As presented to the Cobb County Board of Commissioners on March 25th:
For the last several years, the Cobb County Civic Coalition (CCCC) has been urging Cobb County to make changes regarding “minor modifications”. The current flawed Cobb process has caused problems and injustices throughout the County and cost taxpayers millions.
It is important to first understand what we are talking about when we say “minor modifications”. While Cobb County does not consider “minor modifications” to be secret modifications, they are modifications to the official zoning decisions AFTER the Board of Commissioners vote at a public hearing on a zoning. These modifications occur with no public notification prior to approving the modification, no public hearing to allow the community to provide input about possible adverse impacts of the modification, and no disclosure to the public after the modification is approved.
Because these changes are made after the official Board of Commissioners public vote, these modifications are meant to be minor things like the color of a building, placement of shrubs, placement of driveway, just to name a few. The problem that has become commonplace in Cobb is that there are absolutely no guidelines as to what is and what is not a minor modification.
During a zoning hearing about 8 or 9 years ago, then-Commissioner Joe Thompson asked then-County Attorney Dottie Bishop, what qualified a modification as “minor”. Ms Bishop replied that since the County had no definition of “minor” that the definition of minor was determined by the judgment of the commissioner. This means that a minor modification is whatever a commissioner decides it is.
We have learned from other zoning professionals that “minor modifications” is a normal practice in most other jurisdictions. However, the same professionals tell us that NOT defining minor modifications is NOT normal. A good starting point is the minor modification language that Cobb County Staff has already recommended to you.
Some of the biggest problems with “minor modifications” have been those which were in direct contradiction to specific stipulations, or in direct conflict with the Cobb County Code.
We have previously discussed with you, the minor modification where there was a 6-story building which had been proposed in the zoning application, but eliminated in the final zoning decision. That entire building was later added back as a so-called “minor modification”. The undisturbed buffer was also reduced through a “minor modification” on this same property. There was no public notice, no public hearing, and no notification to the community after the fact. The community found out about a year later because a nearby homeowner went to the zoning office to find out why the property was being clear-cut into the area where the zoning decision had stipulated for the undisturbed buffer. The Zoning Office then informed the homeowner about the reduced undisturbed buffer, and also about the whole 6-story building that was going to be built in contradiction to the zoning decision.
CCCC does not agree that this modification in direct contradiction to the zoning decision was a “minor” change.
Tonight we want to discuss another “minor modification” case. Zoning Case Z-128 from 2005, proposed a residential development zoning to create Jamerson Estates.
The neighborhood downstream initially opposed this development because they had already had previous flooding issues. After the developer agreed to reduce the number of units, and agreed to build 2 detention facilities, the neighborhood downstream withdrew their opposition. They sent a letter to the County explicitly stating that they were withdrawing their opposition based on the agreement on these specific points, including the inclusion of the 2 detention facilities. The rezoning application was then amended to include the detention facilities. On September 20, 2005, the BOC approved the zoning subject to the new site plan that included the stipulation requiring the agreed upon detention facilities.
On February 20, 2006, just five months later, then-District Three Commissioner signed off on a so-called “minor modification” of site plan with ZERO detention facilities on the property. You can also see where it was signed off on for this so-called “minor modification” which completely eliminated both of the detention facilities. After the Z-128 neighborhood was built, flooding in the neighborhood downstream increased.
What is the Cost of this Minor Modification to Cobb Taxpayers?
- Less than 2 years after the rezoning, the County paid $38,755 to Repair structural failure of stormwater facility in the neighborhood downstream.
- Six years after the rezoning the County acquired 4.6 acres Floodplain in the neighborhood downstream – Cost $25,000.
- Seven years after the rezoning, the County applied for a FEMA Grant. The FEMA Grant was available to purchase homes that had had multiple occurrences of severe flooding. This project included the purchase of 10 homes, 6 of which are in the neighborhood downstream. The County paid $1,042,880 for these 6 properties in the neighborhood downstream and acquired title to the homes in July 2013. To date the homes remain abandoned.
- Their tennis court was flooded so many times, it was destroyed and abandoned.
In addition to well over a Million dollars of taxpayer funds that was spent to rectify the situation created by this minor modification, six families had their homes flooded and had to uproot themselves and move. Their neighbors now have to live next to these abandoned houses. It is unclear if or when the County will tear them down and how much more will that cost taxpayers.
CCCC does not agree that this modification in direct contradiction to the zoning was a “minor” change.
Cobb County Staff recently proposed new stipulation language regarding Minor Modifications, and some commissioners are using this language in zonings in their district. However, commissioners have not come to an agreement to include this language in ALL zonings. These slides show the language recently recommended to you by County Staff.
Minor modifications to be approved by the District Commissioner, except for those that:
- Increase the density of a residential project or the overall square footage of a non-residential project.
- Reduce the size of an approved buffer adjacent to an adjacent property that is zoned for the same or a more restrictive residential zoning district.
- Relocate a structure closer to the property line of an adjacent property that is zoned in the same or a more restrictive zoning district.
- Increase the height of a building that is adjacent to a property that is zoned in the same or a more restrictive zoning district.
- Change an access location to a different roadway.
CCCC recommends 2 additional exclusions, which would eliminate “minor modifications” that are in direct contradiction to specific stipulations, or in direct conflict with County Code. Developers could still make changes through the normal public hearing process. These changes would require public notice and a public hearing.
- Would be in direct contradiction or conflict with any of the stipulations of the zoning.
- Would be in direct contradiction or conflict with Cobb County Code and ordinances.
The language proposed by Cobb County Staff, plus the 2 additional restrictions proposed by CCCC would be a great first step in the right direction. If we can all agree that minor modifications should not be used to increase density, or to reduce the size of a buffer, or to contravene stipulations of zoning, or to violate County Code, then Cobb should take steps to prevent these abuses from continuing to occur.
We urge the commissioners to implement these restraints on Minor Modifications that would apply to all future rezoning cases. Based on the above examples, it is clear that minor modifications are harming the County financially. In addition, when non-public changes are made that are not minor, and in direct contradiction to the agreements that the developer made with the community, it’s just wrong.
Additional information and an in depth timeline for Z-128 can be found online.