planning Commission and must be approved by City Council. That’s why we reviewed this application.

When the banquet hall came before the Planning Commission, they voted 3 to 1 to deny the Conditional Use Permit. Their reasoning was mainly over concern about the noise the business might bring to the area if people spilled out into the parking lot or there was loud music in the facility itself. Some concerns were also brought up about the lack of any kitchen or cleaning facilities.

When Council reviewed the request for a Conditional Use Permit, we considered the same things – but it was pointed out that there is already a jazz/salsa club and a loud restaurant next door. Not only that, this business would be required to follow Doraville’s noise ordinances just like any other operator in the city. When these points were brought up – along with the fact that there is a 60 foot buffer between the shopping center and the closest houses, my noise concerns were answered.

Although they plan to have mostly disposable cups, plates, etc, as well as will cater any food that is provided for parties; the fact that they did not have a place to clean dishes or wash things up bothered me. We did put a condition on their permit that they must have a cleaning sink (apart from anything in the restrooms). They could use this to get water for a mop; to clean dishes; etc.

Several people spoke in favor of this – and no member of the public spoke against it. One of the biggest arguments in favor is that there is a need for this kind of venue in the city. People have loud parties at their houses, and then the police get called on them. This gives them an option to have a celebration without risking annoying their neighbors.

With my concerns addressed, I did not see any reason deny the CUP, and voted with the majority to approve it. The vote was 5 to 1 in favor. The vote against the banquet hall was Pam Fleming.

At the same meeting, we voted to approve a Conditional Use Permit for a Virtual Reality arcade. The planning commission had unanimously recommended that council approve the CUP, and the council unanimously approved it.

You can download the packet that includes the CUP Application here. I will update this with a link to the video of the meeting once it’s posted.

The Planning Commission meeting with this applicant can be viewed here.

A JOINT STATEMENT FROM STEPHE KOONTZ AND JOSEPH GEIERMAN ON A PROPOSED NON-DISCRIMINATION ORDINANCE FOR THE CITY OF DORAVILLE

Doraville is a dynamic, incredibly diverse spot in metro Atlanta. People from all types of backgrounds and nationalities live here. “Diversity” is such an important part of our city’s identity that it is even part of the city Motto (“Diversity, Vitality, Community”).

As members of Doraville’s city council, we take our city’s identity as a diverse community seriously. We also strongly feel that it’s important to push the needle from tolerance to inclusion. Because of this, we supported the city’s participation in both Welcoming America and the One Region Initiative – committing the city to taking actions that reach out to immigrant and refugee populations within our community. Our next step in this process is the introduction of a Non-Discrimination Ordinance at the November 5th city council meeting.

This ordinance would provide a level of protection for employees and consumers of Doraville businesses against discrimination based on race, religion, color, sex, disability, national origin, ancestry, sexual orientation, gender identity, or military status. Doraville would be just the second city in Georgia (after Atlanta) to adopt such an ordinance. It is a little-known fact that Georgia does not have any protections for discrimination based on the statuses mentioned above – if someone is a member of a protected class and wants to file a lawsuit, they are required to file a federal lawsuit, which is a challenge for many people who might have been wronged. Most LGBTQ people are not covered as a Federal protected class at all, and therefore currently have no recourse at the state or federal level if they experience discrimination.

The goal of the Non-Discrimination Ordinance we are proposing for Doraville is to provide realistic, reasonable protections locally; and to discourage anyone operating a business or offering public accommodations here from engaging in discriminatory practices. Atlanta has not experienced any backlash or problems arising from their ordinance, and we do not expect problems arising for Doraville from this one.

Our research suggests that Non-Discrimination ordinances are tied to economic development for the cities that adopt them. Corporations that are looking for a new location are frequently drawn to municipalities that have protections in place for their employees. The draft ordinance has been shown to the developers of Assembly (site of Doraville’s former GM plant), and they have assured us that it would not have an adverse impact on their ability to attract development to the site. Several existing businesses in Doraville have also given their support.

Council Member Koontz has crafted something that will be a model for other small cities that do not have the same level of resources as City of Atlanta. In talking with nearby cities, we think this is an opportunity for Doraville to lead the way on diversity and inclusion in our region. We believe that there is a strong possibility that neighboring cities may follow our lead and pass similar ordinances after we pass our own.

While being one of the first to do something is a leap, we also know that the rewards can be great – if you have the courage to step up. We are both excited about the story this ordinance will tell people in Metro Atlanta and beyond about Doraville’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. Doraville is ready for change, and we welcome all to join us as we grow.

Sincerely,

Stephe Koontz, Doraville City Council District 3

Joseph Geierman, Doraville City Council District 2

A copy of this statement can also be found on Stephe Koontz’ website

Read the text of the non-discrimination ordinance here.

Doraville Now Allows Alcohol at Public Events

In May, I proposed to the rest of the council that we start working on a new ordinance to allow alcohol at public events. I decided to do this after feedback from some of my neighbors at the Mayor’s Day festivities – with several of them complaining that there was no alcohol for sale. I realized that events in Doraville – whether held by the city or by a third party – will never really be successful  unless alcohol is allowed to be sold at them.

Council finally passed the ordinance to allow this at the October 15th meeting. I’m thrilled, and think this is a step in the right direction for future festivals and other events that might be held in our city.

A few people in the public meeting made comments questioning why this was necessary, and indicating that they had purchased alcohol from food truck vendors in the past. While I don’t now if this is true or not, I do not believe it was legal under our old ordinance.

Here is what our ordinances said regarding open containers prior to this month’s vote: 

Sec. 11-20. – Open ​container is prohibited.
(a) It shall be unlawful for any person to possess an open container of any alcoholic beverage upon the public streets or highways of the City. It shall also be unlawful for any person to possess an open container of any alcoholic beverage upon private property which is open to the public except those facilities having a license from the City to sell alcoholic beverages or at portions of such facility which may be outside but adjacent to such facility. (b) Open container means any container which is immediately capable of being consumed from or the seal of which has been broken.
(Ord. No. 92-9, ​§ 1, 11-2-92) 

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The section above is pretty clear that it was unlawful to have an open container of alcohol (beer, wine, etc) on a public street. There was no exception. In order to legally allow alcohol sales at outdoor events, we needed to amend the section above as follows:
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Sec. 11-20.1 Exception for special events where the sale of alcohol has been authorized.
(a) Notwithstanding the provisions contained in subsection 11-20, concerning consumption and possession of alcoholic beverages in public streets, highways, and private property open to the public, there shall be an exception within the bounded area of a permitted special event where the sale of alcohol is authorized pursuant 3-45(a). Except for the provisions concerning consumption and possession of alcohol as set forth in this exception, any such sale, consumption, and/or possession of alcoholic beverages in the City shall be in compliance with the provisions of Chapter 3, “Alcoholic Beverages”, of this Code of Ordinances and the statutes and regulations of the State of Georgia with respect to sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages.
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This addition to 11-20 allows the sale of alcohol at public events on a street, in a parking lot, or even  a park. t wasn’t legal before, but I hope that we will start to see new events decide to come to Doraville that are a net benefit to our city and its residents!

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.