Fears that a proposed rewrite of Decatur zoning regulations will deter residential developers by increasing costs and that apartments would be allowed in districts previously reserved for single-family homes dominated public meetings this week.
Clarion Associates LLC consultants Tim Richards and David Henning were in Decatur to get input on the first half of their proposed rewrite of the city’s 40-year-old zoning ordinance.
They met with the City Council and Planning Commission and led a public meeting Tuesday. On Wednesday, they met with steering committee members and city employees for input. They will present the second half of their proposal at a later date.
Paul Serwatka, a real estate broker who lives in the Lake Chula Vista area, said he’s concerned with the process and that fact the city farmed out the zoning rewrite to a consultant. The city is paying the North Carolina company $195,000 to draft a new ordinance.
Serwatka said he doesn’t want the consultant to make a lot of changes that fit other cities but won’t work in Decatur.
“A rewrite is pretty daunting,” Serwatka said. “And I’m concerned about where they get their insight into what works in Decatur, what we have to improve and what doesn’t work.”
Henning said they added ideas from trends across the country, but the series of meetings is meant to get input from Decatur residents on what they want and don’t want in the rewrite. Residents can also submit input through the One Decatur website.
“We want your input,” Henning told Serwatka.
As part of a push to kick-start Decatur’s population growth, city officials have pushed for new single-family residential subdivisions. The zoning rewrite would directly impact new developments with design standards that impact the developer’s bottom line.
There are changes to sidewalks, which increase from 4 feet to 5 feet in width and would be required for both sides of the street. Cul-de-sacs, which are popular for families with children, would be limited to 500 feet in length.
Two ingress/egress points from subdivisions with 50 units or more would be required. Driveways with direct access to collector streets could be prohibited, or the number could be limited.
The new zoning requirement that drew the most ire from developers and real estate agents is that certain subdivisions, depending on size and location, would have to set aside 20% of the development to green space, Richards said.
MarMac Real Estate broker Mark Moody said having to set aside that much property could turn a project into a losing proposition and even scare developers away from Decatur.
Moody said Decatur’s homebuilders “can’t even approach the $150 a square foot that they can get in Huntsville and Madison. We need to do whatever we can to reduce their costs, not increase them.”
Richards said he also received requests from developers to go back to 4-foot-wide sidewalks. There was also discussion about whether sidewalks are needed on both sides of the road throughout a subdivision.
A hot-button issue in Decatur is apartments. As another part of the growth push, city officials have expressed a need for upscale apartments to attract young professionals who work in the city’s industries.
Third Avenue Southwest resident Don Ringette was one of about 50 people at Tuesday night’s public meeting in City Hall. Ringette said he deals mostly in real estate investment and flipping homes, but he was most interested in the apartment zoning changes.
“I’m interested in seeing whether single-family and multi-family homes can co-exist because I might be interested in developing some apartments in the future,” Ringette said.
But Burningtree Mountain resident John Nugent doesn't think the city needs more apartments.
“With all the apartments in Decatur, I have to ask what is wrong with all the existing apartments and why do the millennials not want to live in them?” Nugent said.
Nugent said he’s concerned Clarion’s changes in zoning districts could allow more mixed-use developments in Decatur. The proposed residential zones offer multi-use residential developments, which could include apartments, as an alternative.
Richards said most of Nugent's concerns will be addressed in the second half of the rewrite that will be presented at a later date. He guaranteed the new zones will protect single-family residential developments. He said he would change the rewrite so it’s easier to understand.
City Planner Karen Smith said the city does not have a mixed-use development like Providence in Huntsville, which has apartments, town homes, small single-family homes and commercial with retail and restaurants.
“We would like to have a development like Providence but that’s almost impossible in our current zoning,” Smith said.
City Director of Development Wally Terry pointed out that Nugent already lives in a mixed-use area.
Nugent said the town houses built near his Burningtree Mountain home by the Morris family “are first class” and owner-occupied, so there’s not an issue.
“The main issue is with rental homes and apartments because the tenants aren’t likely to take care of the properties,” Nugent said.