OPINION — Well, Mr. Kenneth Hamner, identifying as planning commissioner, decided to fulminate all over me in a letter to the editor last week (see: https://thecitizen.com/2023/07/11/planning-commissioner-rebuts-critical-letters-about-zoning-setback-variances/). Good for Hamner on his active citizenship in the media, but I do wish he had engaged his brain a bit more before deploying his fingers on the keyboard.
Before we go any further, let’s acknowledge that Hamner was not speaking on behalf of the city’s planning commission.
As I noted in my column on the secretive and unacceptable variance process, the planning commission raised some of the same concerns that Suzanne Brown (no relation) and I had with allowing one member of the city council (predominantly the mayor, her choice) having so much power to grant major variances, especially without public notice.
The August 5, 2021 council meeting minutes reflect then-City Manager Jon Rorie agreeing with Ms. Brown and me saying he was, “not supportive of City Council re-writing their setback requirements one variance at a time.”
The Hamner dilemma
We know that Hamner is an ardent campaign supporter of Mayor Kim Learnard. He made that known publicly in this digital newspaper. His neighbors say he worked hard on convincing his fellow homeowners in [his] subdivision to vote for Learnard.
There is nothing wrong with Hamner cheering for his “team” but he should not complain if he is scrutinized here publicly for producing a half-baked critique with little research and less thought.
Hamner himself had a run for city council in the past and the citizen voters said, “No, thank you.”
Hamner threw down the gauntlet in his letter by ripping into concerned citizen and new city council candidate Suzanne Brown’s letter to the editor (see: https://thecitizen.com/2023/06/25/citys-zoning-being-gutted-one-secretive-variance-at-a-time/) and my last columns, saying they were “agenda-driven opinion pieces featuring outrageous claims.” He claims Ms. Brown and I “write accusations without the facts to back them up.”
Testing the strength of Hamner’s claims
In my first column on the subject (see: https://thecitizen.com/2023/06/27/council-makes-variances-easy-threatening-zoning-protections/), I referenced and linked Ms. Brown’s aforementioned letter that was extremely well-researched, complete with citations and digital links. As for Hamner, he only links the ordinance Appendix A Zoning, Article XII, Section 1204, and an ordinance from the Town of Tyrone.
My claim in the first column was the city is allowing variances up to 50 percent of the setback, saying, “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. It’s obviously not a benefit to the citizens, our quality of life, or the promotion of our standards. It’s insane.”
Hamner’s response was, “A reader would have to imagine that because Steve provides no details of this actually happening.” Had Hamner paid a little more attention, I cited Ms. Brown’s letter that thoroughly detailed all the variances, including a “reduce rear setback by 20 feet from 40 feet to 20 feet to build pool house,” along with a digital link citation from the city clerk’s office.
Hamner ranted on saying, “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.” His own link of Section 1204 actually agrees that a 50 percent setback is allowed without a vote of the city council.
Hamner claims, “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.”
Well, we know for a fact that none (as in not a single one) of the variances listed by the city clerk to Ms. Brown was publicly advertised, none offered a public agenda, date, or time for the mayor and two staff members’ committee meeting, and there were no posted signs. And, factually, the variances were approved behind closed doors in City Hall. That is all done in violation of the Georgia Open Meetings Act.
Perhaps Hamner can draft another letter to the editor and explain how we are supposed to file open records requests for variance applications that no one knows have ever been submitted or approved. He should also explain his support for violating the state’s law on open meetings.
Like the child with his hand caught in the cookie jar, Hamner, after crafting several paragraphs essentially admitting what Ms. Brown and I claimed was true about the setbacks, breaks out into, “The [Tyrone] zoning administrator is empowered to review and approve a request for an Administrative Variance.” We do not live in Tyrone.
What Hamner does not say is that the Town of Tyrone is not foolish and irrational enough to allow up to a 50 percent variance without a vote of their town council. And why on Earth would we want to allow our planning director who favors wrecking our ordinances in favor of building stacked multi-family complexes all over the city to decide anything without a vote of the city council?
Again, many of us agree with then-City Manager Jon Rorie saying he was, “not supportive of City Council re-writing their setback requirements one variance at a time.”
Something for Hamner to contemplate
I raised a few points in my second column on the subject that Hamner did not want to address (see: https://thecitizen.com/2023/07/10/opinion-if-city-oks-half-of-all-variance-requests-in-private-how-can-zoning-ordinance-survive/).
Is Hamner really naive enough to believe that a secret vote to “reduce [a] rear setback by 20 feet from 40 feet to 20 feet to build a pool house” is really a limited exemption as he claims?
He never mentioned that Peachtree City’s ordinance on variances noted that it is for cases “due to extraordinary and exceptional conditions about that property.” Can Hamner explain how the Superior Court is going to rule in favor of the city’s zoning ordinances when faced with a lawsuit if the city rarely denies a variance and the overwhelming majority of the variances have no extraordinary and exceptional conditions?
For the past decade, the city’s leadership has been disregarding our zoning ordinances and doling out setback giveaways that essentially render our zoning ordinances and plans worthless.
Why did Hamner attempt a hit piece?
Neither Ms. Brown nor I made “outrageous claims” and the city’s ordinance on setbacks was, in fact, changed to allow for a 50 percent reduction of the setback without a vote of the city council.
Working as a proxy for Mayor Learnard, Hamner is trying to sling mud on Suzanne Brown who is an announced candidate for this October-November city council election. Ms. Brown performs excellent research and has a passion for Peachtree City. She attends all the meetings and has personally raised issues of concern regarding our quality of life, forcing the city government to respond.
Unlike Learnard, Ms. Brown is a strong supporter of the city’s traditional, award-winning land planning.
Learnard is desperately trying to find a candidate to run against Ms. Brown, but the mayor has image problems with violating state law, her lack of empathy, and promoting her agenda in the shadows.
It also does not help that Learnard and company magically “found” over $10 million worth of vital infrastructure maintenance items that were never considered for the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) referendum list. However, Learnard’s pet project made it.
On top of that, the city council is saying they will raise our taxes AGAIN another 12 percent or more to do the projects that they hid from the potential SPLOST project list along with the added burden of their across-the-board pay increases, bonuses, and pension increases (the ones the mayor said wouldn’t cost the taxpayers a dime).
Learnard is suffering from an approval crisis. Hamner is attempting to fill the gap by attacking Suzanne Brown, knowing she will move to change the variance ordinance to not allow for the disintegration of our zoning, as well as change Learnard’s modifications to our comprehensive land plans allowing apartments complexes all over the city.
Why the Hamner approach fails us
Ms. Brown did write a response letter to Hamner’s hit piece (see: https://thecitizen.com/2023/07/12/transparency-about-setback-variances-is-exactly-the-point/). You will find Ms. Brown’s reply much more thoughtful, factual, and geared toward protecting the city than Hamner’s discourteous bluster. The response is worth reading.
Our city has excelled because it is unique. There was a plan that created a vision and people bought into that vision. The people who thought enough of the concept to buy into a county that heretofore was known for growing cotton and distilling moonshine brought their passion and helped shape the quality of life in the vibrant and different Peachtree City.
We had many Suzanne Brown-type residents back in the developing decades, people who demanded a better quality of life and were willing to battle to maintain it. I marveled at these men and women — many were veterans of past wars, people who understood the cost of not being an excellent civic-minded citizen was too high a price to pay for our community. Intelligent people from all over the country from different walks of life and they all agreed we have something incredibly special that is worth defending.
It’s eye-opening to watch a new faction enter, redefining the biological sexes and wanting us to use 67 genders. They want us to be homogenous with every other failing city and county in metro Atlanta. They believe that success is an evil and must be countered. They declare we must plaster our city with more stacked multi-family complexes even though we have more than average now. They are pawns of real estate developers who could care less about our quality of life and will move on to the next location when the money dries up.
They never met a spectacular community that they could not make worse.
Nonetheless, we are a community of fighters, and we take pride that our community is well-educated, well-employed, safe, golf cart fun, and flowing with natural beauty. But the Hamners and the Learnards demand change and are desperately trying to find someone to run against candidate Suzanne Brown who attends all the meetings, performs more research than any of the current elected officials, knows more about the workings of the city than the mayor with 10 years in government, and is passionate about preserving everything good about Peachtree City.
Keep fighting, Peachtree City. Don’t let them get away with disobeying the law and deconstructing our community.
[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.]