SOUTH FORSYTH -- Tempers flared during a public hearing this week for a proposed overlay that would allow for apartments at a popular outdoor mall in south Forsyth.
During a meeting on Thursday, Forsyth County commissioners held a public hearing, with District 2 Commissioner Brian Tam recused and District 3 Commissioner Todd Levent absent, on the proposed South Forsyth Livable Center Overlay for The Collection at Forsyth.
Prior to the public hearing, it was announced that no action would be taken at the meeting, with a vote scheduled for the commission’s Nov. 3 regular meeting.
Background and proposal
In summer 2015, commissioners began discussing the addition of housing at the mall on Peachtree Parkway to expand to a mixed-use, or live-work-play, development.
Public hearings were held before commissioners and the county’s planning board before the issue was tabled last December with direction that a public hearing would be held once it was taken off the table.
If approved, the overlay district would extend over the current area of the shopping center with a community zone to the west in an undeveloped area.
“The overlay would provide within the community zone could have uses such as an outdoor park, amphitheater, fairgrounds – including arts and food festivals, recitals and performances and similar events — and multi-family housing,” County Attorney Ken Jarrard said.
The change will require a modification to the county’s unified development code, which are land use and planning rules.
The development has been proposed with a maximum of 309 units and a building that could reach up to five stories atop a one-story parking deck
Part of the proposal includes a beautification project for Ga. 400’s Exit 13.
Arguments in favor
John Graham with Core Property Capital, the owner of The Collection, explained why the change is being proposed through an overlay rather than a rezoning.
“When we first began the process, there was concern about uncertainty as to what would happen if we went down the zoning road,” Graham said. “The overlay has very specific conditions that we will have to follow, to the extent that it is approved; very specific site plans, very specific way to add parking, the design of the park [and] amphitheater.”
He also said the property is not subject to a moratorium on apartments enacted throughout the county, which was raised as an issue, and that even if it were, the development was submitted before the moratorium was enacted.
Graham said the public has been involved with the current plan.
“I think the process that we’ve gone through has been very beneficial,” he said. “We really believe that the process of working with the public has, frankly, built a better project than what we started with and we’re not ashamed to say it.”
He said plans also include connectivity to the Big Creek Greenway and that nearby Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and tenants are in support.
“We believe what we’re doing here will lead to the long-term success of The Collection. We believe it creates a gateway to Forsyth County.
We believe it’s going to do a lot in terms of how you enter Forsyth County with beautification on Exit 13,” Graham said.
During a public comments portion of the meeting held before the public hearing, several business owners leasing space at The Collection spoke in favor of the overlay.
District 24 state Rep. Sheri Gilligan spoke as a private citizen on her issues with the way the overlay came to be, saying she felt it should have gone through the zoning process.
“This particular proposal is radically different than anything that has been done in Forsyth County in both purpose and its participation level.
It’s the first-ever use of an overlay to guarantee apartment dwelling. It’s the only single-parcel overlay in the county,” she said. “I have to know: why is The Collection getting special treatment?
“Land rights [are] to make sure all land owners are treated equally. It should not matter how many tax dollars are spent at a particular entity.”
Issues were also raised with not having more community input.
Gilligan and other speakers who live in the district also said they were not properly represented in the process, as Tam is recused and Rick Swope, the sole candidate for the commission seat for which Tam is not re-running, will not take office until January.
She also pointed out that the district is the only one with a sub-area planning board, but that members did not participate in the process. She said a general lack of representation was the driving force behind a recent movement to create the city of Sharon Springs in south Forsyth.
“Unfortunately [residents’] voices cannot be fully represented at this moment, because the [District] 2 Commissioner had to recuse himself,” she said. “This is not an argument, this is not a gig at anybody, this is just a mere fact that right now the representation is not there for them,” Gilligan said.
She also aired issues with the apartment moratorium and analysis that she said would have needed to be done if it were a zoning process.
Gilligan said she favored commissioners turning down the overlay and re-evaluating the project through the zoning process or tabling it until the new commissioner takes office.
Like those in favor, several others who were opposed spoke during the public comments and public hearing, with many being nearby residents.
Responses from commissioners
Following the public hearing, District 4 Commissioner Cindy Jones Mills said the process has been followed properly.
“I know that it’s being presented that they’re doing something sinister or that they’re doing something … that is not appropriate. A lot of times people in the public try to fit a certain narrative; they like to make it seem like they’re doing something wrong,” she said. “I just don’t like it when people give out information and hundreds and hundreds of people send in things like we are doing something dishonest, and we’re not.”
When asked, both Jarrard and Tom Brown, the county’s director of planning and community development, confirmed to Mills that the overlay was legal and allowed by county standards.
Mills said an overlay would have helped with issues with the ongoing Halcyon mixed-use development off McFarland Parkway/Exit 12.
A letter from Swope was also read at the meeting, stating that he was not “able to promise a specific result” and has already been working toward a solution.
During the public hearing, a response from Levent was read that said he favors waiting until Swope is in office. On Friday, he confirmed that he felt that was best for the people in the district and said commissioners have likely received more emails on this issue than any other.