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Commissioners are talking about changing the process for mixed-use projects
Forsyth County

In the last few years, plans for mixed-use projects, developments that have both commercial and residential portions, have cropped up across Forsyth County, offering products unlike what the county has traditionally seen.

On Tuesday, Forsyth County Commissioners held a special-called work session to discuss mixed-use products and what commissioners and county leaders would like to see. The meeting was a step toward updating those standards, though no action was taken on the matter.

Among items discussed was a potential pathway to allow unique projects to have more flexibility when dealing with commissioners, including a possible new zoning designation.

Chairwoman Laura Semanson said that pathway would be “all on the merits of the project” and said she didn’t see a reason for density limitations because developers would likely be “giving something back” to the community.

“They could even be something that we could consider that there are public uses for that space if it is large enough,” she said. “There may be that they want to work with the school board to set aside land to put a school on. They may be working with us to find land to put a fire station. That’s the kind of thing that I’m thinking through with this alternative path. It’s got to have some unique factors, some things that they’re bringing.

“There should be criteria when you consider that, but it is wide open. Once you’ve met those parameters and you’ve plead your case that it’s something unique, let’s sit down and talk about this dream.”

Throughout the meeting, commissioners looked at similar standards in the cities of Alpharetta and Brookhaven, which while smaller than the county could provide some best practices to follow.

“It’s a smaller ship, so it’s a little bit easier to steer it, if you want to, in a different direction faster,” said Vivian Vakili, the county’s economic development director. “So I’m not ignorant to that. Again, I just wanted to bring it up. I think there’s still things that we can look at what they do, but I do want to be clear that I’m aware they’re much smaller jurisdictions.”  

Some of those differences are the cities allow more zoning districts than the county for different types of mixed-use projects and offer or require digital plan reviews.

District 4 Commissioner Cindy Jones Mills said the county had typically been in “reaction mode and so scared of what might come in that we’ve put stark rules and guidelines … we’ve been just reactionary.”

Instead, she felt a new process might bring new types of projects.

“You’re allowing a vision to be created and allowing them to bring you a unique product, something that you think your citizens … would be excited about, something that they are asking for, something that is not the same old tract-builder everything because that’s the only thing our code allows,” Mills said.

Tom Brown, the county’s director of planning and community development, said some projects in his department might need to be moved around to bring back the proposal at an upcoming meeting, which he said would be basically “rehashing what I heard here today.”

“Fitting this in this year, I’m going to have to come back to [the commission] and recommend some stuff be set aside,” he said. “I think today, hearing what we want, I’m not sure I’ve got it all on paper yet, but we’ve got a better idea than we did two hours ago,” Brown said.

Brown said this originated from a discussion at a meeting in July where “about a half dozen major topics” on mixed-use projects were brought up, such as concerns with annexations of county land into the city of Cumming, increasing commercial development, having flexible rules without lowering county standards, a “fast-track” for some projects, building out residential and non-residential parts of projects simultaneously and “fixing the perception that some projects cannot even be done here” due to county rules.