News and Opinion

2016 – A Reflection

This year has been anything but tranquil for Cobb County's most engaged groups – the Chamber, the Tea Party, Cobb Parks Coalition and allies, and Neighborhood-based organizations county-wide. The hard-fought race for Chairman pitted the establishment against a motivated coalition of interests unhappy with the status quo, but mainly upset about the way the Braves deal was handled. Thanks to massive voter apathy, with just over 10% turnout in the runoff, Challenger Boyce defeated well-funded incumbent Tim Lee.

Whether much will actually change in terms of governance is yet to be seen.

The sources of discontent felt by many groups remain: the bungled 2008 Parks Bond issue, the constant grandstanding by various politicians, the anger and frustration felt by neighborhood residents county-wide at the way zoning code and land use are handled by the Commissioners.

To be sure, Cobb County has always been business-friendly and touted its low tax rates, but as long term policy, it has contributed heavily to the frustration felt by average citizens – that the Commissioners really don't care about their concerns. A review of neighborhood oppositon to the year's most contentious zoning cases has a recurring theme; the county is not following its own zoning code or the future land use map. What seems to be a clearly written directive in various zoning ordinances is sometimes given an interpretation that defies logic. That this is done to facilitate an outcome favorable to the applicant at the expense of the neighborhood, has led to rising cynicism about the priorities of Staff and Commissioners.

As a long term practice, it may play well with investors but this year, disgruntled voters unseated the incumbent Chairman and if the practice continues, more incumbents may be removed in 2018.

The concerns expressed by neighborhoods vary between the Districts and within the Districts in different communities. In upper middle class neighborhoods that feature low density, single family homes, there is great resentment of higher density residential infill, often appearing as Residential Senior Living or clustered homes targed to age 55+. Yet there are other areas, mine included, who view RSL as a preferred alternative to light industrial or an unending linear sprawl of retail shops.

The lack of compatibility between intense commercial and industrial uses and residential living is why land use maps designate separate areas for them; it is why many zoning districts include language stating that LI or HI or OS is discouraged from locating next to a residential neighborhood. But at any given Planning Commission or BoC Zoning Meeting you can watch land use and zoning code being ignored or reinvented.

Change is a given as the population increases, but wouldn't it be nice to have change that brought improvements in the quality of life by adding greenspace, clustering shops and restaurants at nodes, preserving historic structures and encouraging development that created a sense of place? Instead, Cobb seems mainly intent on enabling growth, whether it is appropriate or beneficial to the existing community. The sense of place that regularly attracts so many people can be seen in historic Marietta and the Square – it can be found in East Cobb Park and in Smyrna. What can Unincorporated Cobb learn from Marietta, which has been able to get it right? What can they learn from the community-driven East Cobb Park? One thing is that the Square and East Cobb Park are frequently used by the public – they are compact, pleasant, walkable places to spend time. One thing that Marietta has done right is to implement long range planning; whether for historic preservation, streetscapes or new parks. They don't just talk about it, it gets done.

The year's other source of grief and aggravation is the still-unfulfilled 2008 Parks Bond. What can Unincorporated Cobb and the Commission learn from Gwinnett, Milton and Johns Creek about fullfilling the Public desire to preserve passive greenspace - before it is an impervious memory? The lesson seems to be, get it done, don't just talk it to death.

Generally, Unincorporated Cobb needs to start listening to the public, not just the business and developer class. That is why two items on my Christmas wish list for Cobb have not changed over several years: I want to see a ballot referendum on Term Limits for Commissioners (something else the City got right) and smaller Commission districts. The current districts are simply too large and too diverse to allow one commissioner to adequately reach out and address the concerns of disparate communities.

One wish – for greater participation by neighborhoods in planning and zoning issues, has become reality as fairly large numbers of middle class neighborhoods, affected by a zoning or failure of the county to keep promises, articulate their concerns to the Commissioners. Many of the most active citizens are newer to the process, and younger. The civic groups that have been established for years seem to have difficulty attracting newer members. But apathy or inability to engage absent a crisis, still prevails in many parts of Unincorporated Cobb. This is particularly true in aging communities, or in low to moderate income neighborhoods.

Finally I reflect on my own community. Progress is visible in all sections of the corridor now. We are moving ahead with upgrades to older properties on the southern section, and there is potential for quality growth with assemblages in several parts of Canton Hwy. Whether it can materialize is up to developers willing to think outside of the east Cobb/west Cobb box and a District Commissioner who seems comfortable with the status quo. The southern section of Canton Hwy is a great location in its proximity to the Wellstar complex and Marietta Square. Why aren't we seeing more RSL and office space developed here? Will next year finally bring an addition of passive greenspace to this community?

Whatever the year brings, I hope for greater consideration of public concerns from the Board of Commissioners, and a willingness to ask, “Would I want this in my backyard?”

County declines to make semi-final Parks recommendation public

The Cobb Board of Commissioners have made a break with established procedure and with transparency
regarding the Parks Bond process. The tradition of releasing the semi-final list of park recommendations was started by then-Chairman Sam Olens during the 2006 and 2008 Parks Bond process. Chairman Tim Lee has also broken the promise made by the Board during a January 2016 vote to make the recommendations public.
While confidentiality is understandable regarding real estate transactions, the stated need to keep a semi-final list of potential purchases hidden from the public is a stretch that strains the credibility of the Board.  Process does matter and this is not new business to be carried over into the Boyce Administration.  It originated on Tim Lee's watch and he and the current Commission should deal with it now in a transparent way, by following established procedure.

County approves FY17 Budget

The BoC approved a bare-bones, continuation budget on September 27.  Many speakers addressed the BoC during the Finance Public Hearing to ask for full funding of the $40 million 2008 Parks Bond.  Commissioner Birrell announced that the Recreation Board would make a presentation to the BoC on October 25th with recommendations on which parcels to purchase for green space.  She also said that she would make a motion for a resolution to issue $24.7 million in bonds for greenspace acquisition.  There will be at least three votes to approve.  The bonds will be issued in December and greenspace can be purchased beginning in January 2017.

Birrell also said that she would favor a resolution for a new $40 million dollar Parks Bond that could be placed on the ballot scheduled for the March 2017 School Bond referendums.  The outcome of that resolution is uncertain at this time.

Carol Brown, MRP Chairperson, Canton Road Neighbors, Inc.