Tuesday, February 8, 2022

Citizen zoning volunteers say county withholds key information

Citizens who serve on a county-required zoning review panel say DeKalb County planning officials are withholding information about zoning applications they are considering and are preventing them from attending community meetings.

Members of the District 5 Community Council said at their Monday meeting that the county's Planning & Sustainability Department did not provide them with full copies of the rezoning application they were considering. 

An applicant is proposing a 200- to 300-seat restaurant with 100 parking places, a rooftop bar and a patio for outdoor entertainment at 1726 Panola Rd. The application seeks to change the property's zoning from residential to commercial. The property borders a residential area.

"We need the entire packet so that we'll have access to it," said council member Jan Costello at the council's bimonthly meeting. "We just need the information."

Panel members, who are citizen volunteers appointed by county commissioners, also complained they were not notified of the neighborhood meeting that is required by county law to be held before a zoning application is submitted. 

Many Community Council members attend these "pre-application" meetings to learn more and hear community concerns before their panel meets. The county zoning code does not require Community Council members to be invited, but several of the county's councils have repeatedly asked planners to ensure that they are.

"Are they not giving out the council members' addresses any more?," Council member Jan Costello asked county Senior Planner Dustin Jackson. "That was standard practice last year."

"Why has the Planning Department stopped including the council members' email addresses in the affected district?" she asked. "They used to do that."

Jackson said he had been "directly" instructed by county Planning & Zoning Manager Brandon White not to provide zoning applicants with the email addresses of Community Council members. He said it had only been done in the past as "a courtesy."

"This comes from our Zoning Manager, Brandon White," Jackson said. "As of right now, we are advised to go by what the DeKalb County code states."

"We should have the opportunity to join the meeting," said panel member Joscelyn O'Neil, who said it was important to know who attended. "I'm highly insulted." 

Council chairman Dennis Allen called it a "bad move" and a "disservice" not to let the Community Council know about the neighborhood meeting required of all zoning applicants.

Community Councils are the public's first opportunity to comment on pending zoning applications. The councils make non-binding recommendations before applications are heard by the county's Planning Commission and a final decision is made by the Board of Commissioners. 

Two text amendments that would make changes in the county's zoning law regarding auto sales and certain retailers were also on the meeting agenda. Planners provided no substantive information about the proposed changes and no copies of the amendments were published or distributed.

At the end of the meeting, Allen was re-elected for another one-year term as the District 5 Community Council  chairman. Elizabeth Andrews will serve as the council's vice-chair for the remainder of 2022. Allen said there are currently two vacancies on the District 5 Community Council.