Decatur commission: Moratorium not answer for demolitions

At 11 o’ clock Monday night, Decatur Mayor Jim Baskett’s phone alarm rang out through his microphone. The 65-year-old shrugged and said to his City Hall audience, “It’s telling me it’s time to take my evening pills.”

It was one of the few moments of levity during a 3½-hour City Commission meeting that saw Decatur’s top officials nearly as divided as their constituents over two proposed moratoriums that have been the subject of intense debate over the past two weeks.

With Commissioner Scott Drake recusing himself, the commission voted 4-0 in favor of a 90-day moratorium for large-tree removal — which includes healthy specimen trees more than 12 inches in diameter — as a part of construction or renovation.

But the commission went 3-2 against a moratorium on single-family residential structural demolition, a vote preceded by an occasionally heated discussion that’s unusual for this commission.

“I don’t think any of us are happy with the number of teardowns,” said Southside Commissioner Kecia Cunningham. She voted against the moratorium and exchanged several sharp remarks with Baskett, who voted for it. “The mayor and I are both concerned about the same thing. We both want folks coming to Decatur and staying here.

“But,” she added, “I think a moratorium is an extraordinary measure to take when we don’t have an idea of what direction we’re moving in.”

The city has a clearer grasp on the tree issue. Last month, Decatur hired a consultant to help produce a Unified Development Ordinance, which will collate existing — and often conflicting — land, stormwater, tree and zoning ordinances into what Baskett describes “a consistent and efficient whole.”

Although the entire Unified Development Ordinance won’t be adopted until at least next September, phase one should be completed by January and should include, according to City Manager Peggy Merriss, a proposed new tree ordinance ready to vote on.

But the city isn’t anywhere close to crafting a proposed ordinance on demolitions. The commissioners agreed Monday night that demolitions are increasing, and numbers from City Planner Amanda Thompson bear that out. In fiscal year 2011-12, there were an estimated 77 demolitions permitted, and only 55 permitted in FY 2012-13.

But since July 2 of this year, there have already been 40 demolitions permitted, with half of those issued in the past week. “I think most developers were trying to get their permit in because they thought we were going to pass the moratorium,” said Southside Commissioner Patti Garrett, who voted against it.

The demolitions issue isn’t new, Merriss said, “but there’s never been significant agreement on any solutions. I think what the commission was saying — and I don’t have a vote — is that at the end of 90 days, while we won’t have a proposed ordinance, we should have an array of solutions, for which a moratorium wasn’t needed.”

The community at large was split over both issues, according to informal polls conducted by local blogs. During Monday’s meeting, attended by roughly 120 people, 39 residents spoke at length on the moratoriums, with 21 favoring both, 17 against and one neutral.

Amid the demolition debate is the area’s shifting demographics. Oakhurst, in southeast Decatur, was 70 percent black/30 percent white in the 2000 census, and by 2010 was 70 percent white/30 percent black.

Possibly the most lyrical plea at Monday’s meeting came from Veronica Edwards, who’s lived 47 years in Oakhurst.

“I’ve seen diversity come and go,” she told the commission. “Stop uprooting the community, stop bickering and complaining. My street now has only two senior citizens when once it was 80 percent. I’ve seen white flight, and now they’re flying back. You need to have our back.”

Cunningham, who represents Edwards’ neighborhood, thoroughly agrees.

“For me,” she said, “it’s not about ‘McMansions,’ it’s the loss of racial and economic diversity, the loss of affordable housing. Anecdotally, the majority of the people who sold their homes (in Oakhurst) are elder African-Americans. … Between now and January, this needs to get more priority, more attention. We need to research it, but we don’t need a moratorium.”