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Tree, soil ordinances focus of public hearing
Photo by Madison Nickel — Unsplash

Forsyth County Commissioners held a special called meeting on Thursday, Aug. 12, to discuss changes in the Unified Development Code, or UDC, specifically amendments in support of Ordinances 98 and 73,  more commonly known as the tree and soil ordinances.

The amended tree and soil ordinances were previously adopted on May 6 and went into effect on Aug. 5.

The issues relating to the ordinances were undisturbed areas of separation, residential exterior buffer requirements, administrative variances and open space and low impact stormwater design incentives.

All items were passed with a unanimous vote of 4-0, with District 1 Commissioner Molly Cooper absent, unless otherwise noted.


Undisturbed areas of separation

This amendment, as explained by Vanessa Bernstein-Goldman, deputy director of the department of planning, was in support of the soil ordinance’s limits to mass grading for residential developments.

As proposed by Bernstein-Goldman and county staff, the definition for an undisturbed area of separation is “undisturbed earth located between graded portions of land being developed for any residential subdivision comprised of 25 acres or more.”

Conceptually, this means that since the maximum area of contiguous disturbance is 20 acres for residential properties 25 acres or more, developers would need to apply for a variance to increase the area of disturbance. The increase, however, cannot exceed 25 acres.

In addition, the minimum width of the undisturbed areas must be 50 feet, though the areas can take on more of a natural shape instead of remaining “linear.”

Between the areas of disturbance, undisturbed areas cannot be altered with the exception of added streets, sidewalks, trails and utility access points.

Heather Kolich with the UGA Extension Forsyth thanked the county for prioritizing preserving natural resources, though she expressed concern about the rule that undisturbed areas could not be touched, especially if those areas contain non-native invasive species.

“Rather than protect invasive species, I would encourage … that we allow eradication and control efforts for those areas to … protect the native species and get rid of the invasive species,” Kolich said.

Another member of the public, Natalie Longley, agreed with Kolich and said that she thought the undisturbed areas should be expanded.

“But this is a good start,” Longley said.

After hearing the thoughts of the public, commissioners discussed the possibility of adding an amendment to allow the removal of non-native species in undisturbed areas of separation.

Commissioners approved this amendment with the addition of accepting the change to remove non-native invasive species only if it is asked for by neighbors or the developer. The county arborist would also have absolute discretion in determining what is considered non-native invasive species.

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Residential exterior buffer requirements

Bernstein-Goldman said that the “heart of the change” of this amendment was coming from the separation of the exterior buffer from the lot area, which means that exterior buffers will not be included in lot size calculations.

However, the exterior buffer would be counted towards open space requirements.

Chairwoman Cindy Jones Mills questioned how this amendment would affect people requesting residential pools. County staff said that residents would have to use their own property lines as a gauge instead of the buffer lines for pools.

This amendment was approved as presented.


Administrative variances

During the meeting, new rules for applying for administrative variances were discussed.

As presented by Bernstein-Goldman, for residential developments that are 25 acres or greater, the following would apply:

  • Building setback variances may not exceed 20%;
  • Lot width variances may not exceed 15%;
  • Lot coverage variances may not exceed 15%.

Bernstein-Goldman said that in order to apply for a variance, developers would have to provide proof of a hardship and the variance cannot apply to every lot within the development.

She also said that the planning commission recommended denial of this issue.

Les Dobbins, who said he had been in stakeholder meetings about this issue prior to Thursday’s meeting, said there was “some confusion” about what had been discussed. He said he felt that while the administrative variances were previously discussed, the amounts proposed were not.

Dobbins was also concerned about transparency between the county and stakeholders, proposing ideas such as having public notices about zonings or getting emails about them.

During discussion between the board, Mills said that she was “bothered” by what she heard at the planning commission meeting.

She thought that the tree save was the most important facet of this amendment and that in order to have large tree saves, the county needed to make a “deal” with developers. Mills also said that she did not think that the county staff was “giving a lot more” than what was previously discussed in meetings, though she did confirm that the details had not previously been worked out.

District 5 Commissioner Laura Semanson said that it was an “undue burden” to put on the county staff to have them in a position of authority over these variances. If the amendment were to be accepted, the variances would be accepted by county staff instead of being presented to the Board of Commissioners in a public hearing format. 

“I think that it is still too much of a judgment call, it is too broad, it is not transparent and it puts an additional burden on staff that really is something the elected officials should be responsible and answer to,” Semanson said.

District 3 Commissioner Todd Levent also agreed that it was unfair to put the county staff in a position to decide whether to accept the variances or not, instead of deferring the decision to elected officials.

“This is a big ask of these variances,” Levent said.

Tom Brown, director of the county’s department of planning, said that moving the decision from elected officials to staff would take the public input out of the process.

After discussion, commissioners decided to postpone the amendment and return to it at a work session in September.


Open space and low-impact stormwater

This amendment included incentives to all zoning districts, except for conservation subdivisions, to install “aesthetically enhanced, natural-looking stormwater management facilities” that could “function as accessible community amenities and runoff reduction measures.”

Approved designs for stormwater management facilities could then count for two times the amount of square footage necessary to meet the county’s open space requirements.

Some design options that Bernstein-Goldman presented were stormwater ponds that have pathways to seating, grass filter strips in parking lots and courtyards.

However, she noted that all low-impact stormwater designs would need to be approved by the department of engineering, even if they were one of the ideas listed above.

Bernstein-Goldman also said that the planning commission wanted to reduce the incentive rate to 100% instead of 200%. They also wanted to strike the approval of any alternate designs by the department of engineering.            

Kolich spoke in favor of this issue and said there was “a lot of good in this ordinance,” but she was worried about turf grass being used as strips in parking lots. Instead, she proposed mulch to help break up stormwater because it was less work to maintain.

Dobbins spoke in opposition to the amendment and agreed with the planning commission regarding striking the part in the amendment where alternate designs could be approved by the Department of Engineering.

Renee Hoge, a county engineer, said that the reason why alternate designs could be approved was not so that developers could “dream up” designs but for developers to be able to choose a management facility that both met Georgia stormwater standards and looked attractive.

During discussion, both Semanson and Levent agreed that the incentive rate of 200%, or two, was too large.

Commissioners voted to approve the amendment with the additions of a purpose and intent and an incentive rate of 1.5 for residential developments and 2 for commercial and industrial developments.