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.