Election season is upon us. The No. 1 issue for the District 1 and District 3 commissioner candidates will be about the budget and whether or how much they will raise our taxes next year. Candidates will also be questioned about meeting our public safety needs, traffic, and the transit tax.

Another issue that needs to be addressed is “secret” modifications to zoning decisions.

The actual term is “minor modifications by district commissioner,” however, these are generally done secretly, with no public notice, no public hearing, no public disclosure after the modification is made, and no opportunity for a Cobb citizen who is adversely impacted by the modification to challenge the modification.

One might ask, how can that be legal? Zoning decisions are made by the full Board of Commissioners in a public hearing. The zoning decision is legally enforceable. If the property owner wants a change, why should that not require a new zoning application to ask the BoC to change the previous decision?

Cobb County’s method for making this legal is to include a standard “stipulation” in every zoning decision that authorizes and preapproves the district commissioner to make “minor modifications” to the zoning decision. So these potential modifications are literally preapproved by the full BoC as part of each and every zoning decision.

For many years, Cobb County had no definition of “minor.” So the district commissioner could secretly make any changes they wanted to make, and simply declare that in their judgment the changes were minor. Cobb has no process for challenging whether a modification was truly “minor.”

Not surprisingly, this has led to numerous abuses, where commissioners made changes that were clearly not minor.

Virtually all jurisdictions have a defined public process to allow minor modifications to zoning decisions. However, other jurisdictions do not allow secret modifications, nor fail to define what is “minor.”

A few years ago, Cobb agreed to a list of 5 types of changes that they agreed would not be “minor.”

So, for the last few years, the standard language for the minor modifications stipulation has been updated to basically prohibit the district commissioner from making a “minor modification” that would

increase density;

reduce buffers;

increase the height of buildings;

move buildings closer to adjacent homes; and

change access to a different roadway.

Over the last year or so, some commissioners, upon request, have been willing to add 3 more restrictions. These additional restrictions prohibit minor modifications that would be in

contradiction to county code;

contradiction to explicit stipulations of the zoning; and

contradiction to staff recommendations that were adopted into the zoning decision.

A large percentage of abuses that have occurred over the years, are those which were in direct contradiction to explicit stipulations of the zoning, and those which contradict staff recommendations that were included in the zoning decision.

If developers want to change anything that is included in the above restrictions, it just means that they need to come back through the zoning process to ask the BoC to approve the requested changes in a public hearing.

Cobb still does not define what is minor, but we now have a list of some things that Cobb agrees are not minor.

However, this still does not address the fact that district commissioners can still make other modifications with no public notice, no public hearing, no opportunity for nearby property owners to point out problems that might result from the change, and no public disclosure after the fact.

I recommend that Cobb County adopt the following procedures for minor modifications.

All minor modifications by District Commissioner and/or by staff shall be officially documented and included in the zoning file.

Cobb County already sends out email alerts for zoning cases, variances, etc. Cobb could add one more type of email alert using the same zoning-related email list, to notify people of minor modifications that are being approved.

Within 24 hours of a minor modification being tentatively approved, a notice of the modification would be emailed to everyone on the Minor Modifications Notification List.

Cobb County could allow a 3-day comment period. If any objections are filed during the 3-day comment period, Cobb would require affirmation of the modification by the full BoC at the soonest available BoC meeting. The BoC would conduct a public hearing at the BoC meeting to allow community input on the disputed modification.

Voters should ask the County Commissioner candidates for their views on minor modifications, and if they would support changing the current secret modifications process to a public and more transparent process.

Ron Sifen’s views are his own and do not represent the opinions of any other group.

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