A Modest Proposal: Build an AG-1 Conservation Subdivision (Repost from June 2016)

I am re-publishing a blog post from June 2016.  The issue was the rezoning of a property on Ebenezer Road to create a “conservation” subdivision.  I proposed a superior alternative for developing the Sweet Apple conservation concept under AG-1 zoning . . . and this is how the developer actually developed the property!!!!  And my estimate of 38 homes vs. the planned 34 homes was a fairly accurate estimate.  I have visited Sweet Apple (the first phase is mostly complete) and it is actually quite nice . . . much nicer than the 45+ cluster home community (with its 12+ acres of septic drip lines) originally proposed by the developer.


Replication of Brightwater’s Concept Under AG-1:  A Superior Alternative

OK Citizens, here is a bold proposition:  An AG-1 conservation subdivision can be built that is superior to the current one proposed under CUP rezoning.

The truth is that Brightwater can replicate its concept (actually improve upon it) by building under existing zoning laws (i.e., AG-1).  It is fairly simple, and following is a description of how it could be done.

The overall assemblage at 745 Ebenezer Road is 64 acres.  50 acres is on the western side of the property and another 14 acres is across a stream and abuts Sweetapple Road, which is a gravel road.  For now, let’s focus on the 50 acres and building 38 homes on that 50 acres.  Why 50 acres and 38 homes?  Because on the April 25th, BW said it was ok with developing just the 50 acres if it was allowed to build 38 homes.  In fact, BW indicated it had an alternate site plan for this very possibility.  So here is how BW could replicate its environmental objectives under AG-1.

  • BW could create 38 deep (i.e., narrow width and long length) AG-1 one-acre lots.  BW could make each lot only 100 feet wide, which is the minimum width for AG-1.  This would create the clustering/community effect that BW seems to desire.
  • The front part of each lot (near the street) is where the homes would be placed.  The rear portion (the back approximately 60%) of each lot would be the green space.  This greenspace would have a conservation easement on it.  The HOA would maintain and insure it.  The homeowner would own it (and pay taxes on it), but could do nothing to it.  BW could also have a strict covenants (e.g., on tree cutting) that restricts changes that homeowners can make to the front portion of their lots not maintained/insured by the HOA.  Additionally, a single company could be hired to install and maintain the landscaping on all lots; this has been implemented in many communities, especially “empty nester” oriented subdivisions.
  • The homes would take up approximately 38 acres, leaving another 12 acres for roads, amenities, a community garden, detention ponds, a pasture, and community-owned greenspace.
  • Each home would have its own septic system.  In some cases, BW might have to install technology (e.g., above ground septic) to make this work, but BW has expressed confidence that it can accomplish this (in a letter to the City).
  • The individual septic systems would have a benefit both for BW and for the community.  First, BW would save $400,000 it claims is the difference between the higher cost of installing a community septic system and installing individual septic systems.  The community would benefit by not having a two-acre drain field in the 14 acre greenspace area on the other side of the creek.  The community would avoid the risk and worry of these systems.  A win-win for everyone.

So what would happen to the additional 14 acres that is across the stream on the eastern side of the property:

  • Option 1:  BW could still buy it and offer it as a community amenity.  Coming off a gravel road (lots must be 3+acres) and given its steep grade, this land is not worth a lot (perhaps $450,000 to $600,000).  The $400,000 saved on community septic could be applied toward the purchase of the land.  Repeatedly, “conservation” cluster home proponents have claimed greenspace, walking trails, etc. are prized by consumers above all other amenities, including golf courses.  So it would seem that adding this amenity is a no-brainer.  We would think people would pay an extra $1500 to $4000 in their purchase price to have such an amenity.  And one nice element of this option is that the community drain field is no longer smack dab in the middle of the conserved area, as with a CUP conservation subdivision
  • Option 2:  The land remains undeveloped.  We think non-development is a distinct possibility if BW does not buy this land.  The topography of the land and the stream running through it make it unlikely any developer will find it attractive to build on this land any time soon.
  • Option 3:  The property gets built out with a maximum of 4 homes.  The lower density is a result of Milton’s zoning which requires that homes accessed from a gravel road must be on minimum 3 acre lots.  Because of the geometry of the parcel, we believe only 3 homes are possible.  In our opinion, from a conservation standpoint, it seems like 3 homes on this property is equivalent to having 14 acres with at least 2 acres of septic drain fields.

This replication of Brightwater’s conservation concept under AG-1 strikes us as a win-win for everybody concerned with this issue.  It is a creative solution.  True out-of-the box thinking.  If some minor variances were needed to make it work, we would be okay with such variances.  We have broached this concept with quite a few people, including 2 Councilmen, and none have identified a flaw in it.

We see no reason why anyone interested in conservation would not embrace this concept of an AG-1 Conservation Subdivision . . . unless their true goals are to achieve higher density, smaller (<1 acre) lot sizes, and community septic.

Density, Cluster Homes, and Private Sewer (Republished from June 2016)

Following is a republished post from June 2016.  It provides additional insight into so-called “Conservation” Subdivisions.  The Lahkapani property referenced in The Milton Herald article was later purchased by the City using greenspace bond funds.  (I am re-posting some previous blog posts to help educate City Council candidates and citizens on issues facing the Milton community.)


Milton Citizens:

There is a reason that 745 Ebenezer Road has not been developed.  The reason is that it is currently uneconomic to develop, as is true of much of the contiguous property in the area.  This was admitted in the Milton Herald by one of the nearby property owners who stated his land was considered “trash” by developers.  The property owner admitted he needed cluster housing to make his land economic to develop.

Click here for link to article:  Cluster Housing Needed to Profitably Develop Marginal Land in Milton

It was this article that got many of us energized about this issue.

The truth is that many of the larger tracts of profitable land in Milton have been developed or are being developed.  To keep the building boom going, developers are increasingly looking at more marginal land.  This is land with steep slopes, soils that do not support septic, lots of flood-able area, poor geometry, etc.  These are properties that cannot be profitably developed under AG-1.

So builders are pushing a scheme that has been used across the Atlanta metro area:  so-called “conservation” subdivisions.  Under this scheme, the builder clusters his homes in the most easily developed areas of the property.  The remainder of the land–much of it unbuildable or uneconomic to develop–is claimed as green space.  Most of it would have been conserved anyway.

So what do Milton citizens get from this cluster housing?  Milton citizens get higher density cluster homes that do not fit the rural aesthetic.  We get risky community septic.  Think about the wisdom of letting a small HOA operate and maintain a private sewer system.  We get even more development occurring at an even faster pace.  We get lowered property values.  We get more crowding on our roads, in our schools, and at our parks.  More pollution.  More stress on our infrastructure.  More strain on amenities.

You get our point.  Developers reap the profits and citizens pay the price.

The truth is that developers need the following three things to make their schemes work:

  1. Higher density.  Builders want higher density than can be achieved under current zoning.  More houses, more money.  As part of the zoning process, developers must create a theoretical yield plan to show the number of homes that might be possible on the property under current zoning (i.e., AG-1).  Brightwater Homes developed such as yield plan.  The Milton Coalition’s experts evaluated the plan and found numerous flaws that grossly inflated the theoretical yield.  In the theoretical yield plan, which is still in Brightwater’s rezoning application, Brightwater sited numerous septic systems in soils that will not support septic.  Brightwater’s own soil maps show that 50% of the 50-acre western parcel will not support septic!  This resulted in Brightwater submitting a letter that essentially admitted the errors but stated that it could spend a lot of money to buy technology to fix all the septic issues.  Additionally, Brightwater is including a 14-acre parcel off a gravel road that geometry and Milton’s zoning (developments along gravel roads must have lots of 3+ acres) would only yield 3-4 homes.  But because BW can access this parcel through its assemblage of 2 other parcels on a paved road, it is claiming it could build at least 12 homes on this property.  We consider this an exploitation of a loophole/technicality.  It is a slimey tactic that belies the builder’s supposed conservation intentions.
  2. Cluster homes.  Brightwater Homes benefits from clustering homes.  BW’s costs are lower with shorter utility runs, less roads to build, etc.  Eight of BW’s homes are on less than 1/4 acre.  Such clustering allows a builder to significantly lower its costs.
  3. Private sewer.  AG-1 requires lots be >1 acre for individual septic systems.  Accordingly, for BW to get higher density and to cluster homes on lots of less than 1 acre, BW must install a private sewer system.  This is a sensitive subject for Council as every member has run on a platform of not extending private sewer.  A community septic system is private sewer.  Sewage is collected from multiple homes, put into a common pipe, and sent to a common treatment facility (in this case, a septic drain filed).  We are fundamentally opposed to deployment of this technology.  Quite a few local professional engineers and construction experts have questioned the maturity of these technologies.  Risk is also an issue.  Is it really prudent to trust an HOA to operate and maintain a private sewer system?  The City has already acknowledged that it would have to assume financial risk if a private sewer system failed and the HOA could not or would not repair it.  Additionally, community septic “puts all our eggs in one basket.”   That is, risk is concentrated vs. the risk diversification that occurs with individual septic systems.  If a system for 50 homes (vs. a single home) fails, it could have disastrous results.  And do not believe the falsehoods about the regulation of these systems.  One of the reasons that the City so far has resisted community septic is that state/county regulation is inadequate.

If approved, the Sweetapple rezoning would set a dangerous precedent for Milton.  We should expect a raft of similar applications for hundreds of acres of “trash” land in Milton.  This precedent will make it easier for Brightwater and other builders to develop marginal properties.  We even see this with AG-1.  Builders are increasingly coming hat-in-hand to Council to obtain variances for lots they knew (or should have known) were unbuildable.  In a recent DRB meeting, the City Architect acknowledged that the issue of marginal land is going to increasingly come up.  And BW’s Sweetapple rezoning is only the latest example.