The run-off for Milton’s District 1 City Council seat is November 30th. The two District 1 candidates are Ms. Jami Tucker and Ms. Andrea Verhoff. So far, both candidates have disseminated mostly vague and vanilla positions on various issues. However, playing it safe in Milton does not win elections. Milton’s voters are smart, caring, and discerning. Voters can usually smell BS, and right now the there is a fetid odor permeating Milton. Candidates have been especially ambiguous about their stances on land use. However, I strongly believe the winning candidate will be the one that enunciates specific positions on land use that best align with citizens’ perspectives.
As I have often discussed at this blog, land use issues overshadow all other issues in Milton. Council spends 70-80% of its time on land use. The remaining development potential of land in Milton is $1B to $3B. That much development money sloshing around is bound to distort politics/governance in Milton . . . and it has . . . to the detriment of the community. Developers have not been shy about recruiting and financing candidates that will do their bidding at Council. And that developer influence has metastasized in myriad ways: rezonings to higher density; approvals of bushels of variances; repurposing of use permits through variances; 5 extensions of sewer; passage of developer-friendly ordinances; and selective enforcement of zoning regulations by staff.
I suspect that neither District 1 candidate really understands much about land use processes or policy . . . or has even given them much thought . . . not unlike many sitting members of Council. Like all politicians in Milton, Ms. Tucker and Ms. Verhoff have paid obligatory homage to Milton’s rural heritage. And they have promised to uphold Milton’s Comprehensive Land Use Plan (CLUP). However, the CLUP is not legally binding and it is often vague, and thus open to differing interpretations. Conversely, Milton’s zoning laws are legally binding and much more precise. Milton’s zoning laws have been honed over time and reflect case law and long-standing land-use practices. Ideally, zoning codes should also incorporate into law the intent of the CLUP. Accordingly, it is much more important that candidates pledge to uphold Milton’s zoning laws (than Milton’s CLUP).
Through this blog post, my objective is to assist the candidates in refining their positions and more importantly, to help citizens make better decisions about the two District 1 candidates. Accordingly, I have formulated a baker’s dozen of land-use commitments that I hope both candidates will embrace and that might serve as a guide to citizens in sizing up the candidates. These 13 land-use commitments reflect common sense and long-standing zoning practices. They are not radical in the least. These commitments also offer a solution to many land-use problems in Milton that have caused deep division . . . they offer a reasonable path to a logical, coherent, consistent and citizen-centric land-use policy that respects the rule-of-law—a bedrock principle of good governance. The commitments are based on principles of fairness, transparency, rigor, and accountability. These principles are meant to level the playing field for citizens, with an emphasis on protecting citizens’ property rights and values, while blunting the pernicious backroom influence of Special Interests in Milton. My strong belief is that a candidate unwilling to make and honor these 13 land-use commitments does not deserve the votes of Milton’s fine citizens.
- Citizens Right to Enjoyment of Their Property. I believe citizens have a right to enjoyment of their property and therefore citizens are entitled to reasonable certainty regarding: 1) permissible uses of nearby properties and 2) granting of variances (or other deviations from our zoning law).
- Granting of Variances. I will follow historic zoning practice and I will only vote to approve variances for minor deviations (from zoning law) and only when hardship is clearly proven. I agree with and will follow the City Attorney’s advice on variances (as articulated in the video at the bottom).
- Use Permits. I am opposed to re-purposing of special use permits with variances to sanction uses not currently allowed under Milton’s zoning laws. If the community desires that properties be approved for new purposes not currently allowed, then council must follow the process for creating a use permit for that new purpose and only approve new uses that are overwhelmingly supported by the community.
- (Rare) Exceptions for Major Variances. For exceptional cases where a variance seems prudent for a major zoning deviation and/or hardship cannot proven, I will insist on overwhelming support (80+%) from nearby residents. I will not interpret lack of community opposition as support for such variances; I will proactively seek the input of nearby residents when major variances are being considered. In exchange for approval of exceptional major variances, I will insist upon conditions that provide benefits to the community commensurate with benefits provided to the developer-applicants who are being granted a major variance.
- Upholding the Rule of Law. I advocate for strict adherence to Milton’s zoning ordinances. I will always uphold the rule of law. I understand that some discretion is allowed within the boundaries of the rule. Within such boundaries, I will bow to the will of citizens.
- Maintaining/Strengthening Milton’s Zoning Laws. I will never vote for any proposal that relaxes Milton’s zoning laws, except to approve 1) new use permits or 2) re-zonings that are overwhelmingly supported by the community—most especially nearby residents. I will work hard to close loopholes, eliminate inconsistencies, and increase clarity in Milton’s zoning laws.
- Fairness for Citizens. I pledge to work to improve Milton’s zoning processes and level the playing field for citizens. This includes giving citizens equal opportunities to speak and the last opportunity to speak at all zoning hearings. It also includes providing document packets for all zoning hearings at least 10 days in advance of such hearings (to allow citizens sufficient time to review the zoning application and supporting documents). I pledge to work with Milton’s representatives to the Georgia State Assembly to revise state laws that present hurdles to citizen participation in the zoning process (and more broadly in local politics/governance).
- Campaign Contributions from Developers. I will never accept campaign contributions from developers or from others with a substantive interest in development.
- Meeting With Developers. I will never meet one-on-one with developers or their representatives. I will only participate in such meetings with staff present.
- Comportment of Developers Before Council. I will not tolerate developers or their representatives threatening or lying to Council/staff or otherwise acting in bad faith. I will not tolerate developers or their representatives interrupting or demonstrating other disruptive behavior at Council. When appropriate, I will use “point of order” to appropriately admonish developers at Council meetings.
- Videotaping CZIMs. I advocate video-taping of all Community Zoning Information Meetings.
- Sewer Extension. I will never vote to extend sewer beyond areas where it is currently permitted by sewer maps.
- Town Hall Meetings. I support transparency and honesty in zoning hearings. Accordingly, I support quarterly video-taped town-hall meetings where citizens can engage council in respectful, two-way dialogue to better understand Council members’ reasoning in zoning (and other) matters.
Land-use is complex and I could elaborate much more . . . but won’t. The above 13 commitments represent a good starting point for putting Milton on a better path to sensible land use and attractive community development that reflect the prerogatives of citizens while respecting the rule of law. However, I encourage Ms. Tucker and Ms. Verhoff to supplement and strengthen this list of commitments and make it their own. Citizens deserve honest, clear, and specific commitments about land use from candidates for Council.
Advocating For Smart Land-Use,
In 2018, Council flagrantly disregarded the advice of the City Attorney and Milton’s variance laws to approve the elimination of buffers at Birmingham Crossroads, thereby creating legal precedents that have the potential to eliminate important zoning protections for the community.