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Duluth considers big-box overlay district

DULUTH - A proposed overlay district in Duluth could require stricter development standards for a planned Wal-Mart and other large projects in the city.

The recommended overlay would affect buildings greater than 75,000 square feet. Currently, the city has a development moratorium in place for such buildings while officials decide how to mitigate the impact of large construction projects on Duluth's small-town character. The moratorium is set to expire at the end of January.

Wal-Mart, which is trying to build a 176,000-square-foot supercenter in Duluth, has challenged an August decision by the city to reject its building application due to the moratorium. Duluth's Zoning Board of Appeals heard the request in October and is scheduled to decide tonight whether to allow the application to go forward.

That meeting will be held at 7 p.m. at Duluth City Hall.

Landowner Jack Bandy sued Duluth's city council in October, asking that the city be barred from enforcing the moratorium. According to the Gwinnett Courts' Web site, a mandamus complaint was also filed Monday, but attorneys for both Bandy and the city could not be reached for more information late Tuesday.

The Wal-Mart is proposed for about 32 acres at the corner of Peachtree Industrial Boulevard and Chattahoochee Drive currently zoned for commercial construction. Since June, local residents have been trying to stop the project, starting an online petition and forming a group, Smart Growth Gwinnett.

Next month, the Zoning Board of Appeals will hear three variance requests from the big-box retailer to allow Wal-Mart to use a synthetic brick, alter the location of a required landscape strip and change the pitch of the roof. In October, the board ruled that those decisions were up to that group, and not the city's planning director.

The proposed overlay district, which was the result of a large-scale development study, could create specific standards for larger projects and addresses their impacts on the city's aesthetics, traffic, infrastructure, environment and economy.

The overlay would apply to large-scale multi-family residential, commercial and office developments. It was presented to Duluth's city council Monday by Gary Cornell, principal planner for the Norcross-based engineering consulting firm of Jordan, Jones & Goulding. Cornell said manufacturing facilities would be subject to slightly less stringent regulations due to the difficulty of enforcing some of the aesthetic standards on buildings such as warehouses.

Some of the measures to lessen the impact of large-scale developments contained in the study include regulating building materials and the percentage of windows on building facades. Landscaping, land-use transition, pedestrian-friendly walkways, modular parking areas, greenspace and other open spaces such as plazas, and public art are identified as other ways to ameliorate the effects of large-scale developments.

As part of the study, a 14-member citizens Steering Committee evaluated five existing large-scale developments in Duluth and 12 potential sites for large-scale developments. Two community meetings were conducted Sept. 11 and Oct. 16 to obtain additional input. The mayor and council also will provide feedback on the study.

A public hearing on the study is scheduled at the council's Dec. 10 meeting. Copies of the study are available at City Hall and on the city's Web site www.duluthga.net.

In other activity, the council voted to extend a moratorium on accepting applications for special-use permits and conditional-use permits for property zoned Highway Commercial District or seeking that zoning from Nov. 30 to Jan. 31, 2008. The moratorium has been in effect since July 9.