Frustrations over a proposed neighborhood in the city of Cumming were high at a recent Forsyth County Board of Commissioners meeting.
During a work session on Tuesday, Nov. 23, commissioners discussed the possibility of using the county’s notification system to ensure residents are aware when an annexation request for property in the city of Cumming has been requested.
The issue was tied to the Cumming City Council’s public hearing on Nov. 16 for a proposal to rezone 78 acres at 1785 and 1735 Pilgrim Road.
The request proposed a rezoning from single-family residential district (R-1) to moderate-density residential district (R-2) with concurrent variances for a residential use with a mixture of housing types and a total of 176 units for a density of 2.25 units per acre.
Residents living next to the property said during the work session Tuesday that they had no prior knowledge of the rezoning request or the annexation.
The land off Pilgrim Road became part of the city in 2019 as a part of a total of 113.5 acres, which included the Sawnee View Memorial Gardens cemetery. At the time of annexation, the property was rezoned to the city’s annexed property (AP) district.
During the city’s public hearing, neighbors opposed to the project raised issues with the placement of signage for the zoning, which several speakers said was hard to see from Pilgrim Road, and they also had concerns for the density of the project.
“After watching the city council meeting [on Tuesday, Nov. 16], I really felt … that maybe we needed a policy ourselves of how we can help,” said Chairwoman Cindy Jones Mills. “I felt like these taxpayers are not being represented correctly.”
County Attorney Ken Jarrard said the county could “utilize [its] own notification process to ensure that nearby or affected property owners … are placed on notice of the annexation.”
Jarrard stated the notification requirements of the city are the same as the county, but he said that the county typically goes “above and beyond” with public participation meetings, legal ads and signage.
He said he didn’t know if the city had as “robust” of a notification process as the county.
Mills said she was “all for property rights,” but she didn’t “understand why only one set of property rights matter.”
“I think that it’s a balance of property rights and … I think that it gets really lopsided when you do the annexation and the only property rights that appear to matter are the ones that can vote for you,” Mills said. “I don’t think that’s fair at all.”
“It’s somewhat deceiving in that when an annexation comes in and they say, ‘Well, we just want to be annexed, nothing’s happening,’” she said. “But then … they come in [later] for the two and a half units per acre.”
District 5 Commissioner Laura Semanson said the board has been working to speak with the county’s state delegation about “trying to even this playing field” between annexations from Forsyth County.
She said she believed that it could be “an important part of this balancing act” by placing the city in charge of notifying property owners near annexation applicants based on distance, specifically 500 feet, instead of directly abutting neighbors.
“I think that what I observed the other night in the [city council] meeting, there was clearly petitioning on behalf of the applicant to get what they wanted,” Semanson said. “This is hogwash.”
District 2 Commissioner Alfred John said that in “most jurisdictions,” cities have more stringent requirements than their county counterparts, which is why cities have historically had the ability to annex property.
“In our case, it’s just the opposite,” John said. “…The city is far more permissive than what the county is, so that’s why you’re seeing a flood of those annexations. The best we can hope to do is inform our residents.”
District 3 Commissioner Todd Levent expressed concerns about annexations affecting the county’s budget down the road and agreed that having the county notify surrounding property owners about annexation requests could be beneficial.
“When [the city] is doing things that are higher density than we would consider, it’s going to be a burden on county taxpayers and how we handle our budgets in the future,” Levent said. “Whether that’s … more jail space, whether that’s a larger 911 center, whether it’s a bigger fire department or bigger law enforcement, because [the county does] so much of [the city’s] law enforcement to back them up, it’s way more than it should be.”
Richard Willits, a neighbor from Emerald Springs, said he was “rather appalled” by what had happened during the city’s meeting, saying that he and his neighbors had no knowledge of the rezoning request or the annexation in 2019.
Willits brought a map of the property, pointing out where the city had allegedly placed a sign to notify neighbors of the public hearing on Tuesday, Nov. 16.
He said it was a “single-sided sign up against a cow fence on a hill,” and that location was not “indicative of that property.” Willits said that because of the placement of the sign, he and his neighbors had not seen it.
At the city council meeting, the request to rezone was postponed and will return for decision-only in December.
Before the vote, city officials said they also had concerns with how neighbors are notified and directed city staff to look at the city’s process.
“I want to say that I hate that you guys didn’t have the notice that you needed,” said Councilman Christopher Light at the city meeting. “I think that our process could use some tweaking in that regard, but I do [have] to take up for our staff. Nobody did anything maliciously, and nobody did anything on purpose … but I do understand not having some of the notice that maybe you deserve, and we’ve got to look at that process and make sure we’re providing that notice and giving you that opportunity.”
Willits told commissioners Tuesday that “if the city is allowed to continue to do the things the way they’re doing, the Forsyth County residents are going to be hurt by this. They’re diminishing not only my quality of life, but anybody that has lived in or around that road.”
While the city council meeting focus was a public hearing for a rezoning, the board of commissioners discussed how to notify neighbors about annexations.
Levent agreed with Semanson about notifying all residents within a 500-foot distance of the applicant instead of directly adjacent neighbors.
Mills wondered if it would be beneficial to place signs on the county right-of-way near each applicant.
Commissioners advised county staff to return soon with recommendations on how to solve this issue because, according to Mills, “something needs to be done.”