Tuesday, September 6, 2011

How to Rebuild Dunwoody Zoning

Zoning.  One of the key (if not THE key) rallying point that led to our City's existence.

The first time we threw our codes together, it was a patchwork of ordinances copied and pasted from a number of sources, especially DeKalb county.  Ironic as hell when you think about it but we had to start somewhere.

This is an ideal time to review our ordinances from the top all the way to the bottom.  It's relatively early in our City's life, so we don't have to undo a ton of precedent.  At the same time we have some experience with the kind of life people want to live in their homes. 

There's an inherent flaw in the entire zoning process as it stands:  ordinances are based on a listing of individual activities and their limits, in the quest to protect neighbors from pissing each other off.  This is a flaw for several reasons:
  • it is a reactive process, rather than proactive.  Ordinances have to be created bit by bit as a new fashion or trend becomes popular and people want to integrate it into their lives.  We all know how well that went the first time the City tried to process a major ordinance change. 
  • it is a process that allows individuals or groups to demand that their interests, hobbies, or lifestyles be codified.  Everyone wants to enjoy what interests them but the scrutiny and criticism dip to a whole new depth when City Hall gets involved.  That isn't necessary.  It's also not a productive use of City Hall's time.
  • the process is polarizing.  Otherwise rational adults turn into bickering, backstabbing "dead end kids" when an extended conversation would probably reveal quite a bit of common ground.  Even worse, a "litmus test" arises for future elected officials.  Just this past week, when candidates qualified for this November's elections, the first question asked on the local blogs regarding candidates is, "What do they think about chickens?"  A discussion about a special interest is now being promoted as the deciding factor in who is worthy of holding office.  If that standard becomes dominant we're in for a lot of unhappy residents and ugly elections for a very long time. 
  • it creates double standards, multiple loopholes, and conflicting regulations.  The same behaviour or activity may be allowed or not depending up on the alleged intent of the homeowner.  A lawsuit is only a matter of time.
To stop this and similar snowballs from picking up steam and making Dunwoody miserable, it's time to rethink how ordinances are drawn.  Rather than organize ordinances according to a list of specific actions, base ordinances on general boundaries according to their zoning designations.  Set one uniform standard for all activity, regardless of whether it's business, or personal.  Everyone has to meet the standard, for any activity.  Then all homeowners in a specific residential area could do as they please with their property without having to split hairs between residential, commercial, or agricultural purposes.

First, you have to review the ordinances that are currently written and have a serious think about why some behaviours or activities are limited or prohibited.  You have to decide exactly what is a "nuisance", one of the most common words in an ordinance.  What activity is tolerable, what is intolerable and why.  What is an inherent right in the use of one's property, and what will inherently infringe on others' rights.  When you're able to set this definition, application becomes fairer.

For example, some of the concerns about my special interest (home business with customer visits) include increased traffic and the risk that homes may be converted to commercial enterprises, thus, interfering with the enjoyment of a residential community.  In my solution above, the ordinance would not ban businesses per se, but would set limits on the number of cars parked at a residence on a daily basis, or the amount of land that can be paved over, or whether or not the residence could be rezoned in any way.

In another (in)famous example, rather than categorizing domesticated animals as either pets or livestock, set basic parameters on the maximum number and maximum size of animals allowed at a residence, based on the size of the lot.  (Homes zoned R50 will have more stringent limits than those zoned R85, and so on.)  Then everyone in a basic zoning designation can choose whatever animals they keep, so long as they are within the size and number limits.

This process is not going to be easy or simple or without conflict.  However if done well, now, while the City is still in its adolesence, there will be long-term advantages. 
  • A more consistent application that Code Enforcement can apply evently
  • Resistance to legal challenges that would be possible due to multiple standards
  • Consistent application over time as interpretations of what consititutes a "residential neighborhood activity" evolves and fads or styles ebb and flow.  This is the real strength - there will be less of a need to go to the expense of rewriting codes every couple of years as popular activities change. 
  • Finally, people can keep their opinions about what is a good idea to use their home for, and what isn't.  As long as the codes are written and enforced so that rights don't start infringing on each other, there will be a lot less to worry about.
How's this for a start?  Given enough time and effort, is it doable?


Bob Lundsten said...

Just a suggestion, read up on some basic property rights issues and planning issues.
Welcome to the party.

Bob Lundsten said...

I just read what I wrote and I want to clarify
You have some great ideas and thoughts, getting some basic knowledge will help you get to the points that you want to reach.
I have been doing this zoning crap for a LONG time and look forward to some spririted discussions. My typos and all.
Zoning discussions that are not single property events can be interesting
Really, welcome to the party

SDOC Publishing Internet Solutions said...

Hi Bob--
I was hoping to hear from you.
If you have some suggestions on good foundation material to start with I'd be grateful for a suggestion.

There has GOT to be a way to think outside the box on this process. If we dont' do it now I foresee a duplicate of DeKalb county, warts and all, that doesn't have to be and I doubt was intended when we incorporated.

Bob Lundsten said...

Let me know We can meet at my Dunwoody office (Hickory House)and maybecome up with a plan
send me an email

Kcaj said...

If you haven't found this site, then municode.com is good place to start.

Also, especially if you have plenty of free time, visit a Dekalb county community council, then follow an item through the whole county zoning process.

While you or others may have a beef with DeKalb, to watch their seasoned pros workover Chapter 27 should be eye opening.

As for you concerns about enforcement... you were joking right?

Have fun, keep a sense of humor, and go easy on the farmer. J.

SDOC Publishing Internet Solutions said...

I was at the Community Council meeting tonight where the Home Occupation amendment was up for discussion. Usual comments by the usual suspects. Nothing new there.

Something I suspected but had confirmed tonight: the term "nuisance" is almost always used as the defining limit for a certain activity.

Yet, it does not have a clear definition anywhere. It's all subjective based on what any random individual calls "annoying".

I said for the record, define that term and the process will resolve conflicts quicker.

Jack, yes, I'm serious. I'm also serious that Dunwoody needs more than *one* code enforcement officer. Without relying on the police. ;-D

Not going to be *too* hard on Bob. But if he runs his mouth too much I'll transfer his office from the Hickory House to my backyard where we just had a sick tree removed - it would be a perfect spot for veggies. He can show me how he thinks it's done. LOL! Nitey-nite!

John Heneghan said...

I am dealing with the same issues on Door to Door solicitation and it appears that the police do need to be involved in order to cite a permit violation first, then have a conviction, in order to revoke the permit.

In doing my research (on Municode) on Solicitation, I thought I saw "nuisance" defined in another city (Alpheretta?) therefore this may need to be included in possible changes for Monday.

I already have the audio of tonight's Community Council meeting as well as a persons notes therefore I hope to be well informed when this comes to me.