Controversy rages amongst advocates and activists regarding the Mableton Form-Based Redevelopment plan currently under consideration by the Cobb Board of Commissioners (BOC). The plan would fundamentally change the existing zoning process.
Although the plan would be contained to the Mableton area, there is concern that adoption would set a precedent that would force its implementation throughout the county.
“We’ve seen it before where a stipulation is intended to be an isolated ‘special case’, but it spreads throughout the county because it allows some … lawyer outside the intended area to make a legal argument based on equal treatment under the law,” said Norm DeWalt, president of the North East Cobb Homeowners Group.
The controversy centers on two elements of the plan, “Form-Based Coding” and “Use By Right”.
Although neither have been implemented in Cobb, both have been under consideration for years. In 2007, the Cumberland Community Improvement District contemplated Form-Based Coding as noted in “Blueprint Cumberland II, Final Report”:
Currently, Cobb County and its municipalities use traditional zoning codes that divide parcels into different zones/districts (residential, commercial, industrial, etc.); list those allowable land uses in each zoning district; and, indicate the density allowed by regulating such items as building heights, floor area ratios, parcel coverage, setbacks, and other dimensions.
By comparison, form-based codes regulate the streetscape, form, and the public realm. In general, these alternatives govern building types, building dimensions, parking locations, and façade features…
The base principle of form-based coding is that design is more important than use. Simple and clear graphic prescriptions for building height, how a building is placed on site, and building elements (such as location of windows, doors, etc) are used to control development.
Use, though, has been important in the past. Larry Savage, a member of the Cobb County Civic Coalition and Chairman Tim Lee’s sole opponent in the last election, wrote about two recent examples,
- “In East Cobb, an applicant wanted to put a dog spa in a building with a restaurant on the opposite side of a common wall. The building owner was OK with it (don’t know if the tenant restaurant owner even knew). There would be no “green space” connected. Dogs would be ‘walked’ on nearby sidewalks and waste picked up by the walkers. Dogs kept overnight. Denied under current operation. Form Based code?
- A proposed Senior Living development in East Cobb. Neighbors were much involved in the process. To satisfy the neighbors the developer made numerous revisions to configuration of the project and negotiated outside decor, landscaping, etc. Approved. What would be the process in Form Based Code?”
Under the Mableton plan, if new development fits the template described by the form-based code as judged by a review committee, under the “Use By Right” doctrine – no oversight by the Board of Commissioners or public comment is allowed.
“Use By Right” has been considered – and rejected – previously by the Cobb BOC.
“About ten years ago, we had another proposal that came forward that proposed ‘use by right’… At that time; Bill Byrne was Chairman, Sam Olens was a district commissioner and both Chairman Byrne and Commissioner Olens told me at that time that their objection to the use by right proposal is that it would eliminate public comment as far as any future zoning decisions. In reality, it’s not a future zoning decision, it’s a future development decision”, Ron Sifen, Cobb County Civic Coalition (CCCC) member, said during public comment on the issue.
On use by right, Former Commission Chair Bill Byrne recently wrote,
“I did and do oppose the planning concept of ‘Use by Right’ due to the fact that future planning and zoning could bypass the elected officials and I believe that is fundamentally wrong. The Mableton Plan may be very well thought out. However, once approved, it will bypass the political process in the future and the right of the public to have legitimate input into future projects located within the plan and no recourse to appeal future decisions in a public forum.”
There also is concern over the amendment process proposed for the new ordinance that would allow building heights to be increased, but not decreased while severly limiting the opportunity to decrease overall density. According to the current draft of the proposal,
“Maximum density ratios may be reduced through a process of public hearing available every 20 years. Decreases may not exceed 5 units per gross acre for any transect zone, per adjustment.”
Some advocates question the need for fundamental changes in the zoning process.
“There are procedures within the current code to provide for mixed use development with high density incentives and affordable housing. They’re called Redevelopment Overlay Districts… There is no reason to reinvent the wheel especially when the result is to circumvent the existing zoning process and not to allow public input. If adopted, zonings would be an administrative decision out of the public view,” said Tricia Clements, member of the Northeast Cobb Homeowners Group.
As noted in the 2007 Blueprint Cumberland II Final Report:
Form-based codes can be adopted under a variety of scenarios, including changing/replacing the existing zoning, creating a special district, or an optional overlay district.
The proposed plan is supported of the Mableton Improvement Coalition (MIC), a homeowner group that represents the area the plan will govern. Robin Meyers, MIC chairman said, “Putting this plan in place, and giving property owners and potential property owners a sense of what the end product should look like is extraordinarily powerful and gives us the ability to formulate a specific vision, a specific goal a specific output and then funnel everybody in that same direction. I feel sure that this is an ordinance that we will be tweaking between now and the hoped-for adoption coming soon. I feel sure we will tweak it every year that goes by just as we tweak every other section of the ordinances.”
The plan also has the support of Canton Road Neighbors. Carol Brown, chairman and founder of the group said,
“We respect the right of each community to engage in planning that will shape their own future development. This is a tradition dating back to the recommendations of noted planner Paul Davidoff back in the mid 60’s in Advocacy and Pluralism in Planning. Just as many West Cobb residents prefer to maintain the rural character of their area, we also feel that the residents of Mableton have the right to develop plans that suit their own unique area.They’ve chosen to use form-based code as a template for their future development and we believe that the county should respect that right. We would like to see this form-based code adopted.”
Regarding the plan, Michael Paris, president of the Council for Quality Growth said, “There has been extensive vetting of this plan by those in that community. Given the state of the economy, there are very few development opportunities and financing is extremely hard to come by. It’s important to expedite the development process and incentivize the development community. The people in that community want it. Those in West and North East Cobb should butt out.”
According to their web site, “The Council for Quality Growth is a not-for-profit trade association comprised of a diverse membership of developers, contractors, engineers, architects, planners, law firms and bankers–anyone with an interest in growth and development.”
The Mableton plan is part of a package of amendments to the Cobb County code currently under consideration by the Cobb Board of Commissioners. The final opportunity for public input on the plan will be offered during the next meeting of the board which will occur Tuesday at 7 pm in the second floor meeting room at 100 Cherokee Street in Marietta.