Historic Macon concerned that P&Z will drop design review board

Macon-Bibb County’s planning and zoning commissioners are considering eliminating the design review board process, but historic preservationists are hoping to convince them to keep it intact.

Monday, the commission is scheduled to vote on the issue in a meeting scheduled for 1:30 p.m. at Government Center, 700 Poplar St.

In an email, Historic Macon asked its members to attend the meeting and speak out in an effort to save the design review process. Preservationists say getting rid of it could endanger Macon’s historic properties.

“It would remove one of the most important processes in historic preservation,” Ethiel Garlington, executive director of Historic Macon, said Thursday.

In addition, the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation is due to send P&Z a letter asking for a decision about the design review board’s fate to at least be delayed.

Monday’s agenda includes a proposed resolution that says the P&Z staff has determined that the current design review process and regulations aren’t the most efficient way to practice historic preservation.

Consequently, the staff is recommending the commission replace the design review board with a development review officer. On matters that can’t be approved by the officer, the decision would revert to the zoning commission.

Garlington said he learned about the agenda item in passing last week. He said he and Alex Morrison, executive director of the Macon-Bibb County Urban Development Authority, met with P&Z Executive Director Jim Thomas earlier this week to discuss the matter.

Garlington said Thomas told them that commissioners are considering the proposal in order to streamline the process for developers and property owners to get their plans approved. Garlington said Thomas told him eliminating the design review board also would save P&Z staff time and resources.

Thomas said the change would allow his staff more flexibility to meet with local property owners and work with them directly rather than having to go through the review board.

“(Commission members) have been talking about this for some time,” Thomas said. “We have limited resources due to budget cuts. (Commissioners) wanted to change the way we do things and have it be on the P&Z staff. We’d be the ones making the recommendations.”

Thomas said that while the move has been contemplated for a while, commissioners asked him a month ago to meet with the P&Z attorney to draft changes. While the changes designate a development review officer, Thomas said the whole staff would weigh in on decisions about historic properties, much in the same way it does with other properties.

Garlington said that while he agrees the design review process should be streamlined, he argues the review board should not be eliminated.

Garlington said disbanding the board would deprive commissioners of the board members’ expertise when making decisions related to historic properties.

In the email to its members, Historic Macon officials noted the organization uses the process extensively to protect Macon’s historic buildings.

“Time and time again, our unique and diverse architecture is cited by professionals as one of the keys to Macon’s economic development efforts,” the email said. “With that in mind, any changes done to the process should be done carefully and inclusively.”

The email notes that the Macon Action Plan -- a comprehensive master plan for downtown that is being commissioned by the Urban Development Authority -- is scheduled to be published later this summer and will include recommendations that can address current flaws in the design review board process.

“Every (city) that has historic preservation as a priority has a design review board,” Garlington said.

To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.