Amid the uproar over the Macon-Bibb County property tax rate, at least one county commissioner is trying to make drastic changes to the planning and zoning board, which some say could lead to delays in getting projects approved.
County Commissioner Joe Allen created a resolution calling for the elimination of the Macon-Bibb County Planning & Zoning Commission board as it has operated since 1952. It proposes the creation of a planning and zoning department under the control of the county commission. Four other county commissioners signed on as sponsors of the resolution, but one is already backing out.
“I keep hearing over the years how planning and zoning has put restrictions on people and putting a lot of hardships on a lot of people,” Allen said Wednesday. “And the costs. … My problem with P&Z is I don’t think they look after the people the way they should. There are too many tight restrictions. A lot of people don’t want to come to Bibb County.”
The resolution says the decisions of the zoning board have a significant impact on the community, and the “Macon-Bibb County Commission has further determined that the members of the (county commission) should have the responsibility for making planning and zoning decisions as they are elected to serve by the voters (of Bibb County).”
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The zoning commission, whose board members are appointed, not only considers appropriate land use and permits for all kinds of offices, shopping centers and housing developments, but also determines the proper fence or sign someone should have depending on location, the zoning district it’s in and other criteria.
“The board of commissioners themselves should be the ones that vote on those (applications),” Allen said. “You would not have five (P&Z) commissioners, you would have nine (county commissioners) or maybe a committee. ... Some don’t like that idea. ... But it would be up to the county commissioners to say yea or nay.”
However, a day later, Allen changed his tune about how the zoning commission should be set up.
He told another Telegraph reporter late Thursday that the reason he came up with the resolution is because he wants two county commissioners to sit on the P&Z commission, “so the right hand knows what the left hand is doing.”
The resolution was prepared shortly after July 23, when the zoning commission voted to increase its fees by 50 percent to make up the for the expected loss in funds from the county.
The zoning commission had been worried about its financial condition ever since the Macon-Bibb County government decided at the end of June to completely cut its funding, which was about $900,000 last year. The commission then voted July 3 to reinstate about $800,000, an amount contingent on the county commission getting the votes needed to increase property taxes by over 4 mills. The money normally received from the county is about half of the zoning office’s total budget.
After numerous meetings, the county still has not finalized its millage rate.
Allen’s resolution, which has been referred to a committee, also was sponsored by commissioners Mallory Jones, Scotty Shepherd, Al Tillman and Valerie Wynn. However, Tillman said Wednesday he has changed his mind.
“I’m going to remove my name off of that,” Tillman said. “I did that contingent on a millage rate, because I didn’t want planning and zoning to be just hanging out there with no funding. ... I’m hoping now that other commissioners didn’t do this intentionally to try and take over planning and zoning.”
Tillman served as a zoning commissioner from February 2011 until December 2013, before resigning because he was elected to serve on the county commission.
Jim Thomas, executive director of the zoning commission, said he was never notified by anyone with the county about the resolution. He learned about it when an architect was in the zoning office Monday and asked how the staff felt about the resolution.
“I’m open to any discussion with the county commission,” Thomas said. “If there are legitimate problems, we are not the enemy. We will work with them and try to fix some of their concerns. What they are proposing in the resolution, the way it’s worded, they are using a fire hose to put out a match.”
Allen said he isn’t claiming zoning has done anything wrong.
“But I’m saying you have a director down there, and he answers to nobody but the board,” Allen said. “The county commission ought to be the oversight.”
Thomas said it was a bad time to bring this issue up because of the uncertainty with the county budget.
“We are trying to figure out if we are even going to keep the lights on,” he said.
The way zoning is set up in Bibb County is unique. In other cities and counties in Georgia, the zoning board does not have final say on applications. In some locations, applicants come before a zoning board, which then makes a recommendation to the city or county government. Then, a separate hearing is held by the city or county for the final decision.
“So it adds another layer to the process that we don’t have,” Thomas said. “We are the one go-to operation for all the permitting and land use.” But in some other cities and counties, “it takes four to six months to get an answer.”
Thomas said late Thursday, after hearing about Allen’s proposal to put county commissioners on the zoning commission that it is “certainly an option,” and that it is done with other commissions and authorities.
But he added “if it’s a communication issue that Commissioner Allen is trying to solve, there are many ways to address that.”
Commercial real estate broker Jim Rollins, who appears regularly before the zoning commission, said he has talked with members of the Commercial Council of the Middle Georgia Association of Realtors about the resolution.
“We do not want to do what (Allen’s resolution) wants to do,” Rollins said. “Joe Allen wants the county commissioners to hear the zoning requests. That would be an absolute disaster.”
Members are hoping to set up a meeting to discuss the proposal “and then individually, I guess, lobby the county commissioners to say ‘gosh, guys, put something back in the budget for them, but let’s not act too hastily here. ‘ ” he said. “I think the county commission probably doesn’t have as good a feel for zoning and the complications of zoning as the planning and zoning commission have and certainly the staff.”
However, some Commercial Council members would like to see some changes made by the zoning commission.
“The biggest thing is ... there is no way when you are turned down to get an appeal — you just appeal back to the same people that just turned you down” he said. Or some applicants bypass that route and appeal directly to Superior Court, but that’s costly and time consuming.
Rollins and Thomas said they hope a meeting could be set up with the county to talk about their issues.
“This is not coming up at a great time for cool heads to prevail,” Rollins said. “They are caught up in the anxiety of the millage rate increase. ... This comes at a time when the county is struggling, and the very struggle for the finances of the county will affect development for awhile.
“The bond agencies and the developers are looking at this, and they say ‘Oh, developers ain’t doing nothing here, and the retailers are trying to decide whether to come to Bibb County or not. (County commissioners) are just ya-yaing back and forth, and it just ain’t going to get it. Make a decision and let’s move on down the road.”