In Milton, new city faces age-old tension over land use

Milton, the North Fulton city founded to preserve an idyllic setting of horse farms and rolling spreads, has joined a long list of metro Atlanta communities that struggle to balance a low-density lifestyle against the need to build the tax base.

Complicating matters is that the city of 32,000 is almost completely surrounded by what it doesn’t want. Milton sits at the crest of Fulton County, just north of Alpharetta with its high-tech commercial properties and Roswell’s traditional bedroom community developments.

The closest thing Milton has to a downtown is the Crabapple crossroads, with a collection of small shops and restaurants, or the Ga. 9 Corridor with larger stores and offices. Strict zoning rules keep signs low and landscaping manicured.

City elections this month ushered in new council members who want the city to have warmer relationships with business and growth. That's created some angst among residents who fear the rural roots of their young city may wither. Others maintain that commercial growth is necessary.

"I'm on the front doorstep of change," said Laura Bentley, who, with her husband Rob left Johns Creek six years ago to buy a nine-acre farm on Bethany Church Road where she raises horses. "I don't feel there's a genuine understanding of preservation."

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Milton was founded four years ago, joining the parade of cities like Sandy Springs, Johns Creek, Dunwoody and Chattahoochee Hills in a drive to break from county rule. But, unlike most of the others, Milton incorporated much of its dedication to rural charm into its laws.

The conflict between commercial and aesthetic interests is nothing new in metro Atlanta, said one observer with direct experience.

"It's always been there, and the objecting public normally says they're willing to pay more taxes, but they don't want the industry," said Joel  Cowan,  founder of Peachtree City, the Fayette County city considered the region's model for planned communities. "In my experience, they're not willing to pay more taxes."

Cowan said Milton could be challenged by its "pretty low" allocation of space zoned for commercial. At the same time, he added, a dramatic shift is impractical.

"Changing land use has quite a negative impact on whoever lives there," he said. "If [Milton] had a large piece of undeveloped land and had a choice of making it retail or residential, that would be a different story."

From the outset, Milton let businesses know their place.

Less than 2 percent of the city's 25,000 acres is zoned for commercial, and 86 percent of the properties are on septic tanks, which limits their commercial use. By contrast, Peachtree City allocates 33 percent of its land to commercial and industrial use. Milton's neighbor, Alpharetta, zones 17 percent commercial, while Johns Creek allocates 9 percent.

"I like doing business here, but I think there are too many rules and regulations," said Justin Smith, manager of Milton Tire and Auto on Ga. 9. "The sign restrictions make it so when you drive by, you can hardly see us."

Smith said he couldn't advertise in front of his business when he wanted to hire service technicians.

"It's not very welcoming," Smith said.

That reputation travels beyond the city's borders, said Lance Large, who defeated incumbent Alan Tart for a City Council seat.

"I talked to many people outside the city and those within the city, and Milton had a very negative reputation for wanting business here," he said. "Even the businesses already here are really struggling with some of the requirements."

Large said it's important Milton broaden its tax base, and he wants to start by filling vacant retail space, even though the occupation rate is 94 percent -- higher than for the county.

Councilman-elect Matt Kunz said he worries the city's residential-heavy tax base will not support new parks and long-term street upkeep.

City officials, however, say Milton's balance sheet has never looked better. It shows a reserve of $7.5 million on a total budget of $17.4 million. Also, the city anticipates a bigger share -- $4 million-- in county sales tax and insurance premium tax money now that the census has adjusted its population upward..

The issue of becoming more business-friendly caught fire in the election homestretch when outside consultant Urban Collage reported that Milton's current tax base is "unsustainable." The remark, part of an ARC-funded study to determine development strategies along Ga. 9, bolstered the case for commercial growth.

It infuriated Tart, who had campaigned on his record of defending the city from commercial encroachment.

Tart grilled Urban Collage's Eric Bosman at a public meeting last week, asking why the firm would make a sweeping statement when it was hired to study only the Ga. 9 Corridor. He also asked how the company determined Milton's sustainability without looking at its financial records.

Bosman admitted the choice of words was insensitive, but added that evaluating surrounding economic conditions is relevant in a market study. The sustainability remark, he said, was based on confidential interviews with stakeholders along Ga. 9, businesses and focus groups.

Mayor Joe Lockwood downplays the idea that the city is becoming divided.

"If you want to rate the citizens and City Council on a scale of 1-10, I'd say I'm a 5, and the others run between 4 and 6," he said.

Many in business say the city could benefit from courting commercial interests.

"I'm not on one side or the other," said resident Mike Moss, executive producer at Timespeaks Productions, a media production company. "I think to have this quality of life, you have to have a strong business climate to help pay for things."

Consulting firm owner Curtis Mills considers himself "pro-business" but thinks Milton's zoning laws were established for a reason.

His ProCom Consulting, headquartered in a 19th-century home on Birmingham Highway, is a testament to his affinity for Milton's history.

"I thought we had a meeting of the minds (when the city was founded)," Mills said. "It seems like we agreed on something, which was the basis for a lot of people coming here, and then we go sideways. Being pro-business and preservation-oriented are not mutually exclusive."

Milton property values

Like other North Fulton cities, Milton has seen its net tax digest, comprised primarily of commercial and residential real estate, dip over the past five years.

2007 $2.150 billion

2008 $2.301

2009 $2.234

2010 $2.134

2011 $2.055

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