Heated exchange during non R4 zoning hearing

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By Tia Lynn Ivey

managing editor

In a 3-2 vote, The Madison Mayor and City Council upheld the decision to postpone a controversial rezoning hearing on the proposed Foster Street housing development during Monday night’s regular meeting, despite complaints filed by several members of the public to proceed with the hearing as originally planned and advertised.

Elizabeth Bell and Celia Murray, residents of Madison’s Historic District, spoke on behalf of those who filed a complaint over the Foster Street rezoning application being postponed until after the upcoming Nov. 7 election.

Brad Good, the developer seeking a rezoning for the historic Thomason Miller property lining Main Street and Foster Street in the historic district of Madison in order to build a 24-house development, was originally supposed to appear before the council in September for the public hearing, but Hurricane Irma caused that meeting to be cancelled. The city rescheduled the hearing for the following Monday’s meeting, but Good filed a request to postpone the hearing another month. The city approved his request, along with another postponement request from another rezoning applicant, Alex Newton.

Bell and Murray accused Good of “politically manipulating” the council to postpone the hearing until after the coming November elections, in which three seats on the council are on the ballot, including the Mayor’s slot.

“The council cannot allow the applicant to set its agenda for political purposes,” said Bell.

“You cannot put words in our mouth,” shot back Madison Mayor Fred Perriman, who defended the decision to postpone the hearing in order to ensure all sides were fairly accommodated and given the opportunity to be heard. “The applicant is not even here tonight to defend himself,” added Perriman. Councilwoman Carrie Peters Reid also took issue with Bell and Murray’s comments.

“Not all of us are up for reelection. What makes you think we are politically motivated?” asked Reid.

Bell, who requested public records of the city’s email correspondence regarding the postponement, argued that city staff approved Good’s request without the city council’s input and violated neighboring property owners rights who were prepared to address the issue at Monday night’s meeting.

“Nowhere in the e-mail chain, or the planner’s recital of events, is there any indication that the city manager, mayor or council gave consideration to the applicant’s request. This ordinance does not give an applicant for a rezoning the right to set the agenda or remove items from hearing when they have been given notice to the abutting property owners and the public,” said Bell. “Allowing a staff member to grant this request is in derogation of the council’s duty under the law, and is a violation of the abutting property owners’ right to due process.”

However, according to city officials, the postponement was not without precedent, and followed the usual procedure of a long-practiced city policy. “The city manager sets the agenda,” said Mollie Bogle, Madison city planner. “It’s always been our policy to honor an applicant’s request for postponement with or without a reason given. We have always immediately accepted those requests.”

Bogle noted that Good’s request was forwarded and reviewed by city staff, mayor and city council with no objections expressed before City Manager David Nunn approved the postponement.

But Bell and Murray implored the council to place the hearing back on the agenda and proceed with public hearing on the proposed Foster Street project, despite Good’s absence.

City Attorney Joe Reitman warned the council that proceeding with the hearing after telling Good they approved his postponement would lead swift legal ramifications.

“If you proceed tonight without the applicant present after you told him you would postpone this hearing, you will buy yourself a lawsuit,” said Reitman.

The council voted to uphold the decision to postpone the Foster Park rezoning hearing, with Councilmen Joe DiLetto and Bobby Crawford voting against postponing the meeting. Neither councilman offered explanation for their dissenting vote.

Bell and Murray urged the council to hold a specially-called meeting before the Nov. 7 election to hold the public hearing and render a decision on the Foster Park rezoning application.

“To wait until after the election just would not be right,” said Murray, who argued voters deserved to have the contentious matter settled before heading to the ballot box.

Reitman pledged to seek out legal counsel from Frank Jenkins, an attorney who specializes in zoning, to ensure the City of Madison was within its rights to allow postponing the public hearing. According to Bogle, if the city agrees to hold a specially-called meeting before the election, legal advertisements would need to be run in the newspaper, at the latest, by Thursday, Oct. 19, to give the public 15-days notice prior to a zoning hearing in accordance to Georgia State Law.

“I am waiting for a decision to be made about it,” said Bogle.

Councilman Joe DiLetto believes a specially-called meeting would be unlikely due to the tight deadline for legally-required advertising.

“I have serious doubts that legal counsel could give us proper advice before the middle of next week, to get the information that we need from Mr. Jenkins in a timely fashion to have enough time to warrant a special called meeting,” said DiLetto. “But it’s possible. We will have to wait and see.”

If a specially-called meeting is not pursued, the Foster Park rezoning application will have its public hearing at Mayor and City Council’s November regular meeting. Good, who revised the projects original conception and design, is asking the City Council to approve his rezoning application despite the Madison’s Planning and Zoning Commission’s recommendation for denial. The commission voted unanimously to recommend denial for Good’s rezoning application over the summer. Good is seeking a rezoning to designate the property as a Residential 4 zone, which would reduce the minimum required lot sizes, allowing Good to build a 24-house subdivision. The project has received ample criticism from residents of the historic district who worry that the development could decrease property values, diminish the integrity of the historic district in general, and add unwanted noise, light, and traffic to surrounding neighborhoods.

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