Decatur Planning Commission rejects housing proposal after tense, hours-long meeting

Single family homes line a street in Decatur, Ga. The Decatur Planning Commission rejected a proposal to provide more "middle" housing by allowing duplex, triplex, and quadplex residential units after community members voiced concern and disapproval. (Wikimedia Commons)

This story was provided by WABE content partner Decaturish. You can read the original story here.

On Oct. 11, the Decatur Planning Commission gathered for its regularly scheduled meeting, which turned into a tense, hours-long event.

The first order of new business was a request by the City of Decatur Community and Economic Development Department to amend Article 2, Article 3, Article 6, Article 7 and Article 12 of the Unified Development Ordinance to allow duplex, triplex, and quadplex residential units in R-50, R-60, R-85, and RS-17 single-family residential zoning districts.

The units are intended to create more affordable housing in the city of Decatur, but many attendees questioned whether this proposal achieves that goal.

And this agenda item was greatly anticipated by the community, with record numbers of attendees showing up to speak their minds. More than 100 people were in attendance, some spilling into the hallway of City Hall.

After more than five hours, the planning commission voted to recommend denial of the city’s application due to deficiencies the commission members saw in the current proposal. The Decatur City Commission will hold a public hearing on the proposal which will be on the agenda at its meeting on Monday, Oct. 17 at 7:30 p.m. at City Hall, located at 509 North McDonough Street. Public hearings are also planned for January and February. 

The planning commission members went back and forth about whether they should “approve with conditions” or deny, and ultimately voted to deny because of concerns related to design standards, square footage minimums, parking standards, unintended consequences of activities from private developers, and more.

Kristin Allin, city planner over affordable housing initiatives, presented the proposal at the meeting to ask that the planning commission provide a recommendation of approval to the city commission.

About 25 minutes into the 6-hour-and-22-minute meeting, Commission Chair Harold Buckley stopped Allin’s presentation to address meeting attendees, some of whom were repeatedly interrupting officials while they were trying to speak.

“Let me tell you what we’re not going to do tonight. We’re not going to start shouting from the audience,” Buckley said. “This is the format for the meeting. We have a speaker. When the speaker is done speaking presenting the proposal, then members of the commission get to ask questions.”

“Once the speaker is done, I will ask anyone who wants to speak in support of this to speak. And tonight, we’re using a sign up sheet because the size of this crowd is unprecedented. I have been a member of this commission since 2015, and I have never seen a crowd that overflowed out of the room, so we are doing the very best we can.”

Shortly thereafter, Buckley began to call names from the sign-up sheet to speak at the podium.

Mary Visscher, longtime resident of Decatur, started public comments. 

“Absentee landlords were problematic in the past. Will the property owner be required to live onsite? If not, how would previous problems not be repeated?” Visscher asked.

She added, “My husband and I are experienced landlords, and I can tell you from my personal experience that owning and maintaining rental property is time-consuming, expensive, and is a true commitment, especially if the landlord intends to provide a safe, clean, adequately insured and updated living environment to families and individuals.

“At this time, I think the city has more due diligence to perform before passing or before your commission would recommend the proposed ordinance.”

Decatur resident Wynn Teale addressed the commission with confusion about whether the process gives a “blanket approval” to build multifamily housing units in all residential zoning areas.

“I’m against a blanket approval of this,” Teale said, “But I don’t have a problem with saying, ‘Well, yeah. We can have duplexes, triplexes, quads in our neighborhoods, but let’s look at them on an individual basis.’”

Longtime Decatur resident Linda Rosskopf questioned whether the city’s proposal will result in affordable housing.

“Who will be enforcing or watching rents? Won’t the rents be charged at market rate? So, why do you think it will result in affordable housing?” Rosskopf asked.

“We have plenty of apartments already, and they certainly, by my standards, are not affordable. I don’t know why putting in more, even duplexes, quadplexes, would change that,” she added. “Also I think a number of them will probably end up being airbnbs, and that certainly does nothing to help residents with affordable housing.”

Throughout the meeting, a number of people who signed up to speak waved their turn after others voiced their concerns already.

But there were many residents who supported the proposal.

Valerie Wilson, a former chair of the Decatur School Board,  has lived in Decatur for over 30 years and serves on the Decatur Land Trust Authority, citing the work that the land trust has been doing to create affordable housing when addressing the commission.

“There is a problem in the City of Decatur as it relates to affordability,” Wilson said. “And to some of us in this room, it does not matter. It does not matter that people cannot afford to live in the City of Decatur.  When we talk about demographics, I want you to look at this room. And I want you to think about what truly, if we really cared about demographics in the City of Decatur…the diversity in this room would be different – if we really cared about that, but that’s something people have to deal with in their own hearts.

“I would implore upon you, if you don’t make this recommendation or if you do make this recommendation, we cannot walk away from here thinking that we don’t need affordability in Decatur…if we say we’re this beloved, diverse community that we always tout, that’s make it our beloved community and do what’s right.”

John Kittle has lived on Garden Lane in Decatur since 1986, a living experience he called on to show his support of the proposal.

“We’ve got a number of legal nonconforming multi-unit dwellings. The demographic of the folks there are generally the group that’s being lost,” Kittle said. “The graduate students, the young families…it makes for a wonderfully diverse community. We have not had parking issues, and these are mostly duplexes rather than tri or quadplexes, but you can always find a place to park. I feel like the proposal by city staff is quite an appropriate response to everything we’ve been saying about the missing middle and affordable housing.

“It probably won’t work perfectly, but it’s worth a shot. It provides some options in what can be built in our community, and I encourage you to approve it.”

The agenda and full meeting recording can be found here.

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