A question asked of candidates running to succeed retiring Cobb County Commissioner Bob Ott this week was inspired by the Cobb School District, which often sends representatives to zoning hearings to object to certain proposed developments.
A common objection is to senior housing developments. People older than 62 in Cobb County are exempt from paying the property tax owed to county schools, which makes up the largest portion of county residents’ property tax bills each year. Approving such developments, representatives of the school district argue, deprive the school district of property tax revenue.
The question asked of those running to represent Cobb’s District 2 representative on the Board of Commissioners: “If elected, would you continue to approve senior developments, as the board often does, or side with the school district in opposing them?”
There are three Republicans vying to win the June 9th primary: Fitz Johnson, Andy Smith and Kevin Nicholas. The winner will face Democrat Jerica Richardson in the Nov. 3 general election.
The district encompasses most of east Cobb and includes Cumberland, Vinings, Smyrna, the Mabry Park area and the Terrell Mill/Powers Ferry area. It has been under Ott’s representation since he was first elected to the role in 2008.
Kevin NicholasNicholas, a vice president at a hospital software company headquartered in the Galleria, began his answer by expressing his support for the senior tax exemption. But he quickly pivoted to the issue of high density housing, opposition to which is one of the main planks of his candidacy.
“My position of making sure we’re keeping high density development in check (applies to) all projects,” he said. “While I understand the need for senior housing, I think we still need to take a look at all development in terms of making sure we’re upholding the (county’s) land use plan.”
The Cobb School District’s opposition to senior housing, he said, could be dealt with if Cobb commissioners and the school board improved their communication. The decisions of one often affect the other, he said.
“I think a closer relationship between the Cobb County Commission and the school board can only help facilitate overall governance for the whole community.”
Fitz JohnsonJohnson, a retired businessman, also said the answer could be found in communication.
“Our Cobb commissioners need to have more interaction with the school board,” Johnson said. “We don’t know what that looks like, but I feel like great schools make great communities, and so we have to be in constant communication with the school board so we can ... make these decisions for the best interest of our citizens.
“Look, we’re going to make a decision,” he continued, “but we must have all the facts in order to do that.”
Andy SmithSmith, who served as Ott’s appointee on the Cobb Planning Commission before stepping down to run for office, challenged the premise of the question.
“I think there is a lot of reason to believe that the impact of the senior exemption as far as it affects property tax for schools is a little bit misunderstood,” he said. “The cost to send a student to school exceed the revenue from (what) the average family would pay in property tax.”
Approval of a senior housing development would be done on a case-by-case basis, Smith said.
“That said, we also got to consider in every case, as you’re weighing the merits of the case, that Cobb County needs a place for senior housing,” he added. “To dismiss a senior housing project solely on the basis of whether it does or doesn’t generate revenue for the school I think would be a mistake.”
He acknowledged that senior housing is often slightly denser than the alternative, which concerns people who think the traffic in their area is bad enough as it is.
He said concerns about senior developments contributing to traffic woes are unfounded. Study after study, he said, has demonstrated that the less regular travel patterns of older people will not contribute to the rush hour crush.
Jerica Richardson Richardson also questioned the question, saying the issue was not binary.
“It’s not an either/or option here,” she said. “It’s broader than just senior development to me. It’s about where do we want to go in terms of a 10 to 15 year vision for Cobb and the makeup of the people, and how do we take care of the most senior in our communities.”
She, too, saw the solution in better collaboration with the Board of Education.
At this point, there’s really not (any collaboration),” she said. “It shouldn’t be at that board meeting that everyone’s having that conversation for the first time. It should be something that is a worked on project where we involve different groups, and we involve homeowners’ associations, we involve different parent groups, we include principals, we involve different aspects of the community, so that when we actually develop a plan, it’s holistic and it’s something we can stick to.”