Painted Horse (Part 3):  Milton’s Ghost of Politics Past Rears It’s Ugly Head

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

–William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

Unfortunately, Milton continues to be haunted by the ghosts of its sordid political past (which seems a fitting topic for the Halloween and election season).  The recent City Council hearings pertaining to The Painted Horse are a stark reminder that Milton’s politics and government remain mired in political rivalries dating back to the founding of the city.  Fittingly, these hearings come at the end of Laura Bentley’s first and perhaps last (she has opted not to run for re-election) term on Council.  On Monday night, I attended the hearing on Milton’s alcohol ordinance involving myriad changes that clearly targeted The Painted Horse and are intended to effectively shut down this winery.  (Paul Moore has indicated as much in a previous council meeting.)  The hearing was a clear abuse of process and yet another embarrassing example of Milton’s politics of personal destruction.  The gravity of Milton’s long history of dirty politics is strong.  While the cast of characters changes, Milton’s political shenanigans remain drearily the same, with citizens perennially on the proverbial short end of the stick.

Monday’s hearing was painful for those of us who previously were so hopeful about the future of Milton and invested heavily in the cause of reform.  For 2 years (2015 – 2017), a citizens’ rebellion defied Milton’s political forces that so often drag our government down into the muck and mud.  Good governance was on the march.  Organized citizen advocacy achieved important victories on critical issues of policy by fending off cluster housing ordinances, re-zonings to higher density, HOA-run community septic systems, and other existential threats to the community.  I was proud to play a leadership role in these victories through this blog, the posting of petitions, emails to concerned citizens, and other advocacy.  Over time, those of us in the vanguard of change realized that sustainable change would only be achievable through substantive reform of Milton’s governance processes.  We determined to invest our accumulated political capital in such reform.  Through revisions to Milton’s municipal code, the very architecture of government would be changed to ensure greater fairness, transparency, accountability, and rigor.  (James Madison would be proud.)  Milton would become a model for other cities.  But to effect such a transformation, we needed a caring, tireless and courageous advocate on City Council . . . enter Laura Bentley. 

2017 Campaign Theme: Shifting Power Back to Citizens

In December of 2016, Laura Bentley convened a meeting of six of us to choose a candidate for District 2 Post 1 in the upcoming 2017 elections . . . we chose Laura.  And Laura’s defining campaign plank was “shifting power back to citizens” . . . that is, permanent changes to the framework of government that would survive Laura’s tenure on Council and put Milton on a steady, steeper upward trajectory . . . defying the downward pull of special interests and personality politics.  Within the rule of law, the prerogatives of citizens would reign supreme.  Most importantly, Milton would actually follow its laws (and long-established zoning practice) in only granting variances for minor discrepancies that met all 4 tests for hardship (prescribed in Milton’s zoning laws). 

To effect such reform, we knew that Laura would need a landslide victory.  Through various platforms, an appeal was made to volunteers and voters.  Thankfully, citizens answered our clarion call to action, enthusiastically contributing in various ways to Laura’s candidacy.  The groundswell for good governance was undeniable . . . Laura captured 71+% of the vote, defeating a well-financed, politically-experienced incumbent who had been on council since Milton’s founding.  The investment of our hard-earned political capital had paid off at the polls.  Good governance was within grasp . . . Laura surely would make it happen . . . citizens were clearly behind her . . . Laura’s election was mandate for change . . . Laura would be unstoppable.

But alas, it was not meant to be.  To the great dismay of her supporters, within 3 months of her election, Laura disavowed the core principles of the citizens’ movement that elected her.  In the context of her support for a multitude of variances (28 in total for 3 separate properties) at Birmingham Crossroads, Laura stated to me “Tim, I know how you feel about process, but citizens don’t care about process; they only care about outcomes.  They don’t understand or care about variances.”  (Laura was parroting Joe Lockwood.)  Laura further stated that the City Attorney had advised her that council had “discretion” in granting variances, which Laura interpreted as nearly limitless discretion.  (Interestingly, the City Attorney asserted otherwise in the Crossroads hearings, stating that Milton’s ordinances do not allow granting of variances to improve outcomes and advised—in lawyer speak—against approving the very variances that Laura supported. Click on the below link to hear Jarrard’s guidance.)  Laura’s flip-flop on variances (and more broadly on re-architecting government), whereby she wholeheartedly adopted the stance of her 2017 opponent, caused a permanent rupture in Laura’s relationship with me and many other staunch supporters.

City Attorney’s Advising Against Granting Variances

And so it was that Laura became untethered from principles of good governance and alienated from most of her supporters.  Milton’s politics quickly reverted to the old ways.  Nothing substantive has been accomplished to fundamentally change the architecture of government, to further good governance, or (in Laura’s words) to “shift power back to citizens.”  In fact, in many respects, Milton governance has regressed since I became involved 6 years ago.  For example, earlier in 2021, the Charter Commission, which previously met every 5 years and was one of the few checks on Council power, was disbanded by City Council.  This fundamental change to Milton’s charter went virtually unnoticed by citizens.

Milton is Often Not Friendly to Small Businesses

This brings me back to The Painted Horse.  On Monday night, Laura (and Paul Moore) led the charge against the Painted Horse.  For 3+ hours, City Council mercilessly pencil-whipped Milton’s alcohol ordinance.  Some 100 changes were considered by Council.  The result is a complex and convoluted alcohol ordinance that likely will drag Milton into a legal quagmire about what sorts of entertainment/recreational venues are acceptable in Milton . . . a most unadmirable legacy bequeathed to citizens by Ms. Bentley.  And council’s actions beg a number of questions.  Is it really Council’s role to wallow in the details and write ordinances?  Or rather isn’t Council’s role to provide guidance to staff and then hold them accountable for writing sensible ordinances?  Of course, it must be remembered that a farm-winery is a by-right use established under state law.  Accordingly, is it reasonable to suppose that a court will uphold an alcohol ordinance (or other measures) clearly intended to subvert state law and effectively ban farm-wineries in Milton?  Will Council Members Bentley, Moore, et al dip into their pockets to cover the legal expenses for the City and the Painted Horse should a court rule against Milton’s interference?  Consider that Milton’s alcohol ordinance includes a ridiculous provision that prohibits Painted Horse patrons from straying more than 20 feet from the tasting room building (and enjoying the beauty of the farm with its vineyards).  The 20-foot adjacency restriction appears an unreasonable encumbrance, meant (along with other interference) by Lilliputian members of Council to tie down and tangle up The Painted Horse and to carry out a personal vendetta against the owners.

Unfortunately, the Painted Horse saga is a sad reminder that Laura’s election did not result in shifting power back to citizens and that good governance continues to elude Milton.  However, I suppose there is a certain measure of poetic justice in the fact that a co-operator of The Painted Horse, Juliette Johnson, will succeed Ms. Bentley as the District 2, Post 1 City Council representative.  Perhaps, Painted Horse’s owner, Pam Jackson, will run against and displace the last remaining representative of Milton’s Old Guard (and other District 2 representative) Paul Moore (who political slithering dates back to the City’s first election when he was a candidate).  Based on her background, Ms. Jackson seems a smart, accomplished, and courageous professional and business owner . . . just the sort of person we need on council.  And, of course, Milton certainly has a storied reputation for ejecting misbehaving Council members (or else prompting them not to run to run for re-election to avoid certain defeat at the ballot box).  I remain hopeful.

Advocating For a Break With Milton’s Political Past,

Tim

Note: In future posts, I will speak to 1) Paul Moore’s central role in past and present dysfunction in the Milton City government and 2) City’s Manager Krokoff’s failure in his basic responsibilities as chief executive at City Hall.

District 2 Council Members: Posturing as Protectors of the People and Promoters of Principle and Process

Tonight’s City Council meeting agenda includes issues having impact on two local businesses:  The Painted Horse and Billy Allen’s Piano Bar.  And these issues shine a bright light on a sad state of affairs in Milton.  Unfortunately, the misbehavior of Milton’s two District 2 Council Members, Paul Moore and Laura Bentley, is bearing bitter fruit for the community.  Citizens’ trust in Milton’s City government is waning (notwithstanding the City’s non-stop stream of look-good/feel good Facebook posts).  And increasingly, it is difficult to distinguish local politics from Washington politics.  This loss of confidence in Milton’s municipal government was both predicted and predictable.  Both Paul and Laura led the variance parade at Birmingham Crossroads . . . with 28 variances and a bastardized special use permit granted in 4 separate hearings over the span of less than a year.  In the case of Matilda’s,  Paul and Laura cavalierly disregarded both the rule of law and citizens’ concerns in favor of their own and their friends’ personal interests . . . to the detriment of the community. 

Now the results of Council’s poor decisions are metastasizing elsewhere in Milton.  Other applicants before council are demanding equal treatment—aka fairness.  And they make a good (and probably legally sound) case for such like treatment.  You see, Council’s approval of Matilda’s at Birmingham Crossroads set the bar very low for what is accepted and acceptable in Milton . . . “open borders” for all sorts of businesses.  The owners of the Painted Horse (a winery) and now Billy Allen’s (a piano bar) are asking for (much) less than was granted to Matilda’s.  And when you contrast The Painted Horse with Matilda’s, you see the obvious illogic and incoherence in Milton City Council’s land use approach.  After all, The Painted Horse owners are saving an equestrian property, operating a by-right business, regulating alcohol consumption, and abiding by Milton’s noise ordinance.  This is in stark contrast to Matilda’s, which is located on a marginal property (bisected by high voltage transmission lines), operates under a bastardized (by 12 variances) festival use permit, is BYOB, and pumps out music that is 15 DB above Milton’s approved noise limits and sometimes can be heard 1.5 miles away.  The “intensity of use” (a term of art at Council) is much lower at The Painted Horse.  It strikes me that farm-wineries actually 1) offer a wonderful opportunity to save equestrian properties and 2) align well with Milton’s rural character.  The same cannot be reasonably asserted about Matilda’s.  Farm wineries might actually provide apposite means for Milton to distinguish itself in Atlanta’s north metro area.

Realizing they’ve lost the trust of Milton’s voters, Paul and Laura are now posturing as protectors of the people and as promoters of principles and process.  Their worship at the altar of good governance is unconvincing and shameful.   Long ago, both Paul and Laura ceded the moral high ground and opted instead for the political low road, a well-worn path in Milton that has often led to defeat at the ballot box (or to politicians wisely choosing not to seek re-election).  Let’s get real.  In light of their slavish support for Matilda’s, Paul and Laura’s opposition to The Painted Horse has little to do with the people, principles, or process.  Their opposition appears transparently personal and their goal seems nothing short of running the Painted Horse owners out of business. 

Paul Moore Campaigning For City Council at Matilda’s (2019)

It is interesting to note that in re-purposing a use permit with 12 variances for Matilda’s and then taking a subsequent strict stance against any additional music or other entertainment venues, Paul and Laura have effectively created a well-protected monopoly for Matilda’s in Milton.  It is also interesting to note that many of Paul’s allies have privately acknowledged that Paul erred in his blind advocacy for Matilda’s and in his blatant circumvention of due process, but excuse him by stating that his was a “crime of passion” . . . akin to a mama bear protecting its cubs.  This is nonsense.  Paul knew better but didn’t care.  And unfortunately (but predictably), City leadership turned a blind eye to ethical and due process violations. Lastly, it is interesting to note that Paul and Laura reached out to residents near The Painted Horse to understand their concerns, but Paul and Laura never engaged citizens that were to be impacted by Matilda’s–perhaps because nearby residents were nearly unanimous in their opposition.

I encourage citizens to attend tonight’s hearing.  It should be a good show.  Political hypocrisy at its finest.  If you can’t make it, following is a link for watching the meeting virtually.

In closing, it is worth noting that come January 2022, Milton will have three new City Council members.  I am hopeful.  These prospective Council Members would be well-advised to closely watch tonight’s hearings and learn some valuable lessons . . . a principled process is the only path to good outcomes and to restoring trust and confidence in local government.

Advocating For Good Governance,

Tim

Note: I want to emphasize that I was not opposed to Matilda’s being re-located to Milton. My objections were to a circumvention of due process and the rule of law; re-purposing a use permit with myriad variances; and total disregard for the concerns of nearby residents. I believe that a suitable home for Matilda’s in Milton could have been found by following principled process. This would have involved creating a use permit for music venues in Milton, assuming citizens wanted music venues in AG-1 zoned areas of Milton. It would have meant finding a location that did not require variances that remove basic protections to the community. It would have required clear support from the community, especially those most impacted by the music venue. And finally, it would have followed an ethical, transparent, fair, and rigorous approval process.

Constitution Week, Milton’s Charter, and the Search For Good Governance

(I am still working on Part 2 of my blog post about variances.  Before publishing, I want to ensure that my facts about land use are correct and my sources are consistent and authoritative.)

This week is Constitution Week.  And it is fitting that a week (vs. a day) is dedicated to honoring The United States Constitution.  And my hope is that some Americans might take the occasion seriously and actually spend a few minutes reading and pondering The US Constitution (and its sister document, The Declaration of Independence).  Following are links to the texts of The US Constitution and to The Declaration of Independence

Constitution

Declaration of Independence

These two documents must necessarily be considered together.  As Abraham Lincoln so eloquently stated, “The Constitution is the frame of silver adorning and preserving the Declaration of Independence, which is the apple of gold.”  Lincoln, like the Founders, intuitively understood that the fundamental mission and vision of the American project is reflected in The Declaration of Independence . . . and that is securing liberty (i.e., the natural and equal rights of humankind).  The Declaration of Independence specifies WHAT we are seeking to achieve:  liberty, while The Constitution (by itself, without the amendments) addresses HOW to achieve the Declaration’s mission/vision.  The HOW is critical, because the Founders rightly understood that the biggest threat to liberty is government, which has a monopoly on police power (i.e., legal force and even legal violence).  Government’s power must be properly constrained.  These limits on federal power were to be achieved by the Constitution, which provides the architecture for our national government.  Because the Founders settled on a republican form of government (vs. direct democracy, monarchy, oligarchy, etc.), they rightly understood that the danger of republican democracy is tyranny of the majority.  Therefore, the Founders designed a government that would diffuse power, that would make majorities (combinations of factions) unstable, that would encourage deliberation and minimize rash actions, that would put certain fundamental rights beyond the reach of majorities, etc.  Various mechanisms were employed to achieve this design:  federalism, three co-equal branches of government, supermajorities for adopting Constitutional amendments, and various other checks-and-balances.

Taken together, The US Constitution and The Declaration of Independence are the most profound and influential documents in political history, (eclipsing the English Magna Carta and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man).  In the late 1700s, The Constitution and The Declaration of Independence took many then-radical ideas of great political philosophers (e.g., John Locke)—that were until their time, mostly theoretical—and put them into practice.  Through these two documents, the Founders, particularly Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, reimagined and re-engineered government—a government dedicated to the proposition that “all men are created equal;” that government power derived from “the consent of the governed;” and that rights were not a dispensation of government, but rather rights preceding government (i.e., were natural) with government’s purpose to “secure” these rights.

And what has this got to do with government in Milton?  The simple answer is EVERYTHING.  Milton City Council Members actually take an oath to support and defend The Constitution of the United States of America.  Following is the oath for the Mayor and Council members:

I do solemnly (swear) (affirm) that I will faithfully perform the duties of (mayor) (council member) of this city and that I will support and defend the Charter thereof as well as the Constitution and laws of the State of Georgia and of the United States of America.

Unfortunately, as someone who has closely watched Council for 7 years, I wonder if any Council members ever give a second thought to their oath or to The US Constitution (or any laws they swear to uphold).  If Council members do take their oaths of office seriously, why do they assert (as more than one has asserted to me personally) that “citizens don’t care about process; they only care about outcomes?”  (It was this statement that caused me to part ways with the council members that I previously and strongly supported.)  And more importantly, why do their Council’s actions consistently convey a disregard for our laws, including sometimes the Constitution itself?  (For example, Milton’s Ethics Ordinance’s wrongful use clause is blatantly anti-Constitutional.)

It is important to understand that Milton has its own version of the Constitution, which is referenced in Council’s oath of office as the “Charter,” and establishes Milton’s governmental architecture.  Almost no one knows this, but Milton’s City Council recently seriously weakened Milton’s Charter.  In early 2021, Council voted to eliminate a periodic (every 5 years) review of Milton’s Charter by an appointed group of citizens—a sort of Constitutional Convention convened every 5 years.  This review by a Charter Commission was an important—and I would argue, essential—check on the power of Council and City staff . . . and unfortunately, Milton’s government has very few such checks-and-balances (in contrast with the federal government).  And eliminating this Charter review is the opposite of “shifting power back to citizens,” which was the most important campaign theme of 2017.  (So much for campaign promises, huh?) Council argued that things were proceeding so swimmingly in Milton that they no longer needed any such oversight from citizens.  It was a singularly self-congratulatory moment for Council.  This action by Council was a fundamental Charter revision that not a single citizen opposed, that the Milton Herald neglected (to understand or) to report . . . and sadly went almost totally unnoticed by anyone in Milton .  I hope an intrepid candidate for council (in 2021 or subsequent elections) will resurrect 5-year Charter reviews.

So what might be the moral to this story?  Well, the single most important point citizens should take away is that Milton needs elected and appointed government leaders that  understand the criticality of municipal government’s architecture to the achievement of good governance and good outcomes (as our Forefathers understood it).  Hopefully, a future “James Madison” in Milton will work to reform Milton’s government processes so government works well for all citizens.  I know from experience that effective leaders focus more on process and principles (i.e., good governance) and less on policy, understanding that good policy is only possible through establishment and execution of excellent processes.

Honoring the Constitution and Milton’s Charter,

Tim

Postscript:  This issues of The Constitution and good governance are very personal for me.  For nearly 8 years, I served in the military (as a US Navy nuclear submarine officer), and I was proud to do so.  I strongly believe in our America and in good governance.  I took my military oath seriously . . . and still do:  “to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”  While I understand that our nation and our government are far from perfect, for most of my life, I had faith and confidence that, in the United States, my liberty is relatively secure and that justice is usually served.  It was not until I waded into local governance and politics that my faith in our political system was shaken (but thankfully not shattered).  My experiences with local government made me realize that our basic liberties (for example, the five First Amendment freedoms) in America are much more attenuated than most of us realize and that our system of justice often fails miserably.  Citizens should understand that there are enemies of good governance right here in Milton, including former and current Council members, that misuse and abuse the powers of government to exact vengeance on citizens, like myself, that have the temerity to challenge them and the status quo.  (More about this is future blog posts.)  Sometimes aided by City staff, the tools of their trade are personal attacks, selective enforcement of Milton’s laws, and frivolous ethics complaints. However, these politicians underestimate the power of the truth and the power of persuasion and thankfully often pay the price for their misdeeds.  Miltonites have not been shy about booting bad actors in our local government—many receiving their comeuppance at the ballot box; others withdrawing from government rather than face the ire of voters.  I say:  good riddance.

Variances in Milton (Part 1): Radical Departure From Law and Historical Practice.

In my last post, I promised to discuss variances and how they are used (or often misused/abused) in deciding Milton’s land-use issues.  Granting of variances is a critical element in how Milton gets developed.  My position on variances has been consistent: variances should be granted according to 1) the law and 2) historical variance practice.  This means:

  • Variances should only be granted for minor discrepancies (e.g., allowing a home to be built a foot or two closer to a lot line than zoning allows)
  • Undue hardship must be demonstrated.  And in Milton, proving hardship is especially difficult as Milton’s variance law is strict and involves a four-part test for hardship; each test must be “passed.”  That is to say that our law gives staff and Council very little discretion within the boundaries of the rule of law; DO NOT believe Council members who tell you otherwise.

My position on variances–insistence on adherence to the rule of law and historical zoning practice–is NOT a radical position.  Actually, what is radical (and sometimes unlawful) is Milton’s granting of copious variances that sanction major zoning deviations and/or don’t involve undue hardship . . . sometimes to repurpose a use permit for an impermissible (and hence unlawful) use.  (This will be discussed later in this post.)

In my community advocacy, I aligned myself with a number of likeminded citizens (like current Council Members Paul Moore and Laura Bentley) who took similarly parsimonious stances on variances.  Following is a video of Laura advocating (as a citizen) against the granting of variances to a developer of a property on Providence Road, who was seeking variances (13 in all) for 80% of his unbuilt lots. Laura states correctly that “council’s granting of variances undermines our AG-1 standards” . . . and that is why I opposed every one of the 28 unjustified variances/zoning modifications (and the use permit for a music venue) that have been granted at Birmingham Crossroads.

Laura Bentley Comments Against Variances at June 20, 2016 City Council Meeting

To understand variances it is necessary to step back and to understand the lawful (and also unlawful) avenues for developing land in Milton.  There are 3 lawful ways to develop land in Milton (all of which might or might not involve variances):

  1. By-Right Development means a developer agrees to develop a property in accordance with state and local zoning conditions and standards.  The use for which he/she intends to develop the property is permitted by zoning, without having to meet any additional conditions beyond what underlying zoning requires. Such development usually requires only a land-disturbance permit (and some subsequent inspections to verify compliance), which provides notification to the city that a developer is going to disturb a property for development purposes and that he/she understands the standards (e.g., installation of soil fences) he/she must follow.  In some cases, a review by the Design Review Board or Planning Commission might be required.  These bodies will ask questions, might make suggestions, and might even identify a need for variances.  Some by-right development is defined locally; however, some by-right development (e.g., farm-wineries) is defined by the state, thereby putting limits on municipal government’s jurisdiction.
  2. Use Permits (sometimes also called Special Use Permits or Conditional Use Permits).  Localities designate certain uses as permissible (not to mean permitted) subject to meeting certain conditions for that use specified by law.  These conditions are in addition to the baseline conditions/restrictions required by underlying zoning.  Use permits come before City Council for discussion and approval/disapproval.  Council can levy additional conditions beyond those required by the use permit and underlying zoning.  Alternatively, Council can outright deny a use permit, even if all use permit/zoning conditions (or additional conditions recommended by staff, the Planning Commission, etc.) are accepted by the developer.  This is important and bears repeating . . . Council can deny a use permit that meets all the conditions specified in municipal code for a specified use.
  3. Rezoning.  In situations where a developer desires to put a property to a use that is not by right and for which no use permit exists, a third (usually more onerous) option is available:  rezoning, whereby the developer applies to have a property re-classified to a zoning designation that does allow the intended use either by right or through a use permit.  Often, such rezoning involves reclassifying a property from lower density zoning to higher density zoning or from residential zoning to commercial zoning (or occasionally, vice versa) . . . so that the developer can capture greater profits, often to the detriment of nearby property owners and the broader community.

Note:   In Milton, the rezoning process can be circumvented through the Comprehensive Land Use planning process (by changing the land use designation), with little/no transparency and public input, so that developers (later) can much more easily rezone a property.  This bypass of the law has resulted in several instances of rezoning to higher density, involving sewer extension.  This blatantly dishonest and unfair mechanism is known to council members, but thus far they have refused to fix the issue.  (I will devote an entire blog post to this issue).

Are there any other ways to (lawfully) develop a property?  The answer is NO, other than successfully lobbying the City to change its zoning ordinances to modify zoning restrictions or to add additional special use permits.  This is a key point, because in Milton, we have seen properties approved for uses for which no special use permit exists . . . this is known as spot zoning and is patently unlawful.  (Example:  approval of the music venue at Birmingham Crossroads.)

So how do variances apply to these 3 methods for developing property?  And how are variances being used to circumvent the rule of law (as reflected in our zoning laws)?  Well, that is a topic for the next blog post.  Stay tuned . . . the business of granting variances is a particularly sordid affair in Milton that involves favors for friends and establishment of dangerous legal precedents that will eventually come back to haunt Milton (in the form of unsightly future development).

Advocating For Granting Variances According to the Law and Historical Practice,

Tim

What is Milton’s Biggest Industry? . . . and The Threat to Citizens’ Basic Right to Reasonable Enjoyment of Their Property

(Photo taken of development across from Cambridge High School.  This property was rezoned to provide 3X the density that would have been allowed under AG-1 zoning.  Sewer was extended to the property.)

Does the above question seem strange?  Afterall, Milton is mostly a residential community, with some retail businesses and office parks primarily arrayed along the southern edges of the city.  Milton doesn’t really have industries, does it?  In fact, Milton does have an industry that dominates Milton’s economy, employing many hundreds of workers and dwarfing all other commercial/industrial sectors.  And you see evidence of this industry every day on Milton’s (crumbling) roads . . . the ready-mix trucks, the dirt-moving equipment, the tractor-trailers carrying building materials, etc.  Yes, Milton’s biggest industry is Development.  And Development is an industry that not only dominates our city’s landscape, it infiltrates every aspect of Milton’s community, including our government and politics.  In fact, you cannot truly understand Milton government or politics unless you understand development.  Why?  Because development is where the money is.  And there is a lot of money because there is still a lot of undeveloped land.  Milton’s remaining development potential ranges from $1B to $2B.  Accordingly, it should come as no surprise that Development dominates Milton’s government and politics.  And unfortunately, Development often also distorts Milton’s governance and politics . . . as money so often does, whether in DC or in the City of Milton.  City Council spends well over 50% of its time on land use issues.  And Development, with its many associated problems, dominates political debate in Milton.

Of course, developers are naturally keen to maximize their profits.  And this often means developers lobby the government for special favors—e.g., rezonings, use permits, zoning modifications, and variances . . . a veritable cornucopia of variances.  (Variances are the granting of exceptions to Milton’s zoning laws and, in accordance with long-established zoning practice and Milton law, are supposed to be granted only for minor discrepancies that involve proven hardship.Through campaign contributions and business/personal relationships, developers grease the gears of our city government to their benefit.  And some developers have even recruited and successfully fielded candidates.  Many of Milton’s founders were employed in the development industry (and this is reflected in our land use laws. More about this in another post.) And quite a few players in Milton’s development/construction industry have been elected to council.  In fact, Milton’s original council included three council members with deep business interests in the development industry. I often refer to Milton’s election of these council members as Milton’s Original Sin.  And to be blunt, citizens are just plain naïve if they believe that all of this money sloshing around and the presence on Council of development industry business-people (who build in Milton and invest in property in Milton) does not translate to favors for developers and degradation of our community.  (In subsequent blog posts, I will document many examples of these favors to developers and other Special Interests.)

The goal of Milton’s big developers is usually higher density, which translates to higher profits.  Unfortunately, Milton’s citizens pay the cost of this higher density in the form of traffic congestion, overcrowded schools, and lower home values. 

Often, the community has fought back against developers and sometimes won.  (I am proud to have provided leadership in some of these battles.)  However, the playing field is decidedly not level.  Developers have huge advantages:  money, expertise, and attorneys.  Council should act as a counterweight to the heavy interests of developers, but often the opposite is true, with Council often siding with developers against citizens.  You need only watch a City Council meeting to understand the sympathetic treatment afforded developers at City Hall.  Developers (and their lawyers) are allowed to speak freely at Council and interject at will.  The same behavior from a citizen results first in a warning from the Milton police followed by expulsion if the warning is not heeded.  On the other hand, developers and their attorneys are afforded wide latitude by the City, especially at Council.  In the Matilda’s hearing, the developer-applicant was even allowed to object to a motion after the motion had been made, whereupon the motion was withdrawn, amended, and passed to the satisfaction of the developer, without a peep of dissent from a single Council member.  Citizens have also witnessed City Community Development staff unabashedly rejoicing with developers that prevailed before Council . . . only in Milton.  And not only do developers get a sympathetic ear from staff and from Council, the zoning process itself is also heavily biased in favor of developers . . . bias so obvious to citizens that 1900+ Miltonites signed a petition demanding reform of the zoning process.  These same citizens voted in 2017 for candidates that promised zoning reform . . . it was promised that power would be shifted back to citizens.  However, nothing has been done and the zoning process is virtually unchanged since I got involved in government in 2015.  Obvious reforms, such as giving citizens same opportunity to speak as developers, have not been effected.  In fact, things have gotten worse since the 2017 elections.  In just the past four years, in four separate hearings before City Council, 28 variances/zoning modifications were granted at Birmingham Crossroads alone. That’s right . . . 28 variances . . . plus permission to operate a concert venue . . . a use not included on Milton’s long list of permitted uses in our zoning code.

In closing, let me be clear that I do not oppose developers or development in Milton.  I have several friends who are developers; they are good, honest, and hard-working professionals.  I fully support by-right development and even the granting of variances for minor discrepancies where hardship can be clearly proven.  However, what I do oppose is our city government egregiously bending and breaking our zoning laws for Special Interests.  I do oppose the profuse granting of variances that violate our variance ordinances and long-established variance practices.  I do oppose use permits being bastardized with copious variances to “permit” uses that are not enumerated on Milton’s long list of permitted uses.  I do oppose the corrosive and corruptive effects of developer money on good governance in Milton.

I am not advocating radical policies, but rather I am merely advocating that Milton uphold the rule of law . . . this is a matter about which we should all agree.  It is pretty simple really: Citizens have an indisputable and basic (and legal) right to reasonable certainty about appropriate uses (as codified in law) of nearby properties that might affect citizens’ enjoyment/use of their property.

Advocating for Citizens’ Property Rights and Against Favors for Special Interests,

Tim

Today’s blog post is meant to provide an introduction to development in Milton and its importance in Milton’s government and politics.  The next blog post will discuss variances, quoting directly from the American Public Planning Association, the trade organization for zoning professionals in the US.

Crooked Creek (Act 2):  Road Abandonment Haunts City of Milton and Subdivision 7 Years Later

Crooked Creek golf course

The moral of today’s story is that decisions made at Council reverberate across the geography of Milton . . . but also across time.  The unintended consequences of the gating of Crooked Creek are perhaps unknown to most Crooked Creek residents and certainly unknown to most Miltonites.  And given the trajectory of events, additional collateral damage to the subdivision and the broader community is a distinct possibility.  In the case of Crooked Creek, the unintended consequences concern the subdivision’s golf course, but let me digress a bit to provide some context . . .

My consulting work often takes me into areas where I never imagined venturing.  And golf courses briefly became one of those areas.  In 2001, I was working with executives at Duke Power in Charlotte, NC to help them to identify new unregulated business ventures that would leverage their core capabilities.  I interviewed a number of senior executives, one of whom was responsible for Duke Power’s investments in golf courses . . . that’s right, an electric utility investing in golf courses.  At the time, the utility was achieving incredible returns on its investments in golf courses, returns that I suspected were not sustainable.  At the time, the demand for golf and for golf course lots was far outstripping supply.  And this meant that the price to play golf and the price for golf course lots were steeply increasing . . . a classic bubble in the making.  And as Economics 101 teaches us, strong price signals will spur an increase in supply to meet demand.  And in certain cases, supply will far overshoot demand . . . causing an investment bubble not to slowly deflate but to suddenly pop.  In our local golf market, we have seen the effects of golf’s boom-and-bust.  Despite the Milton’s increasing population and wealth, some of Milton’s golf courses have failed or are failing.  Two courses have shuttered, with one purchased by the City of Milton for greenspace (more about this below) and with another being redeveloped as a subdivision.  This decrease in local golf courses is driven by both the supply-demand dynamics described above, but also by another economic factor:  the rapidly increasing value of land in Milton for other more attractive commercial and residential development purposesCrooked Creek’s golf course presents an especially attractive target for (at least) a couple of reasons.  First, the golf course’s frontage along Highway 9 is zoned commercial.  And second, and perhaps more importantly, the golf course’s abutment to Highway 9 means developers have access to sewer, meaning high density housing is a distinct possibility (and developers will argue, sewer is their right) behind any commercial development built along Highway 9.

So how does City Council’s abandonment of the Crooked Creek’s roads fit into all of this?  Well, road abandonment/privatization and the eventual gating of Crooked Creek entailed significant additional expense for residents.  Residents now had to maintain their roads and streetlights.  There were capital expenses to build gates and guard houses.  And there were additional operating and maintenance expenses associated with the gates and 24-hour security.  According to some residents (source:  Laura Bentley), the significantly increased HOA fees caused many residents to drop their golf memberships and this sent the golf club into a downward spiral.  Of course, I heard this lore secondhand.  However, confirmation was provided when the City purchased (actually overpaid for) the Milton Country Club in late 2017—the City’s first land purchase using Greenspace Bond money.  The Milton Country Club had been on the market for many months, without a buyer.  In fact, a citizen had alerted the City (in June 2017) to the property’s availability, but the City failed to act.  Instead, the club was purchased for $2.65M by a golf course investment company.  Within a few weeks of the purchase, the City of Milton—late to the game—engaged the new buyer and negotiated a purchase price of $5.0M—an 89% premium.  The City’s dithering had cost citizens $2.35M.  (The City defends itself by stating that the property appraised at $5.0M.  However, it is hard to accept such an appraisal, given that the property sat for many months without a buyer and sold just a few weeks earlier for $2.65M.)  At the time, the property’s investor-owners asserted that developers were vying for the property—again difficult to believe given that the property sat for many months without being purchased.  However, the City was also advised not to worry . . . the windfall profits were to be used by the seller to purchase the Crooked Creek golf course and to make needed improvements.  Well, this was music to ears of the Crooked Creek HOA . . . it (and the City) had found a lifeline that might mitigate the unintended consequences of their poor decision to privatize the roads in Crooked Creek (and to gate the subdivision).  So on top of giving Crooked Creek an asset (Creek Club Drive—an essential public road) worth many millions of dollars, the City was now going to overpay (by a few million dollars) for the Milton Country Club to bail out Crooked Creek’s country club.  You really can’t make this stuff up!  The confirmation of this story, which I was hearing secondhand, was provided when officers of the Crooked Creek HOA spoke at Council in support of the City’s purchase of the Milton Country Club . . . I’ve never seen these folks before or since that meeting (except when they advocated for the City’s abandonment of the subdivision’s roads), but there they were at Council, in their Sunday finest, advocating for greenspace.

And, of course, the City (and Crooked Creek’s HOA) fell for the seller’s representations hook-line-and-sinker.  Chalk it up to spending Other People’s Money—i.e., the your and my hard-earned property taxes.  Well, the outcome was predictable:  the investor-sellers took the money and ran, probably laughing on their way out of Milton.  And as the city soon found out, the MCC property was very complicated—loaded down with encumbrances, including a number of tricky easements—justifying the original investor’s purchase price of $2.65M, not the City’s inflated purchase price of $5.0M.

Crooked Creek’s lifeline was a mirage.  And the golf course is still a concern.  (My hope is that the golf course’s fortunes have improved from 4 years ago.)  Seven years after it began, the story of the gating of Crooked Creek has still not concluded.  However, it quite possible it will not end well for either Crooked Creek or the City of Milton.  And it makes one wonder what costly new scheme will be concocted by the City to rectify its mistake of abandoning the roads in Crooked Creek.  Stay tuned for Act 3 . . .

Advocating For Accountability,

Tim

Postscript:  BTW, it has been nearly 4 years since the City purchased the Milton Country Club.  Using Greenspace Bond funds (aka your tax dollars) the City has purchased many other parcels, totaling several hundred acres for greenspace.  Not one square inch of city-purchased greenspace has been opened to public use.  Only recently was a plan approved for converting the MCC property to a passive park.  I will blog more about the City’s unacceptable lack of progress in opening greenspace to citizens.  Suffice to say that the City needs to commit to an aggressive timeline (12 – 18 months) to opening ALL purchased greenspace to the public. 

9/11 Reminds Us that Good Governance is the Best Way to Honor the Victims

Source: Alpharetta’s 9/11 20th Anniversary Poster

This morning I attended the 9/11 remembrance ceremonies in Alpharetta.  And I have to say that they do things right in Alpharetta; they are not just going through the motions.  The ceremony was incredible . . . not only well-produced, but the messaging was apposite and inspiring.  Attendees definitely left moved and appreciative of those national elements that distinguish our great country and have made the USA a shining beacon of liberty.  And of course, these uniquely American elements should infuse our governance from top to bottom . . . in Washington as well as in Milton (and Alpharetta).

The 20th anniversary of 9/11 provides an opportunity to reflect on those things American that we most value and must protect to survive and thrive.  In my humble opinion, America’s success as a nation has been largely driven by a dedication to principles and processes of good government (in contrast to blood-and-soil tribalism that still holds sway in much of the rest of the world).  The principles of government (with an emphasis on liberty) are set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the processes of government (i.e., its architecture) are set forth in the Constitution, with subsequent amendments (there are now 27) sometimes addressing principles, sometimes addressing processes.  Citizens are best served when our politics and governance, including at the local level, closely coincide with our cherished principles and processes (as ensconced in our laws).  In our increasingly divided nation and local community, I strongly believe that a renewed emphasis on proven good government principles and processes—concepts about which there should be little disagreementis the path to a more perfect union.  And such an emphasis is also a fitting way to honor those who tragically lost their lives on 9/11.

Remembering Those Who Lost Their Lives on 9/11,

Tim

Postscript:  Tomorrow I will post the second part of my blog post on the gating of Crooked Creek.

Source: Alpharetta Public Safety Facebook Page

Gating of Crooked Creek Reveals Importance of Local Government

Gates at Crooked Creek Subdivision

Several years ago, my wife Kelly and I hosted a Christmas party at our home in Canterbury on the Lake subdivision.  I was chatting with three neighbors.  As is often the case in Milton, the conversation turned to local traffic congestion.  A neighbor lamented that the traffic circle at Hopewell and Francis Roads had been overwhelmed just a few months after it had been built.  I asked my neighbors whether they had noticed that the back-up (stretching to Cambridge High School) at the roundabout had suddenly materialized.  And knowing that I was knowledgeable about the affairs of the city (at this point I was deep into city politics), they said (paraphrasing) “Uh oh.  Tim knows the story behind the overloaded traffic circle.  Tim, let’s hear it.”  And I did know the story.  The cause of the gridlock at several intersections–Highway 9-Bethany Bend; Cogburn-Bethany Bend; Cogburn-Hopewell-Francis, and Highway 9-Francis—was the result of the gating of the Crooked Creek subdivision.  Creek Club Drive, which bisects the subdivision and runs from Highway 9 to Francis Road, had served as a route for southeast/northwest-bound traffic in Milton for 20+ years.   Closing Creek Club Drive to the public forced all traffic around the subdivision, thereby increasing the volume of vehicles at nearby intersections.  The capacities of these nearby intersections were far exceeded, causing gridlock.  This was predictable . . . and in fact, had been predicted by the City Public Works Director, who recommended against the City’s abandoning (i.e, privatization of) the roads in Crooked Creek, which was a prerequisite for gating.  The City Attorney also advised against the privatization.  (More about this below.)

I relate this story because it highlights the importance of local government to Milton’s quality of life.  Although many people noticed the traffic congestion from the Crooked Creek gating, few citizens understood the reasons for the congestion and even fewer connected the congestion back to a City Council decision.  It was this gating of Crooked Creek that caused me to initially engage with our local government.  Up to this time, like most citizens, I had little noticed City government.  I was like most residents who don’t care/engage until a nearby issue forces municipal government into their consciousness.  And as I came to understand, if you wait to engage until an issue is on your doorstep, you are probably too late to the game.  A key lesson I learned is that citizens must engage on important community threats wherever they arise because, left unchallenged, such threats eventually metastasize to nearby properties.

The gating of Crooked Creek motivated me to finally engage in local politics.  For 20+ years, Creek Club Drive was a public road that I often used.  When I heard that the Crooked Creek HOA had petitioned the City to privatize the subdivision’s roads, I decided to express my opposition to the City.  I called the City and was put in touch with the Communications Director, Jason Wright.  He suggested that I appear before Council and speak.  I had never been to City Hall and did not even know where it was located.  I did attend the Council Meeting and I did speak.  I was surprised that many like-minded souls also spoke against privatization.  If memory serves, the speakers for and against were evenly split.  (Surprisingly, much of the opposition was comprised of Crooked Creek residents, including several who lived on Creek Club Drive.  I also discovered that I had friends on both sides of the issue.)  I was encouraged that both the City Public Works Director and City Attorney advised against privatization.  The Public Works Director articulated reasonable arguments.  His studies showed that 1) only 15% of traffic was through traffic and 2) the Cogburn-Bethany Bend intersection would become gridlocked by gating (and this was borne out).  The City Attorney stressed that council should focus on the “overall interests” (with a stress on “overall”) of Milton, not the interests of a “particular slice” of Milton. Well, as I came to realize was common practice, City Council brushed aside rational arguments and approved the road privatization 6-0.  My first taste of City Council left me disappointed and underwhelmed (by my elected representatives).  Some council members asked no questions; others provided no justification for their vote.  (This is typical and a strong justification for town hall meetings—a governance best practice–where citizens can question their council members in a formal setting.)  Many objections from citizens and staff were not even acknowledged, much less addressed.  The primary justification (for road abandonment) cited by Joe Lockwood and other council members was “local control”—a principle asserted by citizens in the Matilda’s hearings (where nearby opposition was nearly unanimous) but ignored by Council.  Of course, some City Council members asserted that there would be further hearings; that Creek Club Drive (part of Milton’s trail plan) would continue to be accessible; and road improvements would be made to mitigate congestion.  However, these were mostly empty promises, except that some improvements were made at Cogburn-Bethany Bend (but long after the Crooked Creek gates were closed and providing only a modest increase in the intersection’s capacity.)  In the aftermath of the vote, I did write a letter the Milton Herald.  Following is a link to my letter.

Letter to Milton Herald Opposing Crooked Creek

As a business professional, what most disturbed me about the Crooked Creek issue was not that I lost access to a road that I frequently used or that traffic congestion significantly increased.  It was rather that the City had given a valuable asset, worth many millions of dollars, to an HOA with really nothing provided in return.  (The only benefit was that the City no longer had the expense of maintaining the Crooked Creek roads.)

The lesson of this story is that local government matters.  City staff and City Council routinely make (often terrible) decisions that strongly impact your quality of life.  And many of these decisions get little, if any notice.  That is unfortunate and it is the reason why I started my blog, posted petitions, and have taken other actions to educate citizens and to encourage their active community engagement . . . it matters!

Unfortunately, Council’s decision to abandon the roads in Crooked Creek has continued to wreak havoc on Milton, the result of unintended consequences that I will discuss in Part 2 of this post.

Advocating For Citizen Engagement,

Tim

City Council Candidates Have a Lot of Studying To Do . . . Start with the CSO

Come January 2022, the City of Milton will have 3 new council members.  Only the District 1 race is competitive, with 3 candidates vying for the honor and privilege of representing the fine citizens of Milton.  Two candidates (for districts 2 and 3) are running unopposed. 

Candidates would be well-advised to study some of the zoning battles that have been fought in Milton over the past 5+ years.  I would recommend candidates begin their preparation with the battle over the “Conservation” Subdivision Ordinance (CSO).  This was a long and sordid affair consisting of 3 acts.  Failing to pass an ordinance, CSO proponents sought to achieve their goals through rezoning (of a property on Ebenezer Road) . . . the first of many successful rezonings, they hoped.  And they did prevail in the initial Ebenezer Road rezoning hearing before City Council.  However, the rezoning was vetoed (on procedural grounds) and the rezoning approval was reversed in a subsequent City Council hearing.  This June 20, 2016 hearing brought out so many “conservation” subdivision opponents that a second room, with a video monitor, was established to hold the overflow.  Ninety-nine citizens completed speaker cards and 1800+ citizens signed the Milton Coalition petition against the CSO.  Not to be deterred by overwhelming citizen opposition, CSO proponents pursued a rearguard action to implement the CSO by promoting community septic for residential development—i.e., private sewer systems run by HOA!  (Talk about your bad ideas . . . HOAs running sewer systems . . . what could go wrong?!?)  However, CSO proponents also failed in this endeavor, finally retreating to the shadows.  However, sensing an opportunity to resurrect “conservation” subdivisions, I suspect the CSO proponents will target Milton’s new council members, preying on their lack of historical context.  With this in mind, I have reactivated my anti-CSO blog, which was active from November 2015 to May 2016.  I have re-published (with some minor edits) a subset of the blog posts so that candidates (and citizens) can educate themselves on “conservation” subdivisions.  Several hundred hours of research and analysis went into this body of work.

Anti-CSO Blog

In closing, I must note that citizen opposition to the CSO in 2015-16 was based on theoretical arguments and anecdotal evidence from CSOs elsewhere in metro Atlanta.  However, because the CSO and subsequent Ebenezer Road rezonings were both denied and the property (now called Sweet Apple) is still being developed, we now have empirical evidence that “conservation” subdivisions would have increased density in Milton.  At various times, under AG-1 zoning rules, the Sweet Apple developer claimed the property could support (or under rezoning, he was approved for) 45, 48, 50, and 55 homes (although we definitively proved that percolation tests for individual septic systems would not support this number of homes).  Well, it turns out that the site plan (under AG-1 zoning) for Sweet Apple shows only 34 home sites, compelling evidence that the proposed Sweet Apple “conservation” subdivision would have entailed a 32% to 62% increase in density (vs. AG-1 zoning density).  Imagine such a density increase metastasizing across Milton through similar rezonings and the deleterious effects (e.g., increased traffic congestion).

(Note: The 2 lots at The Farm were not included in the original Sweet Apple property and hence are not included in the analysis of the rezoning homesites compared with AG-1 homesites.)

In addition to the CSO and (two) Ebenezer rezonings, candidates need to study other zoning battles (some were lost), such as the music venue approved (using 12 variances to bastardize a festival use permit) for the NW corner of Birmingham Crossroads; the abandonment of roads in Crooked Creek; the recent Painted Horse fiasco (Milton’s version of a Star Chamber); and, the special use permit and 15 (yes . . . 15 . . . a record in Milton) variances approved for Ashford Gardeners.

This is all to say to Milton’s City Council candidates:  Beware of the tired, retreaded agendas being schlepped by Special Interests and their agents in Milton.

(Still) Advocating Against the CSO and For Smart Land Use,

Tim

Bentley Withdraws. District 1 Three-Way Race Provides Remaining Opportunity for Debate About Milton’s Future.

On Monday, Council Member Laura Bentley withdrew from the District 2 City Council Election, citing serious health issues with a family member.  I wish Laura and her family all the best as they deal with a difficult family situation.

With Laura’s departure from the District 2 race, that leaves the District 1 Council seat as the only contested election in Milton.  And it is the District 1 race where the debate over Milton’s future will occur.  (I have looked over the candidate websites and Facebook pages and will provide some preliminary observations in future posts.)  However, it would be beneficial to citizens if candidates in uncontested races continued to “campaign.”  Particularly for those members new to Council, Jan Jacobus and Juliette Johnson, it is important that citizens get to know them and understand their stances.  A series of “Get to Know Your New City Council Members” meet-and-listen events, perhaps including soon-to-be-Mayor Jamison, would set a new and positive tone for 2022 City Council, which will be seating three new members—a turnover of Council seats never seen in Milton’s 15-year history (if memory serves).

At the blog, I will continue to provide a (chronological) account of my experience in Milton politics at the page About My Involvement in Milton Politics.  You can click on the following link to go directly to that page.  Today, I have posted another installment of my account.

About My Involvement in Milton Politics

Please contact me through the Contact page with comments, questions, or suggestions (for blog topics).

Advocating For Good Governance,

Tim