Thursday, January 24, 2013

Zoning Sounding Board Confidential

As of last night the zoning code rewrite drafting is about 3/4 done.  Last module is going to involve the stream buffers and related issues.

When the Sounding Board was first assembled, Steve Dush cautioned all of us that discussions would be heated and there was a potential for them to get out of control.

That never happened.  We each had areas of concern and expertise, but no fights broke out.  There were no "hijacked" meetings.  Once we got to know each other in the context of the Board and its goals, once we were sure that none of our perspectives would be dismissed or censored, we came together as a group and looked for ways that all of the diverse interests of Dunwoody's many communities could be accommodated. That is, we recognized that not all districts or subdivisions, or businesses were alike.  One size fits all wasn't going to happen.  We strove to watch a code develop that would accommodate ever-diversifying interests through the next two decades of the 21st century.

We hashed through all kinds of interests.  Some of which I believe will become anachronisms in 20 years when the zoning code has to be reviewed again.  There were all sorts of groups looking to have their interests codified.  There were sloppy displays of Gluteus smoochium to the Atlanta Regional Commission. There were activities and interests I couldn't imagine myself involved with in a million years.  There were major conflicts that needed fine lines drawn.  When last night's meeting rolled around, the Sounding Board members present and reps from the City and the consultants were sitting around, agreeing with each other (!) that the current draft was comprehensive, consistent, accommodating of various interests when able and most of all, fair to the entire city,  not just one segment of it.

There are going to be individual cases to be worked out one at a time.  But the framework is in place.

The most interesting thing I learned was that it is not necessary to personally endorse an activity or perspective to accommodate it in the code.  That epiphany broke down a lot of barriers.  There were some requests and recommendations that I thought were ridiculous.  But determining their place in the code wasn't about what I thought personally.  It was about making room for as many as possible.

City staff and council members have sat in on these sessions at various times, usually without comment.  Last night Denny Shortal visited and offered his personal advice to the team.  (Unfortunately, he did so in the bottom of the 6th out of nine innings, bless his heart.)  Denny's advice was (paraphrased) to base our decisions of what the code should read based on what we would like to live next to personally.

Denny is wrong and last night's advice was bad for Dunwoody.  Here is why:

When peoples' only perception of  "the city" begins and ends at their property lines, communication becomes impossible.  Cliques form that consider other taxpaying and homeowner citizens the "foe" that they must be "protected" against.  Any step in evolution, growth, improvement is met with suspicion and hostility.  Then you see groups of grumpy red shirted-citizens opposed to any change, whatever the reason.  The impact of any previous progress is diluted.  Focusing your attention on only what you, yourself,  "like" and "prefer" pits neighbors against each other and progress grinds to a halt.  Focusing on your own likes to the detriment of others who think differently is to write a zoning code based on fear, rather than reality.  I dont' know if Denny even realizes this is what he has done.

Speaking of basing code upon fear, my colleagues and others interested in this process love to inform me how home occupations are going to be a "hot button" issue.  I can't tell if they're dreading the conflict or thriving on it.  I supposed it depends on who's doing the talking.   The number of recorded complaints regarding home occupations is minuscule compared to the hundreds of home business owners in Dunwoody. No one believes for a minute that any homeowner should put up with egregious nuisances.  There are some little red lizards running around town trying to convince you that home business owners want the right to be a nuisance  That is a lie.

Every effort was put into writing the current code to accommodate the majority of home business owners who get along with their neighbors without causing the problems that are the source of the fear.  Past incidents of code violations by home business owners were examined and the code written to prohibit those practices.  At the same time, the punitive processes were removed.  If this code is passed, home business owners will be free to come forward and be permitted by the city to see one customer at a time, without hiding from a months-long process that drags out in the pages of the Crier.   Music teachers and other tutors can receive their pupils without their parents whispering nervously about being at someone's home.   Neighbors and others can file a complaint where necessary and leave the peaceful owners alone.  Peaceful home business owners don't need or deserve to be stigmatized by the few who cannot function in their neighborhoods.

Why has this process taken so long?  Because every time this discussion comes up, the first words out of every nay-sayer's mouth is "I'm afraid."  The previous code was written in the 1970s  and is only enforced because of someone's fear, not the reality of the wide variety of activities that take place in a 21st century home.  Home business owners were considered guilty of being a nuisance before proven innocent - and they could never be innocent.  The current code draft balances the needs of home business owners and other residents fairly, without a presumption of guilt on either side.

Read it for yourself at  Nothing in this process or these documents has ever been a secret.

That's just one issue that is going to come up tonight.  (We'll see if I can get over my cold in enough time to attend.)  The accommodation of bicyclists, standards in the Village Overlay District, "mixed use" districts, are all going to be major.  There are advocates both for and against these accommodation, just like for home businesses.

What's going to happen tonight?  How many attendees will open their discussion on whatever issue concerns them with "We can't do that because I'm afraid"?  How many will look beyond their own property lines and accept the different homes that make up Dunwoody and find common ground?  Or at the very least build a fair fence between them?

Take my advice - let the Angel destroy the lizard.  It's liberating to let go of the fear of the "different".  I did it myself.  The entire Sounding Board did.  It's OK to let everyone be happy citizens in their own way.

No comments: