CPA v UDO – Decatur man shapes zoning debate

Posted by Dan Whisenhunt August 7, 2014
Wylie Roberts. Source:

Wylie Roberts. Source:

Decatur City Commissioners Patti Garrett and Kecia Cunningham recently provided technical support to their constituents, reassuring them that the DecaturNext website was working properly.

DecaturNext is the website that the city is using for feedback on its zoning code overhaul, called the Unified Development Ordinance. One man, Wylie Roberts, alleged the site wasn’t showing comments users had submitted.

“Multiple people have attempted to post comments on the DecaturNext website and reported that their comments did not get shown on the website,” Roberts said in a letter to commissioners. “I hope this is a technical glitch, and not someone intentionally selecting which comments get displayed and which don’t.”

Cunningham and Garrett told Oakhurst residents that was not the case.

It was the second time in two weeks that city officials responded to issues raised in Roberts’ postings on social media and email lists. On July 30, the city published a lengthy Q&A that addressed questions Roberts raised about a new R-50 zoning designation and the role the city’s Historic Preservation Commission will play under the revised zoning rules. The city didn’t directly reference Roberts, but some of the questions answered reflected allegations he made about the new ordinance.

Roberts lives on Madison Avenue and owns four properties in the city, though one is up for sale because he says the UDO will destroy his property values.

“I just happen to know that legally there is such a thing as property rights and they’re not just some mythical thing that used to exist long ago that nobody cares about any more,” Roberts told Decaturish.

He’s a CPA by training and a principal with Rausch Advisory Services, a boutique consulting firm. He’s lived in Decatur for 25 years. He’s due to appear before the Zoning Board of Appeals on Aug. 11 regarding a renovation of another property he owns on Madison Avenue. He’s building an in-law suite for his wife’s elderly parents but has gotten tangled up in city regulations, he said. The suite is part of a home he’s building on property he’s owned for about 15 years.

Roberts’ application seeks a variance on the rear setback for his accessory building and wants the ZBA to rule that a three-walled rectangle does not meet the definition of being “enclosed” under city code.

“That has nothing to do with all my concerns about city government and the anti-development agenda,” Roberts said about the appeal. “Obviously it’s indirectly related, and I’m concerned about the way they’re interpreting things.”

Roberts said there’s a “cute little cottage special interest group” in Decatur that wants to get rid of anything that’s not a small home. In its Q&A, the city said the R-50 would be a new zoning designation but it wouldn’t change zoning for any current properties.

The city can’t be trusted, Roberts said.

“It’s classic political parsing that is technically true yet doesn’t address the larger issue in the spirit of the matter,” he said. ” …  It creates a new designation and as a separate legislative step all that remains to be done is assign that to various properties and I have concerns that that’s going to happen.”

This isn’t Roberts’ first battle with the city. In February, he asked residents to sign a petition against the city’s Floor Area Ratio rule. He says the rule, “mandates that ‘total floor area’ also be no more than this same number of square feet, and garage space and accessory buildings must be counted. This means that a building footprint that covers 30 percent of a lot (very typical for existing one-story homes) would hit 60 percent if a full second floor were added, which exceeds the 40 percent FAR limit.”

Roberts is also seeking a Floor Area Ratio variance so he can build the in-law suite over his garage.

The city says that the R-50 zoning will promote economic diversity in housing. Roberts questioned whether that’s really the city’s goal.

“So great, you want to create lower income housing. In the process, what they’re going to do is basically cause housing values to plummet in certain parts of Decatur significantly and that’s going to put people underwater on their mortgages and shatter people’s lives,” he said. “Yes, it’s noble to have diversity as a goal and more affordable housing but why do they have to solve that problem at the expense of other people?”

He said if that’s what the city wants, it can buy property and convert it into public housing.

Roberts said that the city’s commissioners have been in office too long and haven’t been challenged on their views.

“They’re unenlightened,” he said. “They don’t know how to write code in a way that addresses a problem without creating new problems.”

So are these the words of a man who plans to run for office?

“That’s not something I have in my plans immediately, but if no one else steps up to the challenge at some point, I may very well,” Roberts said.

About Dan Whisenhunt

Dan Whisenhunt is editor and publisher of

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  • Geoff

    The R-50 zoning category is nothing new, really. Many of our residential lots in Decatur, particularly in Oakhurst would have fallen into that category when they were developed 75-100 years ago.

    At issue here is not really whether R-50 is a good idea or not. It is. If you like Decatur’s walkability and human-scale charm, then you like this R-50 idea. We need this zoning category to ensure that we retain the look-and-feel of our city. In my opinion, the only reason a person would oppose R-50, from a technical standpoint, is that they don’t like Decatur’s walkability and human-scale charm. This person would seem to want Decatur to have bigger suburban-scale residential lots. Again, technically, I imagine you’d be hard pressed to find any professionals who work in the planning or development profession to argue against this proposal for Decatur.

    So why does Mr. Wylie oppose R-50? Clearly he has a beef with our current government officials. He doesn’t trust them. That’s fine. That’s his right. But why is he trying to turn a personal issue into a city-wide controversy over R-50 zoning? He’s trying to make this about property rights. However, all of his properties are subject to zoning one way or the other. This R-50 proposal doesn’t add any new “burdens” on his rights. It simply adds a logical nuance to our zoning codes.

    Our zoning codes were written decades ago when the trend was to be more suburban. Now we know that Decatur has found success by embracing our more urban development patterns, which set us apart from most of the rest of the region. We need the R-50 to ensure that future new development plays to our strengths and allows us to build homes in our neighborhoods that conform with their surroundings.

    Ask yourself: should I agree with Mr. Wylie because he’s making a good point about our zoning codes? On that, the answer would have to be no. He calls our elected leaders, the ones we voted for, “unenlightened,” and says he doesn’t trust them at their word. We all have a right to our own opinions.

    • Wylie Roberts

      Geoff, there is some background that you may not be aware of, and perhaps you don’t realize that the R-50 designation, if applied to most homes in Oakhurst would result in a significant and immediate reduction in market value because it outlaws 2 story homes.
      This market impact was validated by a certified appraiser. Even for those that don’t want to upgrade their homes to 2 stories, when they sell, a potential buyer would offer much less due to the reduced improvement possibilities. At a recent neighborhood meeting, we were assured that there are “no plans to limit homes to fewer than 2 stories” by City officials, yet this designation does just that. Hence, my concerns about trusting the City’s direction.

      You say that experts in the field of planning and development would say we “need” these types of controls for our own good. That was the approach to the attempt to convert Oakhurst to a Historical District, but the people here overwhelmingly rejected that idea proposed by “Experts” for our “own good”. I am concerned about “experts” deciding that certain aesthetic matters are of such supreme importance that they override reasonable property rights. The Code changes that went into effect in 2007 already reduced the average home value by about $100,000 according to real estate professionals I have spoken to. If the new R-50 were imposed on the Oakhurst part of Decatur, even more de-valuation would occur.

      Lastly, you make the assumption that my feedback to the city as a part of the Public Feedback process urges no regulation at all and the allowance of huge homes out of character with the neighborhood. Perhaps you should read the comments I made before making this assumption. I’ll post them separately below. In regards to the FAR rule, I have only suggested that detached garages be exempt, and that very small lots have a floor area ratio that is equal to the permitted lot coverage ratio. This would leave it unchanged for all but very small lots, and the city already acknowledges these are a special case, and grants a few extra percentage points to permissible lot coverage.
      Moreover, when Mr. Whisenhunt interviewed me, I spent a lot of time explaining that many of the rules I suggested be modified make perfect sense for some parts of Decatur, but that Decatur is not monolithic, and rules that work in Glendale Estates don’t necessarily work in Oakhurst with smaller lots. I did say that legislation has been un-enlightened coming out of the commission, but it is not just the UDO, but things like the prior attempts to force HPD on Oakhurst and recent tree ordinance for example. Ostensibly solving the problems of one special interest group by creating new problems for others, and frankly, not even really accomplishing the goal in the process. The tree ordinance did nothing to incentivize the rest of Decatur that is not undertaking any development to plant trees.
      I’m not seeking to make a “controversy”, and did not seek this article to be written. I am simply participating in the public dialogue with my concerns, as any civic minded person should.
      To be honest, when Mr. Whisenhunt contacted me, I was a bit surprised and did not feel that my personal endeavors to create a place for my wife’s elderly and impoverished parents to live was newsworthy. It is just that since I’m in the process of dealing with the development process, I have taken the time to carefully read the code and translate it into real world implications. And the take away, is that things I would have been able to do to provide for my family are now no longer allowed without a variance, even though the variance I seek would have zero impact on the size of the structure, it’s height, or any roofline. In fact there would be no impact to “scale” or “mass”. The changes I have suggested would eliminate problems like this in cases where there is no external impact. They also speak to issues around governance best practices.

  • underscorex

    So basically this dude is sore because the city is sandbagging his attempts to tack god-knows-what onto his house, and blames it on the SECRET COTTAGE CABAL.


    • wylie Roberts

      Actually, the variance I seek has Zero impact to size, height, or mass. It seeks to leverage space under a roof that is otherwise only used for storage to help provide a place for my wife’s elderly parents to live. I encourage you to actually read what I said before coming to pat conclusions.


    As promised in my posting above, here is the actual letter I sent to members of the Commission that prompted this article. Is it really that “controversial”?
    The response actually acknowledged that not all posts to DecaturNext would be displayed to the public, validating my concern.
    (See below)
    Commissioners Garrett and Cunningham,
    A lot of Citizens who could not attend the Feedback Meetings have a right to have their voice heard.
    Multiple people have attempted to post comments on the DecaturNext website and reported that their comments did not get shown on the website. I hope this is a technical glitch, and not someone intentionally selecting which comments get displayed and which don’t.
    Would you please investigate why this is happening so community feedback can be recognized and incorporated in the final version of the UDO?
    In the mean time, since the DecaturNext website is unreliable, I ask you act as a mechanism to get the following feedback to the consultant or whoever is responsible for incorporating community feedback.
    The following points of concern have been raised in the community and seem to have support in public forums.
    Through this public forum, if others have comments to add, please feel free to do so until the website problem is addressed.

    UDO Feedback:

    * Outlawing of 2 story homes:

    Problem: New R-50 designation outlaws 2 story homes, which might be applied to existing lots with 50 ft wide yards (many if not most homes in Oakhurst have 50 ft wide lots)
    Proposed Solution: Either change building standard for R-50 to allow 2 story’s or eliminate the designation.
    Reason(s): Many small lots in Oakhurst have two stories, and this is a part of the existing neighborhood character. In fact, many parts of Oakhurst are very dense, with small yards and close buildings with only 3’ setbacks. If anything, the standards for R-50 should be less stringent in terms of Massing regulations, because density expectations for other parts of Decatur are out of character with many parts of Oakhurst, and should not be forced on Oakhurst. 2 stories need to remain available for those families that want to have that opportunity to improve the value of their homes. Assigning this designation to remaining properties that have not yet added a second story will cause property values to plummet which has been validated by a certified appraiser. Moreover, we were assured at a recent ONA meeting that there was no strategy to limit people to one story homes, yet this new designation is clearly a significant step in that direction.

    * HPC is Made Review Body for FAR Variances Instead of ZBA and no language pertaining to small lots

    Problem: In response to requests at the UDO Community Input sessions to increase FAR (Floor Area Ratio) to be equal to the allowable Lot Coverage Ratio, instead, FAR variance appeals are placed under the review domain of the HPC (Historical Preservation Commission) for all of Decatur, not just HPD’s.
    Proposed Solution Part 1: Instead of setting the FAR equal to .40 in each Zoning section — In Section 2.1 add a clause stating that the FAR is equal to the permitted Lot Coverage Ratio. Then remove reference to FAR under each District’s section.
    Part 1 Reason: It is still .40 for almost all of Decatur. However, for those eligible for the sliding scale increase in Lot Coverage, without increasing FAR proportionally, all you are doing is saying they can pave over more of their lot, but not actually use it. It is worse for the drainage situation but gives little if any actual benefit to the homeowner. You are recognizing that small lots merit special exceptions to allow reasonable development, but you are stopping half-way and giving something that is not beneficial to the homeowner without a corresponding increase in FAR. Even those that have argued strongly in favor of mass regulation have acknowledged that this would be innocuous and reasonable for the few lots eligible for the sliding scale on lot coverage. Increasing FAR proportionally just makes sense, especially since FAR does not necessarily equate to increased mass. If a building can stay within the available lot coverage, height, story limits, and setbacks, what harm is there in allowing the FAR to go up to the lot coverage ratio?

    Proposed Solution Part 2: In addition, FAR variances should still be permitted, however the Zoning Board of Appeal (ZBA) Charter should be modified to specify that they can consider variances for FAR, NOT the Historical Preservation Commission (HPC). It is probably something the ZBA is already empowered to do, but it would not hurt to make it more explicit in the charter. Eliminate any language giving this power to the HPC.
    Part 2 Reason: It is not in the Charter for the HPC to have any powers over broader Decatur in any matter, only HPD’s, and would therefor exceed their charter. It would be like saying the Georgia Supreme Court has jurisdiction to review all Georia court cases, plus any case involving peanuts in any other state. This is reason enough alone. It would be illegal. Simply change it so the ZBA is the review body for applications for FAR variances.

    * Unprecedented Zoning Administrator Powers Without Sufficient Governing Principles To Adhere to

    Problem: The “Zoning Administrator” is given the power to unilaterally waive certain code requirements at will (“Administrative Adjustment”) and make exceptions to rules without sufficient guiding principles being provided. While it may actually streamline and simplify matters for these powers to be given to the “Zoning Administrator”, these powers could easily be abused and used unequally, giving unfair advantage to those who curry favor with certain City employees. It opens the door to abuse and corruption. Rather than eliminating the idea of Administrative Adjustments, which are an efficiency enabling tool, additional governing rules need to be developed to act as a guide to how these powers are used and ensure they are used equitably.
    Proposed Solution: In Section 11.2.9. Rather than narrowly specifying allowable Administrative Adjustment types, the language should be broadened to simply state that “Any provision may be administratively waived, subject to the following guiding principles:
    The Zoning Administrator should seek to facilitate, encourage, and support the maximum enjoyment of property rights possible for all equally, consistent with protecting adjacent property owners from unreasonable actions.
    Consistent with principle ”a” above, The Zoning Administrator is directed to grant requested Adjustments in cases where such adjustments would have an inconsequential external impact that could adversely affect adjacent property owners.
    In cases where the external impact would be more than inconsequential, but still small, the Zoning Administrator may also grant administrative adjustments provided all adjacent property owners to the property under consideration indicate in writing that they do not object to such adjustments. (“Adjacent Property” meaning any property whose boundary touches the subject property)
    No provisions may be Administratively Adjusted or waived if the result would cause a significantly external impact, and any requests of this nature shall require the Request for Variance process to be followed.
    Reasons: This allows for a balance between efficiency, respect for property rights, and the larger public interest. Moreover, Decatur has gone too far in the direction of being “anti-development” (and the vast majority of “developers” are just homeowners and citizens of Decatur). Citizens are starting to have contractors refuse to work for them because they don’t want to “deal with Decatur”. The Development Office has become antagonistic to property owners, with aggressive interpretations that serve no public good, and oppress property rights for no logical reason. An example is the current policy of interpreting “Enclosed” to mean anything more than 50% surrounded, which defies common sense. No reasonable person would call a square missing one side “enclosed”; yet because that is 75% surrounded, the Development Office would currently call that “enclosed”. These guiding principles should help City Employees recognize they are employed by the citizens to serve their interests in a balanced way. No rule can always anticipate all circumstances and an efficient mechanism like this allows them to be modified or waived where no public good is served by a rule and no harm would occur to adjacent property owners.

    * No Exclusion for Garages from FAR

    Problem: Despite a large number suggestions and support for excluding detached unconditioned garages from counting towards FAR, there is no update reflecting this.
    Proposed Solution: Modify the definition of Floor Area to exclude detatched unconditioned garages, similarly to the way basements are excluded.
    Reason: In a time of rising crime and car break-ins, it is not unreasonable to want to be able to enclose one’s vehicles without having to sacrifice space in one’s home. Allowing a carport to be enclosed has no impact on mass or scale. It does not affect the roof line, height, or size of a structure. There is no public good served by discouraging garages from being fully enclosed, and it actually is a detriment to the public good. Let’s fix this ridiculous rule.

  • Chris Billingsley

    Very interesting. I also had problems posting to the Decatur Minute concerning the cemetery bash but all it took was an email to my commissioners about censorship and then BAM, my post appeared! Funny how things sometimes work.
    I do not know Mr. Roberts and I wish him well but he seems to believe that property rights (most Decatur elites would say “so called” property rights) still exist in Decatur. And these rights do exist but are under constant assault by those who want to promote their personal views concerning trees, development, diversity and any number of other issues contained in the Strategic Plan. Sooner or later, it will come down to a lawsuit. Can Decatur regulate a boundary tree that is, according to Georgia common law, clearly on one person’s property? Can the city impose racial, gender and sexual orientation quotas in regards to lease agreements? Can the city create a huge regulatory Leviathan to insure green standards (I hope Jeff appreciates my use of Leviathan)? In my opinion, the COD staff and most commissioners that favors these proposals would say, “Hell Yeah!” but our state judges may see it differently. Only time will tell.

  • Gustavious Martin

    Clearly, Mr. Roberts is a genius. My favorite quote: “I just happen to know that legally there is such a thing as property rights and they’re not just some mythical thing that used to exist long ago that nobody cares about any more.” That, and him calling the board unenlightened. Please, Mr. Roberts, enlighten us.

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