ROSWELL, Ga. — Roswell City Councilman Mike Palermo proposed an amendment to the city’s development code, one that sought to open the door for more council review for mixed-use developments, but some council members weren’t ready to sign on.

Board members voted 3-2 to send the amendment back to committee at its Dec. 14 meeting. Palermo and councilwoman Christine Hall were in opposition to the move. 

“I just don't feel that this is ready for primetime tonight, definitely not initiation,” councilman Matt Judy said. “I think we need to send this back to committee. And when we send it back to committee, I would like for us to find examples of this that are actually working well in other places, or even an example of it.”

The text amendment was poised to add a one-paragraph subsection to Roswell’s unified development code that zeroed in on construction requirements for projects with a mix of commercial, retail and residential. Building permits for commercial space in these developments must be granted before a certificate of occupancy is issued for the residential portion. The amendment would have given the City Council authority to adjust that requirement.

Mayor Pro Tem Marcelo Zapata presided during the discussion when Mayor Lori Henry left the meeting due to an emergency. Zapata, who often aligns with Palermo and spoke in favor of the measure, did not get a chance to vote.

In Roswell, the presiding officer only votes in case of a tie.

Palermo said the measure addressed an ongoing problem of developers promising mixed-use projects during the permitting process, then reneging on parts of the plan. He cited a multi-family residential property with a supermarket built along Ga. 9 in which the developer failed to build a walking trail included in the initial plan.

When developers who want to build apartments and a walkable destination, then change their minds, they should be required to come back through public process, Palermo said.

The issue drew debate among council members, occupying about 45 minutes of back-and-forth trying to decide how to move forward with the proposed code amendment.

The ordinance needs to be approved twice, but it had to first be initiated in order to go before the council for a first reading. Palermo sought to push the initiation approval through and said it would help keep developers honest when they come to Roswell.

“There are developers that have the ability to build commercial,” he said. “The problem is the ones in Roswell that are being rewarded are the ones that are just building all the apartments and all the townhomes.”

Judy insisted that he actually supported the measure in principle, but he wanted to ensure it’s done properly. The councilman said he researched the mixed-use amendment and found no similar legislation enacted by any local governments in the nation.

Judy later laid out his qualms, saying he worried about unintended consequences that could stifle commercial development in the city. He said the ordinance could result in “empty shopping centers, empty strip malls, empty office buildings” if adopted as drafted.

“The people I've talked to said this will make Roswell empty,” Judy said. “This will keep people from coming or even trying to look at going down the road in Roswell. So, if we want to go down that road, then that means higher taxes for our citizens because we will not be able to go commercial.”

Before leaving the meeting, Henry suggested the proposed amendment go before a joint session of the Planning Commission and City Council before it advances to a first reading.

The discussion soon devolved into a tit-for-tat exchange with Palermo squaring off with Judy and councilman Matthew Tyser. At one point, Palermo challenged Tyser to a town hall debate. Tyser was far less diplomatic in his take on Palermo’s proposal.

“Make no mistake, this item is a wolf in sheep's clothing,” he said. “It's designed to stop all mixed-use development in our city. If you like empty parking lots, abandoned strip shopping centers and higher property taxes on your homes, vote for this and support those council members who do.”

Palermo accused his fellow council members of “fearmongering” and pleaded for the amendment to be initiated to put the process in motion. He motioned for the amendment to be moved forward to a first reading by July after it’s discussed at a joint work session. The motion failed with Judy, Tyser and Marie Wilsey voting it down.

Judy followed up by motioning for the measure to be sent back to the Community Development and Transportation Committee, which holds its next meeting Jan. 27. Tyser suggested that Mayor Henry schedule the joint work session with the Planning Commission to be held prior to that committee meeting.

The contentious matter was one of several text amendments to Roswell’s development code discussed at the meeting.

The city unanimously approved first reading of an amendment that would allow parking on grass and lawn areas of certain established residences without a “hard-surfaced driveway.” The amendment would allow parking on the noncompliant surface until a development permit is issued for the property. The measure could receive final approval at the council’s Jan. 11 meeting.

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