The Madison Mayor and City Council held its annual retreat with the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission (NEGRC) in Athens last Monday.
The council discussed various issues to tackle in the coming year and beyond, including strengthening the role of the city manager, bringing in affordable housing options, installing more sidewalks and trails throughout the city, deterring truck traffic through downtown, raising city council salaries, and possibly reviving the controversial zoning tool Planned Residential Developments (PRDs).
The council acknowledged the quagmire PRDs have become for the city after the controversial Foster Park project originally applied for a PRD in the Historic District to build 37 houses behind the Thomason Miller House on Main Street. After the council voted to eliminate PRDs in the Historic District altogether in December 2016, zoning requests have become more difficult, noted council members Joe DiLetto, Chris Hodges and Carrie Peters Reid.
“I think we need to put PRDs back up to talk about again, where they could be used at and what is good about it,” said Reid.
Hodges, DiLetto and Reid were frustrated to have lost the “flexible zoning tool” that would allow them to approve zoning requests on a case-by-case basis.
“I think there needs to be flexible zoning tool and we are witnessing how we have been handicapped without it,” said Hodges.
However, other council members, such as Eric Joyce and Rick Blanton, worried about the public backlash and other ramification if PRDs were to be reinstated. worried that the public would not be ready to accept bringing back PRDs due to hostility surrounding PRDs in relation to the controversial Foster Street Project.
Councilman Rick Blanton worried that the return of PRDs could jeopardize local control of zoning matters.
‘Conceptually I support it, but if applicants can ask for anything, and we vote on it, but a judge somewhere would make the ultimate decision, that takes it out of the hands of the group that is charged with looking out for the City of Madison,” said Blanton.
Joyce recommended allowing time for “healing” since the PRD controversy is still fresh in many members of the public’s minds.
“I’m concerned there is a large part of this city that does not trust us to use this tool,” said Joyce. “There are people who think we aren’t going to make good decisions and that is a concern for me. I think we can make good decisions…but we have a lot of people who won’t see that if we move too far ahead of what our voters think is right for Madison.”
The council agreed to wait until the end of February to discuss PRDs again, when Frank Jenkins, a zoning expert, is coming to advise the council.
The council also brainstormed ways to encourage affordable housing in Madison without diminishing the quality of housing available.
Councilwoman Chris Hodges asked if allowing more doublewide trailers, vinyl-sided houses, and modular homes in certain parts of the city would be an option to bring in more affordable housing options.
But City Manager David Nunn was concerned that these types of housing would lead to a subpar housing standard that would cost homeowners or renters in the future.
“It’s pushing the envelope,” said City Manager David Nunn. “If we go with the minimum standard, 20 years out and these houses don’t hold up to wear and tear and the weather, and then homeowners or renters can’t afford the maintenance,” cautioned Nunn.
Hodges also strongly advocated for making sidewalks a top priority.
“With the next SPLOST coming up, I think we really need to invest in sidewalks for our city,” said Hodges. “Lets aggressively fill the gaos on sidewalks…where everybody can walk outside their house and walk anywhere they need to go, for all our citizen. Let’s make them wheelchair friendly and stroller-friendly. “We take side walks for granted. If you don’t have them, you can be sideswiped at any time. “It’s just not safe and that’s our role to make sure that people have a safe way to walk this city without risking their lives,” said Hodges.
Hodges also noted that she plans to ask Georgia Congressman Jody Hice to work on procuring more federal funds for Madison to fund a trail system.
The council discussed another safety concern during the retreat: truck traffic through downtown Madison.
DiLetto noted that he has been in contact with Georgia Department of Transportation administrators in an attempt to find a solution to the frequent big rig trucks driving through downtown instead of using the bypass. According to DiLetto, GDOT is currently working on a feasibility study on the issue.
“These are state routes and they limit how we can secure our city,” said DiLetto. “This is not a city issue. We have the problem but we can’t solve it.”
DiLetto suggested city police strictly enforce the speed limit right down to one or two miles over the posted speed limit.
However,Nunn pointed out that officers can’t target only trucks, so local motorists would also bear the fallout from stricter speed enforcement.
“Do you want the blowback from everybody else too?” asked Nunn. “You will make an impression on truckers, but you will also make an impression on everybody else.”
The council is also considering raising council member salaries from $100 a month to $150 per month.
“We want to incentivize people to serve, people who may not be able to afford to do it with out this,” said Hodges. The council agreed to have the issue placed on a future agenda for a vote, but if passed, the pay raise would not go into effect for another two years—after the next local city election.
Hodges also asked the council to consider increasing the Downtown Development Authority’s (DDA) budget to enable them to take on more projects.
“They do such a good job and just think what they could do with a little more,” said Hodges.
Madison Mayor Fred Perriman thanked NEGRC Director Jim Dove.
“Another great year and another great retreat,” said Perriman. “We thank you for having us and we will continue to work on our city.”