After more than two months of controversy surrounding a proposed special zoning district in the Laney-Walker area, the only thing clear is that developers, city leaders and some residents still aren’t seeing eye to eye.
Most of that, say proponents of the overlay district, can be attributed to initial mistakes in the application process, which led some residents to believe the plan had ulterior motives.
“There can be a big disconnect between what people in the neighborhood see going on on the ground and what city leaders think they are doing,” said Jamie Baker Roskie, the managing attorney for the Land Use Clinic at the University of Georgia School of Law.
Community involvement, which began in 2008 with monthly meetings on the larger revitalization efforts in the area, fell apart when residents weren’t mailed notifications required for the overlay application process. The proposal was pulled from the Oct. 3 planning commission meeting agenda when residents caught the mistake.
Some residents feared the developer planned to apply strict regulations to the entire Laney-Walker neighborhood. However, the proposed district covers only properties in the 1400 block of Wrightsboro Road and portions of Augusta Avenue; R.A. Dent Boulevard; and Kingston, Brown, Holley and McCauley streets, which is named Foundry Place.
Jacksonville, Fla.-based APD Urban Planning and Management wants to build a mixed-use development in the area, possibly on a commercially zoned property where an old foundry is for sale. That property is on R.A. Dent Boulevard near Wrightsboro Road, where heavy traffic could support business, said Warren Campbell, the senior project manager for APD’s Augusta office.
During informational meetings, developers and city leaders tried to convince residents that the overlay protects new development from commercial uses inconsistent with revitalizing a neighborhood. Under overlay guidelines, certain retail uses not specified in the proposed ordinance would need approval from the planning commission.
George Patty, the executive director of the county planning department, admitted that inconsistent language on application documents calling the proposal the “Laney-Walker/Bethlehem Overlay Zone” caused confusion. The developer has said its efforts to be transparent about overarching development plans also led many to think the overlay applied to the entire neighborhood.
Required notices were eventually mailed to residents of Foundry Place and public meetings were held, but the developer was forced to start over with the application process to avoid legal ramifications, Patty said. The legal advertisement and notifications were resent, which will delay a second review by the Augusta Commission, now expected in mid-January.
“Moving forward, we have to see what the community wants,” Campbell said.
Property rights activist Al Gray, who does not live in Laney-Walker but challenged the planning office on procedural mistakes, said the most recent decision for the developer to resubmit the application has helped appease opposition. He’d like to see the overlay renamed to reflect its application to the specific Foundry Place boundaries.
The original application includes a map of the larger Laney-Walker area, and the overlay was explained during a meeting about greater revitalization efforts in the neighborhood, Gray said. Residents in the larger area weren’t notified, which was a procedural violation.
“I don’t think they were being careful when they wrote that,” Gray said. “They have a problem with the ordinance as it’s written compared to what they’re trying to do.”
Overlay districts have been around for decades. In Columbia, an overlay more specifically called a design development area was established in 1998 for a downtown area known as The Vista.
“Primarily, The Vista is zoned industrial, but because of the design development overlay, it allows things such as restaurants to locate in buildings that wouldn’t otherwise allow them,” said Johnathan Chambers, Columbia’s zoning administrator.
That ordinance helped the area develop into a popular dining and entertainment district, he said.
About six overlay districts have been established in metro Atlanta since 2006. The Atlanta Regional Commission publishes multiple documents explaining an overlay’s purpose, benefit and steps for proposals and implementation.
An overlay was applied to a mixed-use development in Tucker, an unincorporated town in Dekalb County, in 2008. The area had office, retail, industrial and single-family residential uses but “no real connecting character,” said Rob Lebeau, the senior principal planner for the Atlanta Regional Commission.
Planners hoped consistent design standards would create a pedestrian-friendly, more inviting town center, Lebeau said.
Most of the area under review in Laney-Walker is currently zoned residential, with the exception of the foundry property, which is zoned B-2, or general business. Scattered commercial businesses were grandfathered into the current residential zoning, Patty said.
Overlays often tie into mixed-use development because it’s a way to allow commercial and residential development side-by-side in a consistent design, Lebeau said.
“The intention is hopefully you have a larger plan in place. You’ve done some study and determined that this is what the community needs,” Lebeau said. “Overlay is one tool of imposing something that was agreed upon needing change or improvement in an area.”
Patty said B-2 zoning in the comprehensive zoning ordinance permits a mixed-use development if the developer wants to build on the old foundry property.
In the Laney-Walker area, additional commercial development could be an outgrowth of the overlay and a planned mixed-use development. The area could benefit from more businesses along Wrightsboro Road if certain uses were restricted, Patty said.