Much to his credit, Peachtree City Councilman Clint Holland saw a significant problem with the process of approving zoning variances and asked that it be discussed at the July 13 city council meeting. While Holland was doing the right thing, three of his colleagues were attempting a little self-righteous indignation at the meeting.
Based upon factual and officially recorded observations of an administrative variance process gone amuck and radically altered in December 2021, Holland rightly decided along with most citizens that changes were necessary. He crafted a presentation as a “council topic” on the agenda, skillfully defining the problem and offering his solution.
Following his presentation, Holland asked for feedback from his council colleagues. No one expected the acidic reaction from Councilman Mike King and Phil Prebor that ensued.
Abjection, deflection, and rejection
It’s glaringly obvious to everyone that there are significant problems with the city’s administrative variance process, designed by ordinance “only for extraordinary and exceptional conditions” about a specific property, being performed in violation of the Georgia Open Meetings Act, and confounding what used to be our solid zoning ordinances (see: https://thecitizen.com/2023/07/10/opinion-if-city-oks-half-of-all-variance-requests-in-private-how-can-zoning-ordinance-survive/).
Prebor, King, and Mayor Kim Learnard began pounding away on Councilman Holland. Learnard’s comments did not contain the wrath that we have come to expect from her, but Prebor and King made up for it. Keep in mind that the city council just passed a resolution on civility in a council meeting not too long ago. How fast they forget.
Councilman Phil Prebor was the first to erupt up on the dais. Right out of the gate, he jumps into abjection mode saying, “But I did read where it’s like, oh my gosh, Mike [King], you and I were lame ducks, right, how ridiculous is that.” Kind of a “woe is Phil Prebor” enactment. He continued, “I probably have more invested in this city than most, I’ll just say than most. My house, two businesses, and my retirement, my retirement income, so if you think I’m gonna do something that’s gonna hurt my retirement, I can assure you that I am not.”
Well, truth be told, Prebor and King are indeed “lame-ducks” as they are out of office on term limits in approximately five months. Furthermore, there is nothing more dangerous than lame-duck politicians who disregard state law and local ordinances with nothing to lose (see: https://thecitizen.com/2023/06/12/council-lame-ducks-making-questionable-votes/).
We can all believe that Prebor is doing everything possible to protect his “retirement.” It’s Prebor’s personal business that most concerns most of us on his annexation, zoning, and variance decisions.
He owns a home repair and remodeling business. Every parcel of land annexed, each parcel zoned to an inflated residential density above land planning standards, and every landowner granted an exceedingly large variance to build onto homes is a potential customer to Prebor.
It all looks like a business booster, cha-ching. The best defense Prebor could ever conjure for his votes on the large residential annexation plans and inflating the density was that he likes houses and thinks we need more houses (I think it helps his retirement).
Prebor began attacking the messenger Holland, but never once argued that what Holland stated in his presentation was incorrect. Prebor then deflected from the reality that the city, in fact, is doling out significant variances in closed-door committee meetings not accessible to the public, not providing legal notice, and not providing a public meeting agenda as required by law, instead spouting a ridiculous argumentive deflection about Holland’s emails that had no merit at all.
Next, it was Councilman Mike King’s turn. The best insult he could muster was, “What concerns me is what you have put here is almost identical to two letters, three letters to the editor now and I have a concern about people campaigning on this dais.”
That’s awkward. The statements of fact in the columns (two of which were mine) and the letter to the editor were similar to Holland’s presentation of the same facts and are unequivocally true. Can multiple people not cite the same facts about the same problems? That deflection bombed as well.
Mayor Kim Learnard artfully walked around all her legal misdeeds surrounding the variance process and the fact they can now give away a whopping 50 percent of the setback for virtually any reason without a vote of the council.
Learnard claimed, “There is nothing nefarious going on. This is not something that should be a hubbub. Our job is to make sure there’s no hubbub, that there is information that we get from our city manager. He does everything he can to make sure we have all the information we need. He makes himself available almost anytime you wanna come in and talk to him, and I would encourage you going forward to take him up on that and get that background information, so it doesn’t come to this kind of a thing, it doesn’t need to.”
Learnard, as you might expect, never mentions any of the known predicaments with her violating state law as mentioned above, and why she thinks it is acceptable to offer a 50 percent setback variance at all, endangering our zoning. The “this kind of thing” that Learnard refers to is highlighting illegal activity that she is involved in.
Perhaps, Learnard should have been the one consulting with the city manager, inquiring about the state law on open meetings even though she has 10 years of government experience and knows the law. Records show the city manager was right there with the mayor at least three times voting on variances this year along with her. We are not ignorant. The city attorney agreed that the law was being violated.
State open records law and open meetings law are a substantial part of a mandated course by the state legislature for all municipal elected officials. Every member of our city council has taken the course.
Stability and honesty with Destadio and Holland
Councilman Frank Destadio acknowledged there were significant problems with the city’s variance process. He expressed wanting to see changes made.
Following Destadio’s remarks, King backtracked and acknowledged he was willing to make some changes, although significantly hedging, saying they had done nothing wrong, which is false.
Prebor eventually apologized for getting bent out of shape but never acknowledged any of the problems with the city’s variance process.
Destadio and Holland have been committed to following the ordinances and steadfastly supporting our traditional award-winning land plans. Both have opposed the continual moves to construct more stacked multi-family complexes across the city.
After enduring the taunting of his three colleagues, Holland, unfaltering, stood by the facts, the law, and the need for more accountability. Holland and Destadio have lived up to their campaign promises.
In a previous column, I offered the following solutions:
1. Stop violating the Georgia Open Meetings Act and make all committee meetings accessible to the public, including adequate notice, a meeting agenda, and meeting minutes.
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 the property has 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.
You can watch the discussion on variances for yourself at point 2:35:15 on the video at https://www.youtube.com/live/rPBMv9REzKo?feature=share
[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.]