Recently, declared City Council candidate Suzanne Brown and former mayor Steve Brown have made accusatory statements regarding Peachtree City’s use of Administrative Variances, which allow limited exceptions to certain zoning code standards.
As a Peachtree City Planning Commissioner since 2019, I’m familiar with our city ordinances and how they operate. I’m happy to report that the sky is not falling.
When making these claims, the Browns cited the city’s Administrative Variance ordinance found in Appendix A Zoning, Article XII, Section 1204: https://library.municode.com/ga/peachtree_city/codes/code_of_ordinances?nodeId=PTIICOOR_APXAZO_ARTXIIVAAP
Suzanne Brown’s letter to The Citizen entitled “City’s Zoning Being Gutted, One Secretive Variance At A Time” suggested Section 1204 “overturned setback requirements as stipulated in the Code of Zoning Regulations for every type of property.”
Spurred by Suzanne Brown’s letter, two of Steve Brown’s follow-up opinion pieces go even further. He suggests that city leadership “has been disregarding our zoning ordinances and doling out setback giveaways that essentially render our zoning ordinances and plans worthless.”
For an Administrative Variance to be considered, Section 1204 clearly states that one of the five scenarios must be met:
The current property owner is in violation of an existing zoning setback due to the actions of a previous owner.
The current property owner wants to build or extend a structure. The property owner can ask the city to approach the rear setback limit up to 50% if it has the same appearance of the primary structure and the owner has written support from their home owners’ association and all adjacent property owners.
The current property owner wants to build or extend a structure that is next to a publicly-owned property. Other locations on the property are not available because the build or extension would encroach into an established setback. The property owner can ask the city to approach the rear setback limit up to 25%. Like the previous point, the property owner’s structure would also have to have the same appearance as the primary structure and have written support from their home owners’ association and all adjacent property owners.
If a property owner wants to decrease the amount of parking on their property, they can ask the city to decrease it no more than 25% below the minimum number of spaces required by the city’s parking ordinance. The property owner must also provide a plan where additional spots could be built in the future if needed.
The current property owner wants to increase the maximum height of a fence or wall. The property owner can ask the city for this extra height if it 1) provides additional safety to areas like a pool while not hindering the flow of air or light or 2) is needed for topographic reasons while not increasing more than 25% of maximum height standards.
Even if a request meets one of these scenarios, it does not guarantee approval will be granted. Section 1204 states that a request will be rejected if it “would cause substantial detriment to other property owners in the surrounding area or would impair the purposes of the zoning ordinance.”
Given the facts, the actual ordinance and its implementation differ greatly from the narrative the Browns have presented. City leadership cannot just grant a secret Administrative Variance. A property owner has to submit a request through an application process that can be viewed through open record requests, and then to be approved, the request needs to meet specific guidelines, not conflict with the zoning’s intended purpose, and not be disruptive or objectionable to even one of the surrounding property owners.
Across their multiple letters and columns, the Browns have not provided any specific instances that contradict these points. For example, Steve Brown said in a column, “Imagine a closed-door variance granted for a new development that cuts a 40-foot setback per our ordinances down to a mere 20 feet. This is what they are doing.” A reader would have to imagine that because Steve provides no details of this actually happening.
Additionally, know that Administrative Variances are not unique to Peachtree City. They are common across the United States, and compared to other municipalities, Peachtree City‘s process is more conservative and stringent.
Section 1204 requires a panel of three to make decisions (the zoning administrator, the city manager, and a member of city council). In many other cities, the Planning Director alone can grant Administrative Variances unilaterally.
For example, Tyrone designates only one decision maker in ordinance Article IX, Section 113-241 (“The zoning administrator is empowered to review and approve a request for an Administrative Variance.”). Here’s a direct link to that ordinance Tyrone adopted back in 2011: https://library.municode.com/ga/tyrone/codes/code_of_ordinances?nodeId=SPBLAUSDE_CH113ZO_ARTIXVA_S113-241ADVA
Finally, in an age where misinformation runs rampant, facts are poorly communicated, and quality local journalism is a rare commodity, it’s more important than ever that we know what’s actually happening. No doubt, accomplishing this within Peachtree City and the rest of Fayette County is tough.
The “Support Local Journalism” plea The Citizen hosts on this webpage tells us that money to hire reporters and produce great, deeply-researched work is in short supply.
Given this void, we can’t only have agenda-driven opinion pieces featuring outrageous claims be our community’s source of information. The Citizen may not do as much in-depth reporting as it once did, but it remains a good forum for free speech and for letters like this one.
However, the next time the Browns boot up their computers to write accusations without the facts to back them up, they may want to take a moment and reconsider what they’re providing our community.
We deserve better.
Member of Planning Commission
Peachtree City, Ga.