Opinion: City should side with neighborhoods

The existing process of seeking zoning variances has worked well for 50 years, and safeguards property owner interests.

Credit: Chris Van Es/NewsArt

Credit: Chris Van Es/NewsArt

For most Americans, their home is the physical heart and soul of their lives. It is filled with the emotions, the activities, and the memories, of family and community life. It is their sanctuary and launching pad. It is usually their biggest investment.

For countless millions, it is the achievement of the American dream to buy a home in a pleasant, safe residential neighborhood with access to good schools and to the attractions of daily life. This is true for people of all races and all backgrounds.

For generations, this dream has been protected by local zoning and development laws, written to ensure that incompatible land uses (e.g., commercial, industrial, high-density residential) don’t destroy the value and the safety of neighborhoods of single-family homes. Most homeowners, at one time or another, have been involved in a desperate fight to protect themselves and their neighbors from a greedy developer who wants to force an incompatible development into the neighborhood. It is the city’s zoning laws and procedures which enable us to do that on a somewhat level playing field.

Bob Irvin, former Georgia house minority leader and house rep. Republican.

Credit: contributed

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Credit: contributed

Yet now the administration of Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms wants to eliminate those neighborhood protections. Under the cover of working to increase affordable housing, which everybody supports, they are proposing to completely gut the zoning and development laws of the city. They know that not many people support that, which is why they aren’t talking about it very much.

Among the things they are trying to do, but not talking much about, are:

  • End single-family zoning
  • Allow any property owner (read: developer) to build an “Additional Dwelling Unit” (ADU) on any residential lot, then subdivide the lot and sell the ADU on its sub-lot separately, then repeat the process until the dirt runs out and the original lot is jammed full
  • “Loosen” the building requirements, such as size and height, for ADU’s, making them cheaper and likely less attractive in the neighborhood
  • Reduce minimum lot sizes and minimum setbacks from the street and adjoining properties, in order to get more buildings on every property
  • Allow the owner of any property within one-half mile of a MARTA station to build an apartment building of perhaps as many as 12 units, regardless of the zoning for that neighborhood
  • End minimum parking requirements, so that new apartment and condominium buildings would not have to provide parking for their residents, and so that more commercial properties can be crowded into a given area, in both cases overwhelming neighborhood streets

Any of these things can be done now, as a zoning variance, but that requires the property owner (read: developer) to start by going before the local NPU and “selling” the neighbors on why the proposed change is good for the neighborhood. This is the process set up by the Atlanta City Charter, and it has worked well for 50 years, preserving Atlanta as a “city of neighborhoods.”

The Bottoms administration, by contrast, wants to set up the legal framework to allow any property owner to do all of it by right, without the consent, or even the notification, of any other affected party – the neighbors, the NPU, or the city government. Their proposal will produce more density, more traffic, more demands on infrastructure, more demands on police and fire protection, more demands on schools, and more threats to our tree canopy. It will produce pressures on our neighborhoods that they may not be able to withstand. It should be called “The Developer Feeding Frenzy Ordinance.”

They purport to want to do all this because it is necessary in order to develop more affordable housing. But there are over 11,000 acres of vacant residential land in the city, of which almost 4,000 are publicly owned. All of this is available for affordable housing. So this rationale doesn’t make sense.

It is true, as they argue, that some other places in the country – California, Oregon, Minneapolis – have recently gutted their zoning and development ordinances in the same way. This can’t be good for neighborhoods in those jurisdictions either, and so for that very reason it was rushed through without adequate public debate.

We can’t let that happen in Atlanta. We need to let the mayor, the city council, and all the candidates for city office this year, know that we are against gutting our zoning laws.

Our neighborhoods are what make Atlanta what it is. Let’s keep in place the zoning protections that sustain all of our neighborhoods.

Atlanta native Bob Irvin is a former Republican minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives, and a former chairman of Georgia Common Cause.