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Debate over design standards brings up former proposed city of Sharon Springs

During a public meeting before commissioners approved new residential design standards for southeast Forsyth County, speakers both for and against the proposal referenced the proposed city of Sharon Springs, which the area would have been a part of.

Commissioners agreed to let the new design standards within the area be immediately approved but not go into effect until Dec. 6, along with changes for ongoing maintenance and deleting stucco as a material to be used for lower wall finishes and removing lawn maintenance requirements.  

The standards were previously discussed at a meeting in July. Changes to the proposal since that meeting included that the southeast standards would supersede all other codes and standards, would not apply to additions or renovations to existing homes and changes to tree installation requirements

“We love trees. We also know they can create some challenges,” said Vanessa Bernstein-Goldman, deputy director of planning and community development. “We would not be able to assure that there would not be any conflict when the tree becomes mature in a 15-, 20-, 25-year period. Upon further discussion with the arborist, we’re working with the constraint that in the front yard, we are always having to assure that there is enough growing space for the tree and for the roots.

“We would also have to make sure that that placement isn’t adversely impacting the relationship to the driveway, then to the sidewalk, then to the lighting.”

According to documents from the county, the new standards are meant to “elevate the quality of residential construction” in the area and to create a sense of place, inspire different building appearances and further community goals in the county’s comprehensive plan. 

The standards get into standards for landscaping, materials, windows, garage doors, building orientation to the street and accessory buildings and structures for individual lots.

For neighborhoods, the standards establish specifications for open space, connectivity and walking, monument signs, lighting, landscaping and site design.

The areas included are south of the city of Cumming, east of Ga. 400 and south and west of Lake Lanier and a northeastern boundary of the area near Hwy. 20 but not reaching Lake Lanier to the Fulton and Gwinnett county lines, an area containing the entirety of the proposal for Sharon Springs. 

In 2018, voters living in the area voted 54 percent (7,616 votes) to 46 percent (6,351 votes) to approve the city, which fell short of the required 57.5 percent needed for cityhood, a compromise between a simple majority and two-thirds majority.

On Thursday, Stacy Guy, a south Forsyth resident who was a member of a steering committee for the change, spoke in favor of the change and said it would help with identity issues in the area, a common reason given for those who supported the city.

“We have an identity problem in south Forsyth,” Guy said. “We’re unincorporated, we have four different zip codes that represent this particular area from four different cities in three different counties. We don’t know who we are. We don’t have a city of our own. We have businesses that open all the time in south Forsyth that identify as Johns Creek. I’ve seen the Johns Creek chamber, Alpharetta chamber at ribbon-cuttings in my backyard.”

Guy noted that the majority of voters had supported the city. Before and after the vote, commissioners have tried to assuage concerns of those seeking a city.

Zoning attorney Ethan Underwood spoke in opposition to the new rules, saying the lack of flexibility would mean only nationally-known builders, rather than smaller companies, would be able to meet them, and the standards created “a de facto city.”

“The city failed in south Forsyth, yet we are essentially making a division of the planning department that says, ‘You’re going to have a totally different planning process. You’re going to have totally different application standards,’” Underwood said. “It’s really a de facto city is what we’re creating.”

Chairwoman Laura Semanson said the standards were intended for village concepts in the area and meant to work with other standards aimed at creating a design for the area.

“To be quite frank, this is what the county offered to the residents of southeast Forsyth who did not get their city, even though they voted by a majority,” she said.