A Macon-Bibb County commissioner says the Design Review Board of the Macon-Bibb County Planning & Zoning Commission should be abolished.
Citing comments in a Telegraph article about a recent review board decision, Commissioner Al Tillman argues the board’s rulings can be guessed in advance and are therefore superfluous.
“I think the whole concern is just the transparency of the process,” Tillman said. “Usually when you go through the Design Review Board, the final decision still has to be made by planning and zoning. And I don’t like the fact that somebody says the board is predictable.”
On Monday afternoon, the review board recommended that planning commissioners deny a demolition permit for the historic Douglass House. Afterward, board member Robert Apsley and real estate broker Jim Rollins both said they weren’t surprised by the denial.
Tuesday morning, Tillman said the word “recommended” indicates that the review board had the final decision on the matter.
“As a former member of the planning and zoning commission, I know that we made final decisions,” he said. “If members of the Design Review Board are thinking that they can tell members of the planning and zoning commission what to do, that’s not supposed to happen.”
But planning commission Chairwoman Sarah Gerwig-Moore said Wednesday via email that a recommendation from the review board is not a final decision.
“As Al knows, the P&Z can easily overrule any DRB recommendation -- or modify -- or adopt,” she wrote. “The really important function of that body is its professional expertise and review before an issue comes to the full Commission.”
Just before 4 p.m. Tuesday, Tillman sent an email to Mayor Robert Reichert, other Macon-Bibb commissioners and media asking for the commission to look into dissolving the review board.
“We should thank those that serve on the Design & Review Board and move quickly to end this board,” he wrote. “We also need to make recommendations to our local delegation about dissolving a few authority boards and combining others.”
Tillman said Wednesday that the review board slows down the process for people who want to build and create jobs. Just as Macon and Bibb County merged departments this year, many local boards and commissions should seek to eliminate duplicated functions, he said.
Efforts to reach Reichert for comment Wednesday were not successful. But Gerwig-Moore said she has talked with Tillman and thinks he’s willing to work on “some modest changes” instead of advocating the board’s abolition.
Planning Commission Executive Director Jim Thomas, legal counsel Pope Langstaff and the planning commission itself have been looking at ways to streamline the review process without lessening protection of historic buildings, Gerwig-Moore said.
Some changes have already been made, such as shifting review board meetings into “more of a workshop style” where applicants can find expertise to improve projects, she said.
“I certainly see the DRB as an important component of our work -- even if it changes shape a little as we move forward to ensure the process is open, supportive, and streamlined,” she said in her email.
Tillman said Wednesday that he wants to give planning commissioners and staff “an opportunity to straighten this situation out themselves.”
“I may have jumped the gun, but I’m still going to talk to the mayor and commissioners about this and some other boards,” he said.
Tillman said he’s meeting with Reichert, Thomas and Gerwig-Moore on Tuesday.
The Douglass House debate is connected to the earlier controversy about the former Tremont Temple Baptist Church, in which Tillman was briefly involved. Businessman Lou Patel wants the Douglass House, empty for 42 years, removed to make way for a parking lot. The lot would serve a Dunkin’ Donuts he wants to build on the site of the former Tremont Temple, which was torn down in March. Patel and church members faced resistance from preservationists when they sought permission to tear down the dilapidated church building, across Pine Street from The Medical Center of Central Georgia.
Tillman, who served on the planning commission from February 2011 until December 2013, made a motion at his last planning commission meeting to allow the church building’s demolition.
That move was in opposition to the design review board’s recommendation, but it died for lack of a second.
Tillman resigned from the planning commission because he was elected to serve on the new Macon-Bibb County Commission. When Tremont Temple appealed the planning commission’s denial of a demolition permit this year, after Tillman’s departure, planning commissioners approved tearing down the church.
Patel has said he has agreed to work with groups that want to preserve and move the Douglass House, but that they haven’t come up with a plan or financing despite two reprieves. The new deadline is Aug. 30.
The planning commission is expected to consider Monday the review board’s recommendation.
Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report.
To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.