In five years or sooner, the tear-down-build-bigger infill scenarios playing out in Normaltown and Five Points will happen in other Athens neighborhoods. Homeowners in Green Acres, Cedar Creek, Forest Heights and Homewood Hills will watch and worry as 6,000-square-foot houses go up on subdivided lots, changing the feel, scale and character of their neighborhood, as well as their tax bills.
Hank Joiner sketched out that scenario to his fellow ACC Planning Commission members at a meeting several weeks ago. Along with member Lucy Rowland, Joiner pushed for the local government to become proactive instead of reactive, and is advocating for revisions in ACC design standards. The two encouraged Senior Planner Bruce Lonnee to work on text amendments regarding the context-sensitive design process and development regulations.
Lonnee has done just that. At a July 21 planning commission work session, he discussed the reception proposals have received from the public since October. And Lonnee outlined formulas for determining how large a house could be built in an area with single-family zoning—although these will change before next Thursday.
The public response to creating incentives and holding educational forums has been positive, Lonnee said, but respondents have said those are not a standalone solution. For establishing a single-family house plans-review process, “most comments are ambivalent, several are supportive,” Lonnee reported. Streamlining the review process needs to benefit homeowners as well as developers, the public has said.
Respondents considered scale and massing, setback and orientation and grading and retaining-wall scale as the most important context-sensitive development standards. The intent of text changes is “to create a set of development standards that draws upon the existing character of the residential development in the immediate vicinity of a residential infill site.”
By relying on text changes, the planning staff seems to have discarded an earlier idea to have neighborhoods themselves create conservation-overlay districts after deciding what features were important to them. The public was skeptical about the staff’s ability to administer multiple design overlays, and there was some confusion over whether neighborhood residents would be involved in the regulatory process, Lonnee said. The idea of creating an overlay district was “overwhelming for a neighborhood and created a lot of anxiety,” he told the commissioners. The perception from the public meeting is that the process was “too hard, it’s not going to work.”
Lonnee discussed a proposal to increase the side-yard setbacks and to allow for variable front-yard setbacks. Front-yard setbacks would be based on how surrounding houses are positioned on their lots.
The staff considered taking floor-area regulations for commercial buildings and applying them to residential ones, with a maximum floor area for each zoning designation.
“This is the first one where we are regulating the size of the person’s property they can build on a lot in a certain neighborhood,” said Planning Director Brad Griffith. “We’re setting a metric for how much home someone could have. This would apply everywhere, all lots, newly plated neighborhood, all existing single family zones.”
In an email, Lonnee said the planning staff’s recommendations would be revised for floor-area sizes in neighborhoods zoned for single-family houses.
There will be another public meeting on Thursday, July 28 from 6–8 p.m. at Oconee Street United Methodist Church. The planning commission will receive a final set of recommendations on Thursday, Aug. 4.
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