Design for Brook Park Improvements

Shortly after I was sworn into office, I began looking at the city’s plan for our parks – particularly in Northwoods, which had not seen any significant investment in its parks for several years. I was happy to see that there was a $30,000 budget item for Autumn Park – meant to build a walking path and for stream improvements there.

While I was glad that there was some money allocated to the neighborhood’s parks, I did not think this was the best use of that money. I believe the stream improvements in Autumn Park are necessary – particularly removal of invasive species. That said, this amount of money would not have fixed the problems there. The issue is that state environmental regulations prevent us from removing ivy on the banks of streams without doing something else to prevent erosion. This does need to be fixed, but it needs a better funding source before we try to tackle it piecemeal. I wrote about this issue about a year ago – also indicating that I thought the money would probably be spent better in Brook Park.

In April, Councilman Naser and I went to NANA’s Spring meeting, and asked residents for feedback on what they’d like to see in our parks. The consensus was to focus primarily on Brook Park, and to make improvements in its accessibility. In particular:

  • The general consensus was that we should focus on building an ADA accessible path to the pavilion, clear out some of the trees (especially the ones that produce pine straw) around the pavilion (replacing them with hardwoods elsewhere) , add tables, and generally spruce up the pavilion. If we could extend the path to the playground, that would also be nice for people with strollers.
  • People were vocal that they did not want a path around Autumn Park, or trees planted on its perimeter.

You can watch a full video of the meeting here.

Once we had this meeting, I met with city staff to determine what we could do for $30,000. I then had to lobby the other council members to fund this project (even though $30,000 had been budgeted toward Northwoods parks initially, that money has to be reallocated each year in the budgeting process).

While I know that residents have not seen much movement from the outside, any time the council has discussed budgeting or funding projects, I have made sure this one is not forgotten, and is close to the top of the list. It’s important to me that we do this after going through the process of getting neighborhood consensus, and not something I’m willing to let drop.

I am happy to say that my persistence, combined with the hard work of city staff, has paid off! We now have a preliminary design, which you can see here:

Proposed Brook Park Improvements

I think this plan would accomplish everything that residents said they wanted to see done with this money – and is actually even more comprehensive than I initially thought we’d be able to do for $30,000. Here are some notes to consider when reviewing it:

  • The ADA trail will start by the dog-poop station and loop around by the pavilion and then end at the playground. It will be a hard surface suitable for wheel chairs. Some trees will have to be removed to make room for it.
  • They are proposing to add 5 additional grills, along with 9 picnic tables that will be placed along the path as well as by the playground.
  • They are proposing putting in a retaining wall along the path, as well as some stairs leading directly to the playground area
  • They are proposing a soft-surface (unpaved) path on the far side of the park that would also connect to the playground area and pavilion.

I do think the plan above provides most of what Northwoods residents asked for. That said, there is still time to give feedback about any other changes that you’d like to see. If there’s something missing, or you have a suggestion for some other change, please email me at joseph.geierman@doravillega.us and I will ask our Public Works Director to look into it.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.