OPINION — Peachtree City Council candidate Suzanne Brown (no relation) blew the lid off of one of the biggest land use schemes in Peachtree City’s history, noting the city government is giving away up to 50 percent of the building setbacks on variances in closed-door, non-public meetings (see: https://thecitizen.com/2023/06/25/citys-zoning-being-gutted-one-secretive-variance-at-a-time/).
We know for a fact that Mayor Kim Learnard has been disregarding our zoning ordinances and doling out setback giveaways that essentially render our zoning ordinances and plans worthless.
She is doing it all as an official committee along with two city staff members in flagrant violation of the Georgia Open Meetings Act which requires the public announcement of committee meeting dates and times, providing a public agenda for the meetings, and having formal minutes for the meetings. Learnard has 10 years of experience on the City Council, she knows the open meetings law, and she casually violates it.
Even the Planning Commission stated they thought that one member of the council having so much power was a bad deal.
A decade of misguided land planning decisions
Over the last decade, the city government has been defying the land plans and creating one problem after another. It’s those misguided land planning decisions that cause traffic debacles like Highway 54 West and the rezoning of valuable land to residential uses instead of more beneficial uses like corporate headquarters.
Their thoughtless annexations have extended the city limits with more residential subdivisions that cost all the taxpayers millions of dollars because of having to increase and broaden city services with little benefit in return.
I chronicled in my last column the scant number of reasons for allowing an “administrative variance” and that they should be rarely approved (see: https://thecitizen.com/2023/06/27/council-makes-variances-easy-threatening-zoning-protections/).
Section 1202 (b) of the ordinance says such variances should only be granted “due to extraordinary and exceptional conditions about that property,” and that does not mean totally disregarding the zoning requirements for the property and the properties around it.
The ordinance says any variances should not “impair the purposes of the zoning ordinance” which affords the question of why is there a zoning ordinance in the first place if the mayor is going to forfeit 50 percent of the required setback. Seriously, if the mayor can give away 50 percent of the zoning setback on a whim without a public challenge in a private meeting, then why is there a zoning ordinance?
Another serious issue with the current ordinance as written is it gives homeowners associations quai-governmental authority in approving and denying the requested variance. This is a major legal conundrum. Only the city government has the power to grant or deny a variance. And how does the city government square the subjective decision-making with two houses of the same zoning and lot size, but only one is granted the variance?
Easy variances = threat to entire zoning ordinance
After enough variances for a particular zoning classification are granted, you no longer have an effective zoning ordinance, and it’s all out the window, causing more damage to the community.
Here are the suggested solutions:
1. Stop violating the Georgia Open Meetings Act and make all committee meetings accessible to the public, including adequate notice and a meeting agenda.
2. Return the administrative variance process to matters concerning a margin of error, not to exceed two feet. This covers minor construction mistakes that are nearly imperceptible, the only reason for having an administrative variance.
3. Bring all other variance requests, over two feet, to the city council meetings as agenda items.
4. To preserve and maintain the integrity of our zoning ordinances, stop the erosion of the poor decisions of the past, and take a disciplined approach to firmly defend the ordinances of the city as each member of the city council swore in their oath of office. The city cannot defend a zoning classification in court that they have breached many times before.
5. If there are no “extraordinary and exceptional conditions,” deny the variance request.
6. Planning Director Robin Cailloux’s December 9, 2021 meeting comments explaining the need for extreme changes to the ordinance on variances, granting a 50 percent setback exemption, were bewildering for someone at her pay grade. Her lack of will to defend our land use ordinances is disconcerting, and she has become a systemic hazard to our well-being. It’s time to find a replacement.
We owe the next generation the same quality of life in Peachtree City that we have enjoyed, and degrading our land planning and ordinances makes us no better than the remaining struggling cities in metro Atlanta. Peachtree City is a success because we have always been different, requiring more out of real estate development in our ordinances.
[Brown is a former mayor of Peachtree City and served two terms on the Fayette County Board of Commissioners. You can read all his columns by clicking on his photo below.]