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Athens News Matters: Commissioners take another deep dive into housing and zoning, defeat controversial quorum change

Athens-Clarke County Commissioner Jesse Houle speaks at a mayor and commission meeting on October 4, 2022.
Athens-Clarke County Commissioner Jesse Houle speaks at a mayor and commission meeting on October 4, 2022.

Along with a detailed discussion of the county's housing crunch and a vote to approve a $2.85 million land purchase, Athens-Clarke County commissioners on Tuesday unanimously shot down a plan to change the number of commissioners needed to form a quorum.

Supporters of the quorum change have said that it would address a problem with commissioners not showing up for meetings. Opponents, including many commissioners, said that the absenteeism problem was overblown and that no voting meetings have been postponed for lack of a quorum.

"We have a scheduling problem, not a quorum problem," said District 4 Commissioner Allison Wright.

District 6 Commissioner Jesse Houle said they were eager to put the issue behind the commission.

"I never liked this," Houle said. "I never thought this was a solution to the problem because the problem really goes beyond things where we need quorum anyway. Hopefully we move on, everyone doing better."

"Missing middle" report prompts discussion on housing

A procedural move to accept a report on “missing middle” housing sparked a larger discussion about the future of housing in the county.

Commissioners have discussed the report at a number of meetings recently. That report found a need for more housing that is more dense than traditional single-family residential homes but less dense, and more workforce-friendly, than sprawling apartment complexes, often marketed to students. Examples include duplexes, triplexes, quadplexes, and cottage courts.

District 8 Commissioner Carol Myers said that the need for this missing middle housing is primarily a zoning challenge, and noted that the report includes nearly 30 zoning recommendations.

"If what was in this report goes forward, it's really not changing the kind of housing that is built in the world. It is changing zoning to encourage certain kinds of housing," Myers said.

District 3’s Melissa Link characterized the report as a road map to address those zoning challenges.

"You can't just go out and start changing ordinances," Link said. "You need the facts and the statistics and the guidelines and the kind of playbook on where and how particular ordinances need should be changed and this is what we have."

But the report itself isn’t a silver bullet, said District 9’s Ovita Thornton, and the county’s zoning laws have a lot of historical baggage.

But, Thornton said, the report is just a new way to describe a long-standing problem.

"The problems that we're having have been just racist zoning, gentrification, and now we're trying to fix it all and put it in a pretty package and call it the missing middle" she said.

Tim Denson, who represents District 5, did the math.

"By 2040, ACC is projected to become home to an additional 26,425 residents," Denson said. "So using the average household size for Athens, Clarke County, which is 2.36 people, that means an additional 11,197 units over the next 18 years have to be built."

Commissioners voted unanimously to accept the report. Its effect on future zoning and land use is yet to be determined.

“Granny flats” and cottages play into further housing discussion

The missing middle housing discussion also came up in a discussion of future work plans for the county’s Planning Department. That work plan includes development of new zoning recommendations to address not only missing middle housing but also accessory dwelling units - separate structures, like cottages, on the same property as existing single-family homes.

District 3’s Link tied the work plan to the commission’s earlier discussion of missing middle housing.

"That's where you get to ordinance changes that might allow someone to put a trailer on their land or build a tiny house in their backyard where the word folks can live legally," said Link. "So this is where you actually enact the recommendations that are offered by something like the missing middle housing study."

The Planning Department intends to start on that work, but some commissioners expressed frustration about the timeline, which does not include action on missing middle housing or accessory dwelling units until 2024 and 2025.

County staff say that before they can drill down on potential locations that would be appropriate for zoning changes to promote missing middle housing, they need to finish work on the county’s comprehensive plan and future land use map. It is possible that a separate ordinance concerning ADUs could happen earlier. Commissioners decided to postpone a vote on the work plan for another month, and are expected to see a revised work plan in early November.

Commissioners approve $2.85 million for land purchase

Commissioners also voted unanimously to spend $2.85 million to purchase a parcel of land on Olympic Drive to eventually become a new home for transit operations, as well as space for maintenance facilities for the county’s water and sewer system. The price includes just the land; no estimate of construction costs has been released yet.

County manager Blaine Williams told commissioners that there is a need for the new space.

"The transit maintenance facility on Pound Street is is almost 50 years old, and at the time was built for 10 buses and we have over 40 now. So we've got some growing pains, some older facilities," Williams said.

Williams also noted that the water and sewer maintenance facility currently in use is over 40 years old, and houses nearly twice as many employees as it was originally designed for. The same is true for the county’s meter maintenance space, which would also move to the new location.

The land purchase passed unanimously, as did a set of changes to the county’s animal control ordinance.

Martin Matheny is WUGA's Program Director and a host and producer of our local news program 'Athens News Matters.' He started at WUGA in 2012 as a part-time classical music host and still hosts WUGA's longest-running local program 'Night Music' which is heard on WUGA and GPB Classical. He lives in Normaltown with his wife, Shaye and dog, Murphy.
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