Decatur Next

Decatur Diary | March 13, 2014

Community Character: Regulate or don’t regulate? And if so, how?

Drilling down on unresolved issues associated with the Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) got underway last night as roughly 50 residents, staff and elected officials gathered to consider the idea of community character: What it is, if it matters, and how/if it should be regulated.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a Decatur audience, sentiments were diverse — very diverse — from increased control over details like house size and lot coverage to loosening up regulations currently in place to removing some regulations altogether.

The meeting was organized as a workshop and bounced back and forth between presented material and group table discussion. Consultant presenter Caleb Racicot kicked things off with an overview of exactly what “community character” is (at least so far as what’s relevant to the UDO), detailing various contributing factors such as the size and placement of homes, types of buildings, architecture and landscaping. He then asked the tables to complete cards asking, “Consider the look-and-feel of your neighborhood, then list one thing you believe contributes to or threatens it.”

Next, Racicot detailed the two methods in which character is currently regulated in Decatur — through the zoning code or via historic preservation — and asked participants to separate their cards according to which approach would best address each one. They were then asked, now that you know how this issue would need to be regulated, are you still comfortable with actually doing so? If not, remove the card.

One item of note that emerged was that the previously discussed idea of Conservation Districts, commonly referred to as “Preservation Lite,” was now off the table, having been found to be impractical due to a variety of factors associated with state law.

Finally, consultants Karen Huebner and Lee Einsweiler provided an overview of different preservation and zoning tools commonly used around the country to address similar issues, making note several times that they were not being presented as any sort of proposal, recommendation or endorsement but, rather, as available tools for the community’s consideration. Each group then evaluated their remaining cards and jotted down a suggested tool or approach on the back of each one.

Submitted notes and recommendations from each table are being compiled and transcribed and will be posted here on Decatur Next soon.

The session highlighted the challenge of defining rules for growth and development to reflect the preferences of a diverse community, and why the current series of Drill Down sessions are being held. These are areas where people have very strong feelings — on both sides of the issues — and any sense of agreeable common ground will only emerge from facing the issue head on and discussing it. Even with those who may feel differently.

What Do You Think?

Ahead of any tangible recommendations or proposals to come is the broader consideration of character regulation in general. Based on the plurality of opinion displayed last night, we’d like to explore the issue a little further with an admittedly unscientific — but still useful as a loose gauge of sentiment — poll. Where do you stand?

In terms of addressing community character via zoning or historic preservation, I believe Decatur’s current regulations are:

Way Too Weak
Too Weak
About Right
Too Strong
Way Too Strong

Here’s a collection of photos from the evening. If you were unable to make it, there are still plenty of ways to plug in and get your thoughts on the record. Provide your own ideas and recommendations in the comments section below or submit more general comments and questions directly to the city here.

See you at the next meeting.

Weigh In | Your Ideas Matter
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  1. Chris Billingsley says

    Thanks. May I suggest that you post or send to Dan at Decaturish the third PowerPoint presentation by Mr. Lee Einswieller. This contains the basic proposals for future regulations, including Demolition Delays and increasing the regulatory power of the Historical District Commission (or whatever it is now called). For those unable to attend, the meeting was fairly mundane until Mr. Einswieller presented the idea of Demolition Delay, in which ANY citizen in Decatur would have the power to delay a home demolition for ninety days. This was originally presented as a way to slow down home demolitions in historical districts but under intense questioning from members of the audience, Mr. Einswieller admitted that this proposal would cover the entire city. It was then that I realized that some/many in the room understood what I knew from the get go, that the consultants were leading us down the path of more regulations.
    On a lighter note, I want to ask about the Sean Connery model pictured in the center of the lead photo. Wow! What a good looking guy!

    • We’ll get the word out just as soon as the presentation is posted, Chris. Though one point of clarification: Mr. Einswieller’s portion of the presentation did not contain any actual proposals. It was only an overview of zoning tools that are available and how they work. Whether any one of them might ultimately be pursued and proposed will depend on whether or not there is expressed will within the community. If there are regulatory approaches that you or any other resident oppose (or favor), now’s the time to speak. That’s the track to creating an ordinance that works for the widest possible spectrum of resident and, to that end, we thank you for your contributions.

  2. Wylie Roberts says

    I have to concur with Mr. Billingsley. The format was designed with the underlying assumption that everyone wanted aesthetic control to require that everyone have “cute little cottages” in all parts of Decatur. The only question was what method of legislation would be best to accomplish this.
    When the picture of a desired house appearance was shown on the PowerPoint presentation, I could only think “wow, that’s pretty, but I sure wouldn’t want to have to live there unless I were single or maybe a retired couple”.
    The people in my part of Decatur had a chance to vote on whether or not they wanted to be an HPD several years ago, and they definitively said “NO”. Yet for some reason, we keep seeing legislation that pushes back to more and more aesthetic control. This amounts to malfeasance by the commissioners and lack of respect for what their constituents have said in the most representative process there is (the opportunity for everyone to cast a vote, which is much more indicative of what citizens want than a workshop with 30 attendees who are politically active in pushing for their own agenda). Diversity and eclectic neighborhoods are not a bad thing.
    At my table of 7 people, all but one were specifically there to register their concern that Decatur was already over regulated and oppressing homeowners. But the format did not allow this message to be communicated.
    Please stop trying to impose what some parts of Decatur want on all parts of Decatur. Respect the different character of different neighborhoods.

  3. I was unable to attend the UDO meeting as I was working at the
    local children’s hospital where I practice my profession. My husband and I have lived in the City of
    Decatur for 26 years, paying property taxes, shopping locally, eating locally,
    working locally. We do not live in a Historic Preservation District (HPD) and HPD
    status should not be necessary to preserve the positive features of the city
    that is my home. I must first state that
    I agree with Mr. Roberts’ posts elsewhere regarding the absurd F.A.R.
    rules. However, I do take issue with the
    comments I find posted below. I DO NOT
    AGREE with Mr. Roberts’ and Chris Billingsley’s, or any other’s, disapproval of imposing aesthetic controls and
    more regulations on those building or renovating in the City of Decatur. Houses CAN be built and/or be added onto profitably
    while constrained by aesthetic regulations.
    In the end, the home values of all benefit. The reason why there is a sudden surge and
    urgency among builders to buy small houses and put up big ones is because there
    are virtually NO regulations in a city with excellent schools and relatively
    low crime. And the reason why there ARE
    good schools, a great police force and minimal crime is because of the people
    living in, and paying taxes on the aesthetically pleasing, albeit “cute
    little cottages” of Decatur. I am not
    opposed to positive growth. In fact, we
    are currently am working with an architect on plans to expand our humble home,
    both for my family’s pleasure and as a
    financial wise investment. However, renovations
    or newly constructed homes do NOT have to be HUGE, INTRUSIVE on their neighbors
    and AESTHETICALLY UNAPPEALING to the people that have made and PAID to make the
    City of Decatur the thriving place that it is today. It is my feeling that if one does not wish to
    comply with building regulations one can go elsewhere to build whatever they
    please. That is fine with those of us
    with similar values that DO wish to respect our neighbors, historical
    neighborhoods and the City of Decatur’s charm.
    I am not alone in the belief that when you pay high taxes, you should be
    assured that those looking to make fast
    money will be required to invest time, energy and, yes, maybe even a little
    more money to build neighbor, neighborhood and City of Decatur-friendly homes
    and businesses in the place we call home.
    Again, I and my fellow property tax payers have invested in the City and
    many of us DO want it to remain both profitable for home sellers AND a nice
    place to live, aesthetics included!

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