A Wink and a Nod Zoning Practices
Developments Vary From Approved Plans
Have you ever wondered why development projects in Johns Creek don’t match the zoning decisions of our City Council? Case in point: the active adult community being built at the corner of Medlock Bridge Road and Bell Road. As that apartment complex nears completion, many aspects vary dramatically from the plans that were approved by City Council in June 2016.
Consider this one component of the plan. The quote below is from the Johns Creek City Staff Report.
Site plans show 225 spaces in a parking deck on the west side of the property, along with 50 additional surface parking spaces to the north and east of the structure. Several of these surface spaces will likely need to be replaced by parking lot trees in order to meet parking lot landscaping requirements. The development’s use of decked parking reduces the need for surface parking area, which allows for a more compact development that minimizes encroachments into environmentally sensitive areas and contributes to the Comprehensive Plan’s goals of encouraging more walkable, higher-intensity housing types in this location. Elevations provided by the applicant show that the top of the parking deck will be below the level of Medlock Bridge Road, which would help to minimize its visual impact on the public right-of-way provided that adequate landscaping is provided.
That parking deck and the benefits intended are nowhere to be seen. Instead, the development has incorporated far more impervious surface area (exacerbating our already critical stormwater issues), and parking spots have been moved to the perimeter of the development in areas that were designated buffer zones - buffer zones that were already allowed closer to roadways in the approved zoning variance requests. City Staff clearly stated that the parking deck would help meet several positive objectives, but then went on to allow a plan to move forward without the parking deck, and thus allowed “encroachments into environmentally sensitive areas” that the Staff Report highlighted as an opportunity to reduce impacts of the development.
This is but one example of how developments are allowed to drastically change after being approved by our City Council. No public notices of these changes were communicated to nearby residents, and “approval” to make these changes were handled bureaucratically through Community Development. Where is the accountability in this process if resident debate and City Council decisions are ultimately overridden administratively without any recourse?
Timeline and Support
The original zoning request was denied by City Council on December 1, 2015, and the applicant sued the city. While that lawsuit was pending, the City Council considered a proposal to settle the lawsuit during the City Council Meeting on June 20, 2016, and ultimately approved the development in a 5 - 2 vote (In Favor: Mayor Bodker, Council Members Broadbent, Lin, Gray, and Davenport; Against: Council Members Endres and Zaprowski).
Impacts Greater Than Just This One Development
The impact of these types of changes are more far-reaching than just one site. Future development and rezoning requests will refer to these configurations as precedents in order to justify approval for their requests that do not meet standing zoning restrictions. This is the slippery slope on which we lose control over the quality and type of development residents desire for Johns Creek.
Mary Beth Cooper is a resident and the President of the Johns Creek Community Association. She has regularly spoken out on this exact topic. The residents of Johns Creek deserve a measure of protection so that final development projects are aligned with approved plans, and to be sure that any change requests go through the same review and approval process that the original plans must obtain.
Developers’ Interests Over Residents’ Interests
Johns Creek has earned a reputation of being “developer-friendly”. Situations where developments evolve outside the purview and control of our City Council, and to the economic benefit of those developers, simply reinforces a perception that the tables are tilted in developers’ favor. We endorse Ms. Cooper’s and the JCCA’s position that more control must be explicit in every zoning case approval. Allowing current practices to continue means that we have effectively surrendered control of the development process, and opens that process to the possibility of special interest influences.