Duluth to look at amending building design standards

DULUTH - The Duluth City Council is expected next week to act on amendments to its zoning ordinance that would impose stricter design standards on future large-scale developments.

The council continued until Monday action on the amendments to allow incorporation of input from residents at a hearing held this past Monday. Also, it seemed several speakers at the hearing were making comments based on previous drafts. The latest revisions had been posted on the city's Web site about 5 p.m., and not everyone had the latest copy.

Additional comments will be accepted at the 6 p.m. called meeting Monday at City Hall when the council is expected to adopt the amendments. An updated draft of the amendments will be posted on the city's Web site at www.duluthga.net.

The changes to the city's zoning ordinance are the result of a study commissioned by the council regarding the impacts of large-scale commercial, office and multi-family residential projects on the city. The new design standards would apply to developments 75,000 square feet or larger. Included are slightly less strict standards for manufacturing facilities.

The study began in late August in response to Wal-Mart's plans to build a big-box 176,000-square-foot store on about 31 acres at the corner of Peachtree Industrial Boulevard and Chattahoochee Drive. Wal-Mart was denied building permits in August because of a moratorium on large developments adopted by the city in July. That moratorium has since been extended until Jan. 31. Two lawsuits have been filed by the landowner, Jack Bandy, against the city to lift the moratorium and allow construction of the proposed Wal-Mart.

The study's findings and recommendations were presented to the council at its Nov. 26 meeting by Gary Cornell, a principal planner with Jordan, Jones & Goulding, a Norcross-based engineering consulting firm hired by the city.

As part of the study, a 14-member citizens' steering committee examined existing and potential large-scale development sites in Duluth. Community meetings were held, and the mayor and council provided their insights at a work session Dec. 3.

Duluth Planning Director Cliff Cross presented the revised amendments at Monday's hearing and answered questions. About eight individuals spoke.

The amendments would establish architectural standards, regulate exterior building materials and require a unified theme for large-scale developments. Landscaping, parking, driveway spacing, pedestrian access, stormwater management, community amenities and other factors would have to be satisfied.

Developers of large-scale projects would be required to submit community impact statements and traffic studies. Their applications, including site and architectural plans, would be reviewed by the city's planning department.

Jeffery Cook, chairman of Smart Growth Gwinnett, a citizens' group formed to oppose the Wal-Mart, asked the council at Monday night's hearing to delay action to allow time for the group to review and clarify some of the changes with the city's planning director.

Cook emphasized the importance of community impact statements and the need for more checks and balances, such as involving the mayor and council in the approval process.

Jerry Presley, a policy analyst with the Council for Quality Growth, cautioned the mayor and council not to make the process "so onerous that it hinders the professionals hired to handle these things for the city." Creation of an architectural review board merits consideration, he added.

Tom Wheeler, president of Wheeler/Kolb Management, said the new standards would reduce the value and adversely impact future development of a 110-acre tract owned by the family of the late developer Scott Hudgens. Wheeler additionally said he had concerns about some requirements that might create "unintended circumstances" for others and asked for an opportunity to provide input. The amendments are "flawed and unfair to large landholders," he said.

In a letter to the council, Smart Growth Gwinnett urged Councilwoman Marsha Anderson Bomar to recuse herself from voting on the amendments because she sits on the board of the Council for Quality Growth. Although City Attorney Lee Thompson ruled her voting on the amendments would not be illegal, Smart Growth Gwinnett board member Cathy Ramadei urged Bomar to avoid any perception of impropriety.

Bomar, who is president of Street Smarts, a Duluth-based planning, transportation engineering and surveying firm, responded that she carefully considers any possible conflict of interest and balances it with an obligation to bring her technical expertise to bear on the issue. She has recused herself in the past from voting on other matters.