SPLOST Update

Over the last several months, city council has been working to finalize the first set of infrastructure projects to spend its SPLOST funds on. Doraville can only spend these funds as they come in, so prioritization is important.

The council came to a consensus on these issues at its retreat in February, and we will be voting on them in a special meeting on March 4. I believe we all agreed that the city should focus on completing projects that had been started in the past and never finished (notably Oakcliff Road); projects that had been long-promised (demolishing derelict buildings owned by the city; making improvements in Brook Park); and focusing on needed safety improvements (upgrades to police systems, and fixing the cross walk at Buford Highway and Park Ave).

I have put the list of projects that council will be voting on into the spreadsheet below (it can also be accessed here). I ordered it based on completion/delivery date, which is what I’m most focused on (next to the cost).

I think this is a good list of projects that touches every neighborhood in our city. I’m hopeful we’ll see progress on many of them by the Summer. You can read the full city council packet here.

Council Considers Zoning Code Changes; Naming Northwoods Creeks

This week, at its Feb 20, 2019 meeting, the Doraville city council had a long and productive discussion that covered several topics

The most critical of these was a re-write of our zoning ordinances. When I was on the Planning Commission, I was shocked to learn how poorly written our zoning ordinances are. They are long, rambling paragraphs that were originally written in the 60s and have just been added to over the years. Many business-types that have sprung up since the 60s are not listed in the code, and thus require Conditional Use Permits to open (or are not allowed at all). It’s also hard for people who want to open a business to easily see what’s allowed or not allowed in a particular zone.

Over the past year, the Community Development Director, along with the Planning Commission, has been working on reformatting the code into a matrix format. They consolidated many duplicative uses into single lines, and suggested changes that could hinder growth. We had a good discussion about this code (focusing just on C1 and C2 for now), and it will come back to council again for further consideration in the March 18th meeting.

One thing that had been added to the code by the Community Development Director, which I did not support, was allowing hookah and cigar lounges to come to Doraville. Doctor Sarah Elizabeth Ford, the Director of the DeKalb Board of Health, came to council in November and spoke out against this addition to the code, as did a number of community activists. I voted against this addition, along with the majority of council, because while I support the right of adults to engage in smoking if they want to do it – I have concerns that hookah lounges could encourage tobacco use among young people and lead to devastating future health issues in our community.

In addition to zoning, we discussed changes to the building permitting process. The city is required to follow International Building Code by the state, but needs to pass legislation authorizing its building inspectors to enforce the codes. The new legislation we’re considering would use language that automatically updates our code whenever the state updates its code – it should be a much more efficient way of doing this.

There have been a few smart alec comments about a section of the code that says building permits are not required for a long list of items, including oil derricks. That is because oil derricks are covered by zoning permits – for instance they are not allowed in residential districts at all. We did ask for the language about this to be clarified, so it is clear that even if a building permit is not required, other permits may be required.

Northwoods Creeks that the council is asking the Federal Government to name at the request of NANA

Finally – over the past year, the Northwoods Area Neighborhood Association (NANA) has worked on a project to name some formerly unnamed creeks in the Northwoods neighborhood. Many people in the community were involved, and they ultimately settled on the names “Stewart Creek” and “Northwoods Creek”. Stewart Creek was named after Thomas Stewart who allowed a granite quarry to be dug near Chestnut Drive and Buena Vista Drive. He dammed a creek that ran through the quarry, creating a swimming hole named “Stewart’s Lake.” Naming the creek that formed this lake “Stewart” honors this memory. The Northwoods Creek runs through the middle of the historic Northwoods neighborhood, which is why the group decided to name it “Northwoods.” This was a great community building effort, and I’m proud that the council voted to allow the city manager to send a request to the Federal government asking them to accept these names.

You can download the meeting packet with all documents here and view the video here.

Doraville Pride – 2019 Planning

As a member of city council, it’s important for me to celebrate and build on the things that make Doraville special. One of these assets to our city is its diversity – we’re home to many different people from a variety of ethnic and economic backgrounds. We also have a large LGBTQ community, which I am proud to be a part of.

In 2018, I led an initiative to get our city to participate in Atlanta’s gay pride march, and helped organize many of our residents – and the majority of our council – to participate in that effort. It was a great event, and I think raised the profile of our city in a positive way. It also helped set the stage for us to approve the non-discrimination ordinance that Councilwoman Koontz introduced the following month – we are only the second city in Georgia to pass such an ordinance, and the first one to pass one in nearly 20 years.

After passing the ordinance and marching in Pride, it would be easier to just run on auto-pilot and continue doing the same thing year after year. I think it’s important to keep building on our momentum, though. On February 16, a group of 20 folks got together at the Doraville Library to start planning Pride Events for Doraville in 2019. In addition to marching in the Metro Atlanta parade, there were some other good ideas – including screening a movie under the stars and hosting an arts festival. Other folks are going to work on educating businesses about the non-discrimination ordinance, and encouraging them to post stickers on their door promoting the fact that they do not discriminate.

If you are interested in getting involved, send me an email. You can also join the Doraville Pride Facebook group. I’m excited about what our community will put together this year, and hope you’ll be a part of it!

A Proposed Resolution Regarding Rental Registries

I have been concerned for some time about certain unscrupulous landlords who disregard the safety of their tenants by packing as many people as they can into a boarding house situation. The living conditions for the people renting rooms (or portions of rooms) in these chopped up homes are often unsafe, and the strain on the sewer, trash, traffic and other city systems can have a potentially big negative impact on neighbors.

At our February 4th work session, I will be asking that the council authorize our attorneys to draft a resolution encouraging the state legislature to allow municipalities to maintain rental property registries (the state government currently does not allow this). I would not want to register the renters, but instead focus on the owners of properties – who I believe are the ones truly responsible for creating these conditions. This would be a first step toward getting our arms around Doraville’s boarding house problem. You can read the item I put together for the packet here. This would be the first step in a long-term effort to get our legislators to take this seriously.

If you agree with me that this is an important issue, please contact the mayor and other council members to voice your supportthe contact info for the mayor and council can be found here.

Addressing Speeding Traffic on Chestnut

Many people who live in Northwoods have been discussing traffic along Chestnut Drive, and talking about the need for better speed enforcement or else traffic calming. This has been a long-standing issue, as well as one with a lot of nuance.

Per state law, ​the Georgia Department of Transportation must approve any road where speed detection devices are going to be used. Before I was elected, in 2017, the Doraville council approved several reductions in speed limit: on Chestnut, Winters Chapel, Oakcliff and Tilly Mill. The changes were made because of legitimate safety concerns about the speed and volume of traffic in these areas – unfortunately, GDOT must approve any road where speed detection devices may be used. By changing the speed limit, Doraville lost its ability to use radar detection on these streets.

I have spoken about this with both Chief King as well as our city manager, Regina Gates. Both have told me that GDOT denied our first request to be able to use radar detection on Chestnut and the other streets. This decision is being appealed right now, but we do not know how the state will rule.

It’s important to note that I also don’t think radar detection is going to solve all the problems with this road. There are some rules that even police using radar detection must follow, which will make enforcement a bit difficult, including:

Ultimately, I think that there will need to be some kind of traffic calming installed on Chestnut if this issue is going to be resolved. Before that happens, though, I believe that the community that lives on and that uses that street needs to weigh in on what they would like to see. The city made several “traffic calming” changes to Oakcliff Rd a few years ago, and many people feel that it did not go through a good process for getting citizen input. Rather than move ahead with the same process for Chestnut, I have asked that the city hear from a wide range of people who use that street every day. This process will take longer than just jumping in and doing something, but I hope that the end-result will be better.

I am hoping that this is one of the projects people identified as a priority in the SPLOST survey that was done in December, and that we can get started on the community input process in 2019.

Finding a Fix for Boarding Houses

Edit (12/31/2018): Since writing this, I’ve talked with the city’s attorney, and have a better understanding of what our issues with the state are. He believes that we can craft an ordinance that will be defensible in Georgia. The reason that Georgia cities have not crafted legislation up to this point seems to be that there was a lawsuit against Marietta in 2006 which went to the GA Supreme court and that Marietta lost. Since then, most cities have not tried to find ways to get around that court ruling. Cities in other states have not had this restriction.

The thing we might need or want from the legislature is enabling legislation indicating that the city is authorized to maintain a rental registry. The state passed similar legislation related to a foreclosure registry several years ago. Based on this information, I believe Doraville will be able to work on something enforceable in 2019, whether we get the state’s help or not.


As an elected official in Doraville, one of my frustrations has been limitations the state places on municipalities when trying to regulate single-family rental homes. I think that everyone needs a safe place to live – unfortunately, in our city, I have seen a number of disinvested landlords who purchased property cheap during the recession, and who have chopped up those properties to turn them into (illegal) mini-apartment buildings in order to maximize their returns.

Cities in Georgia are not allowed to require licenses from landlords who rent out single family homes like they would for apartment owners; and are not allowed to inspect rentals before people move in in order to make sure they are a safe environment. While the 4th amendment provides certain important rights about who can enter a person’s home – I think there are ways to respect people’s constitutional rights without giving landlords free reign to provide substandard living accommodations to their tenants.

This has been a long-standing problem in Doraville. There are suspected boarding houses with unsafe living conditions sprinkled throughout the city. We only learn of them when a tenant invites a city official into the house, or if there is some disturbance that requires police involvement. In late November, one of these homes was discovered in our city when a code enforcement officer was invited in. They found that the landlord had split up the house into unsafe cubicles, and created what is essentially a massive fire hazard. The home has been declared unsafe for human habitation, the tenants were removed, and the owner is in the process of bringing it up to code.   

Here are some photos from that incident:

This year, the state legislature is going to be considering regulation of short term rentals (AirBnB, VRBO), at the request of some of the richer and more tourist-oriented cities in the state. I have encouraged all of the state senators and representatives that I know to also  consider allowing for some regulation of regular rental of single-family homes.

There is a limit to what the city will be able to accomplish on this issue without the state’s help. If you think this is an important issue, I encourage you to contact our State Representatives (Scott Holcomb for Northwoods and Oakcliff; Mike Wilensky for Tilly Mill & Winters Chapel Hill) and State Senator (Sally Harrell) to encourage them work on this at the state level.

Fireworks (Not so Silent Night)

Many people in Doraville have always celebrated big holidays with fireworks and firecrackers.  In the past, it was usually just the big 3 (New Year’s Eve, Chinese New Year, and 4th of July) where people lit up the night.  This could be annoying, but it was also fairly limited. There were state laws against personal use of fireworks, so it was not too difficult to regulate.

In 2016, the state legislature changed this, however, by legalizing all fireworks and firecrackers and enacting legislation that allowed them to be set off all year long. In 2018, they restricted the ability of local municipalities to set their own laws about fireworks ( they do allow some limited city regulation through noise ordinances). You can read a handout the state published about this change here: https://georgia.gov/blog/2018-06-28/fireworks-know-law-use-caution-and-be-courteous

These laws set the stage for Christmas Eve in Doraville this year, which was ridiculously noisy going late into the night. This video from Northwoods illustrates a little bit of what it was like:

Video Courtesy of Mitchell Cave

Doraville is in the process of updating its noise ordinance to make sure it covers fireworks to the extent the state will let us. That said, I want to caution anyone who thinks this is going to be a cure-all for late night Christmas Eve fireworks. Here are some issues to be aware of:

  • The Doraville police received many calls about noise related to fireworks over Christmas and Christmas Eve. Finding the source of the complaints and then responding to them takes time. By the time the officers locate the source, the fireworks may have stopped
  • Doraville can pass regulations within its city limits, but that does not affect what people do in Chamblee and unincorporated Dekalb. A lot of the places with the loudest displays were outside our jurisdiction
  • No matter what our laws are in the city, fireworks are cheap and easily available for people all over Georgia. Doraville might try to send one message, but the state is sending another (much more permissive) one.

This problem is much bigger than Doraville, and has been driven by state legislators who care more about the fireworks lobby than they do about the safety of children or peace and quiet in neighborhoods.

If this is an important issue to you, I encourage you to contact our State Representatives (Scott Holcomb for Northwoods and Oakcliff; Mike Wilensky for Tilly Mill & Winters Chapel Hill) and State Senator (Sally Harrell) to encourage them work on this at the state level. Until something changes there, I think any actions the city of Doraville takes will be of limited effectiveness at best. With that said, I will continue to work with other council members on sensible laws around noise and nuisance within the city to fix things where we can.

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.