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Forging business relationships from favorable zoning decisions – DC Aiken and Sharp Residential

Consider this perhaps an epilogue to the controversial Sharp zoning on Providence Road. But much more than that, this story demonstrates what may be a growing trend of Alpharetta Councilmen forging business relationships with those who previously had zoning decisions before the city. Follow along for now.

Sharp-DC Aiken

Photo from

Back in November 2012 Alpharetta approved a contentious zoning application from homebuilder Sharp Residential. The 79 acres of land along Providence, Bates and Mayfield roads was one of the largest undeveloped residential tracts in the city. The zoning represented the first real challenge to Alpharetta’s new Comprehensive Land Use Plan and its idea of a northwest character area. We chronicled the story here on Roots and a lengthy discussion followed. In the end, Alpharetta’s Council approved a plan very favorable to the developer despite the strenuous objects of the community.

Fast forward to this week. An alert blog reader forwarded this article from an Atlanta real estate website. It depicts Alpharetta Councilman DC Aiken, in his capacity as mayor pro tem, participating in a promotional event for Sharp. In the photograph he’s wearing his company’s golf shirt.

Aiken, a residential mortgage broker by trade, is Alpharetta’s longest-serving councilman. Since the time of the Sharp zoning, which he supported, he’s changed employers but is still in the mortgage business. In his new capacity he’s starting a builder division – and he’s become a preferred lender of Sharp Residential.

Therein lies the rub. Is creating a business relationship with a past zoning applicant kosher? Does it cause the appearance of impropriety, particularly when the zoning applicant left council chambers with a very favorable decision in hand?

In Aiken’s case Sharp isn’t directly paying him. However business from their Providence Road neighborhood, now called Hearthstone, is coming his way. It’s a relationship that, according to Aiken, would cause him to recuse himself from any future zoning decisions Sharp may have with Alpharetta.

And it’s a scenario that’s likely already happened with another councilman. The professional makeup of Alpharetta’s council is that of lawyers, those in real estate and construction. Given the expanding economy in town, professional opportunities exist for these gentlemen to capitalize on the business generated by their own favorable decisions. By taking advantage of such opportunities, Councilmen are either shrewd businessmen or have compromised the integrity of their body. Which way is it?

It’s again time for Jack Murphy to go

Two years ago I wrote this article on Forsyth County’s Jack Murphy and his troubled dealings. Murphy went on to narrowly win re-election. My opinion has not changed since that time. What has changed is that Murphy has two serious and well-funded opponents this year. Either would be a great replacement but I’m supporting Michael Williams.

Meet Jack Murphy. He’s the state senator for much of Forsyth County, including the extreme southern part of the county where I live. I’ve never written about politics in Forsyth but this story has an Alpharetta connection so I beg your indulgence. I’ve also never formally endorsed a candidate for office on my blog. That changes today. Jack Murphy should be defeated in the GOP primary on Tuesday.

In January of last year Murphy was appointed chairman of the Senate Banking Committee. Days later he was sued by the FDIC for breach of fiduciary duty and gross negligence from his days as a director of an Alpharetta-based bank. That bank, ironically, was called Integrity Bank. The bank was the first bank in Georgia to fail back in 2008. Scores more would follow.

Murphy continues to say that this is a civil case, not criminal, which is technically true. However it is very rare for the feds to go after board members of failed banks in the manner they have with Integrity’s board. Furthermore, the nature of this case precludes Murphy from sitting on the board of any bank anywhere.

Nevertheless Murphy continues to lead the Senate’s Banking Committee. Calls came from all over the state for him to step aside until this case was resolved. He refused to resign, holding onto the chairmanship to this day.

The voters of Forsyth County need to do what Jack Murphy and the Senate leadership wouldn’t do – remove him from power.

City mulls possibilities to honor Mark Toro

Alpharetta is crafting plans to honor real estate developer Mark Toro. A combination of options are available to the city.

Mark ToroIt seems that conversations regarding the subject have taken place privately for some time. The City Council finally went public with the idea last night in the form of a work session agenda item.

“Alpharetta owes Mark Toro an enormous debt of gratitude,” said Councilman Mike Kennedy. He then proceeded to rattle off Toro’s Alpharetta resume. Mansell Crossing was his work a generation ago while at Cousins Properties. The project defined North Point Parkway beyond the mall.

And of course there’s Toro’s $600 million investment in Avalon, rising like a phoenix from Alpharetta’s ashes. Councilman DC Akien commented that we’d still have a mud pit were it not for Mark Toro. Chris Owens concurred, saying Toro’s benevolence cannot be understated.

Council went on to cite the Gwinnet Tech deal which is happening on adjacent land. And of course there’s the proposed Alpharetta convention center, a potential public/private partnership.

“He’s Mister Alpharetta,” quipped Jim Gilvin. “I love the guy and he owns this town. I can’t wait to partner with him using taxpayer money.”

The love fest continued for a few minutes at the start of the work session. It seems that the touchy subject Avalon’s tax abatement is but a distant memory.

Mark Toro BlvdCouncilmen mulled three options to honor Toro. The favorite seemed to be renaming a portion of Westside Parkway to Mark Toro Boulevard. The stretch of the road adjoining Avalon would bear his name. Council instructed city staff to explore the option however the city’s public works director didn’t think it would be a problem. The request would be forwarded along to the USPS for their consideration.

Another possibility would be to erect a statue in honor of Mark Toro in a potential new pocket park. The city owns land in the former Ellman Tract near Avalon. It would be an appropriate location as this land played a key role in approving Avalon’s controversial apartments.

Cost would be a factor here as the city has not budgeted for such a park. However private funds may be available. Councilman Michael Cross committed to press the Chamber for a grant. And the council’s resident decorator Donald Mitchell stepped forward to chair a committee to design the monument.

Mayor David Belle Isle ended the conversation by offering Toro the keys to the city during the road renaming ceremony. “It’s the least I can do. Mark Toro saved Alpharetta from the doldrums of the great recession. I shudder to think where we’d be without him. Bankrupt probably. I’d name my first born after Mark Toro if I didn’t have kids already.”

Council agenda: City Center and Northpoint LCI

Tonight’s Alpharetta City Council meeting has a handful of interesting items to follow, including City Center issues.

The first will be a proposal to add a Veterans War Memorial to the park in City Center. Tonight Council will likely change the master plan to allow for such a memorial. Design of the memorial and funding are still to be determined.

And the city will draft a second request for qualifications for development of the four outparcels at City Center. Alpharetta received interest last year from several developers but stopped the process shortly thereafter. This second, grouped effort begins again tonight.

Council is likely partially divided on the issue of allowing residential over retail in downtown. We’ll see if this issue comes up again tonight or if it will resurface once proposals are considered. Nevertheless this blogger thinks the votes are there to allow it to happen.

And finally, Council has a workshop agenda item to discuss the Northpoint LCI study. About a year and a half ago there seemed to be some interest in watering down this plan, perhaps reducing the densities it suggested. We’ll see if that interest is still present or where the conversation may lead.

This LCI plan sets aside land for the development of a MARTA transit station near the mall. If Council is truly serious about halting MARTA expansion into Alpharetta then they should remove this designation altogether.

Oversimplifying zoning opposition discredits hard-working, concerned citizens

Last week Hatcher Hurd with the Appen newspapers wrote an editorial titled “Zoning decisions: Why can’t they just say no?” He attempted to explain why zonings are contentious. Hatcher boiled down opposition to those who just want government to say no to all zonings. It was a very one-sided article.

kennedy hatcher tweet

Autocorrect gets me every time.

Unfortunately Alpharetta Councilman Mike Kennedy praised the article on both and twitter. He suggested the opinion I’m going to express here is not his experience.

Like Hatcher, I’ve followed a lot of zoning cases in north Fulton and south Forsyth. My experience with the opposition is quite different. The citizens of this area are intelligent, highly educated and generally slant towards being conservative Republicans. They understand property rights.

They’re not dummies. They understand that growth is coming but want it managed. Citizens are concerned with traffic and road capacity. And they’re keenly aware of the situation at local schools pertaining to overcrowding.

Citizens want things like comprehensive land use plans followed. Nearly every zoning request pushes the envelope, asking for a one or two notch jump in density classification. They usually get it.

As frustration grows, opponents form grassroots organizations. You’ve probably heard of a few of these. In Alpharetta you’ve got guys like Windward Homeowners Inc. Preserve Rural Milton has been very busy recently. South Forsyth has no less than four community groups working zoning cases. I’ve been fortunate to meet folks from most of these groups. They put in hours and hours of tireless work. They’re meeting with developers, planers and politicians, working to find common ground and compromise. These are smart guys and gals who know the process and are working within it.

But that’s not the narrative Mr Hurd and Mr Kennedy would like to be told. Their comments do a disservice to citizen groups like this and their hard work.

Are there some citizens who want no development at all? I’m sure there are. But don’t boil down all zoning opposition like this. The citizens are smarter than you think. They want growth managed and the processes followed. Is that too much to ask?

Ashton Atlanta Residential, data centers and compelling reasons

Today’s secret words are “compelling reason.” Whenever you hear these words, scream really loud. Got it?

Tonight Alpharetta’s City Council will hear a request from Ashton Atlanta Residential to build a neighborhood in the business portion of the Windward development. The plan calls for 91 homes on lots as small as 6,000 square feet. Mass grading may be required due to the steep topography. No, we’re not talking Forsyth County here, this is squarely in Alpharetta. Windward in fact.

Required would be an amendment to the Windward Master Plan, a planning document held sacred in this town. And why shouldn’t it be? The Windward development helped define Alpharetta a generation ago. And even though it’s got a few years on it, the land uses it calls for still make sense.

So before anyone makes changes to this holy document, planners and politicians look for a compelling reason.

Whatever a developer has planned has gotta be good. Real good. Or perhaps there’s a significant burden placed upon the land owner by the master plan, something so onerous they cannot use their land otherwise.

That’s what was argued in the last major challenge to the Windward master plan. Two and a half years ago charter school Amana Academy sought to relocate to a vacant office building on Windward (and in fair disclosure, I supported this). The applicant cited, among other reasons, that the office space was not marketable in this current environment.

Alpharetta unanimously rejected Amana’s request saying that there was no compelling reason to change the master plan. And as irony would have it, last year Amana’s potential digs were sold to Peak 10, a Charlotte-based company who plans a data center in this space.

If anything, the Amana case offers a very compelling reason to reject tonight’s zoning request and leave this property’s designated use alone. Alpharetta has undertaken a huge push to rebrand itself as the Technology City of the South. By approving the Ashton zoning, the city would remove one of the few remaining undeveloped parcels in the technology corridor. It’s a parcel that could hold a very large data center. Perhaps several.

“Alpharetta is one of the more significant data center hubs within Atlanta,” ByteGrid CEO Ken Parent said to the Atlanta Business Chronicle. “We wouldn’t roll out a 100,000 square foot facility and flood the market with new supply if we thought the demand wasn’t there to support it.”

ByteGrid’s building that facility now. T5′s massive new data center is up the road. And Peak 10 will get started pretty soon.

The technology city of the south doesn’t plow up their much coveted and prized data center farmland to plant a Forsyth-style neighborhood. There’s no compelling reason whatsoever. Perhaps in a few years Mayor Belle Isle will cut the ribbon on a shiny new technology center in this very space.

So watch tonight’s City Council vote carefully. Any councilman who played the compelling reason card with Amana should have a tremendously difficult time voting for Ashton tonight.

Forsyth approves everything

If you’re looking for a late Christmas gift idea for your Forsyth County commissioner, I have the perfect gift.

RubberStampApproveThe rubber stamp got used a lot in 2013. Forsyth’s Board of Commissioners approved every residential zoning application that came before them in the busy year. There were twenty-two in total and every single one was approved.

To put that into comparison, Alpharetta’s City Council rejected two of eleven residential zonings that came before them. I didn’t thoroughly check Milton’s voting record but I know of at least one they turned down in 2013 (the Deerfield apartments).

Forsyth’s dubious distinction comes during a year when the floodgates were opened in the housing market. Developers are pouring in, wanting to build homes on very small lots. Yet the county’s network of two-land country roads and overcrowded schools are ill-equipped to handle the onslaught. Grassroots organizations are springing into action to push back, but at this point have been largely ineffective.

It begs the question – is there a zoning application Forsyth County wouldn’t approve? What does it look like? Where are the limits with these commissioners? Violating the county’s land use plan doesn’t seem to phase them. The unified development code? Most zonings are granted variances to skirt rules on setback distances. Cram ‘em in!

Apartments have been fine with these guys. And putting townhomes on country roads next to estate homes will pass unanimously.

So we’ll watch 2014 to see if anything changes with these guys. A few are up for re-election, unfortunately south Forsyth’s Brian Tam isn’t among them. It doubtful he will find the “nay” button on his voting machine anytime soon.

Details emerge for potential convention center at Avalon

Alpharetta appears ready to publicly discuss the idea of a city-owned convention center at Avalon. A memorandum of understanding is on Council’s agenda for Monday night.

Avalon logoBack in the Spring the city requested proposals from developers for a public/private partnership that would pair a city-owned convention center with a privately built hotel. The city received proposals from North American Properties, developer of the Avalon project, and from the owners of the Northwinds property at Haynes Bridge and GA-400.

Alpharetta has determined Avalon to be the preferred proposal. Up until this point negotiations have occurred in private. However the memo outlines some non-binding terms that indicate how the deal might be structured.

Under the plan Alpharetta would sell revenue bonds and help service them with an increase in the hotel occupancy tax. The bonds would pay for construction of the 47,000 square foot convention center on Avalon’s land. Avalon would build the facility and bear the construction risks and any cost overruns. Avalon would also build and pay for the 300-room hotel (which is promised to be upscale and full-service).

Ownership of the convention center and hotel would be set up as a condominium with the parking deck and lot being common area supported by both parties. Expenses here would be shared.

The city would own the convention center but grant Avalon a long-term lease for operation of the facility.

Again, these terms are non-binding but it appears that the conversation has trended this direction. The only thing binding in the memo would be $60,000 in pre-development funding the city and its Convention and Visitors Bureau would pony up to Avalon. This would help pay for preliminary items like cost studies and site plans.

It does seem odd for the city to increase taxes and borrow money to pay for something to be built on someone else’s land, only to lease it back to them. It begs the question – why doesn’t Avalon just build this themselves? If there is truly demand for a convention center like this, certainly private enterprise would consider making it happen.

Or perhaps it might be appropriate for larger groups to help in the heavy lifting. Fulton County chipped in money to build the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in Encore Park. Yet we see no signs of their involvement in this convention center, something that certainly would be billed as a regional attraction.

Is there political will to make a plan like this happen? The fact that these non-binding terms have come out of executive session might suggest some support among council. But there are still a lot of details yet to be revealed.  Alpharetta’s Council was unanimous in their initial support of Avalon but division is likely to occur on this matter. That’s this writer’s prediction.

Do you support a convention center at Avalon? Should tax dollars be part of the equation? Let me know in the comments!

Mitchell abruptly changes Planning Commission appointee

Mitchell BRATo the victor belong the spoils.

Monday night Alpharetta’s Council declared the election results of last month. Donald Mitchell’s razor-thin margin of victory stood. And he’s wasting no time before going political.

At the end of the meeting he surprised many with an announcement. He replaced his appointee to the city’s Planning Commission.

Getting the boot is Nancy Bristol. The Windward resident has been active in Alpharetta politics over the years and is a veteran of the Planning Commission.

Bristol was instrumental in crafting compromise in the Avalon zoning two years ago. She was the first to suggest something similar to transfer of development rights for the project’s apartments. The idea stuck and united Alpharetta leaders. The potentially divisive issue passed unanimously.

Larry Attig will take over for Bristol on the Planning Commission. Attig has been active in the various downtown business associations. He’s a close confidant of Mitchell and chaired this year’s campaign. He’s also kicked in $2,500 to the cause, making him one of the largest contributors to Mitchell’s campaigns.

The abrupt change certainly smacks of cronyism. It also could be a resume building move. Perhaps Attig is being groomed for a Council run in 2015? Either way, the loss of Nancy Bristol on the Planning Commission is unfortunate. That’s my opinion. I welcome yours.

Final look at DeRito/Mitchell campaign money

The September 25th campaign financial disclosures are in for the DeRito/Mitchell race. They offer a final glimpse into these campaigns going into the election Tuesday.

Doug DeRito has done no real fund raising to speak of. He’s funded his campaign through a $8,000 loan to himself.

Donald Mitchell is on track to double or possibly triple the campaign spend of his opponent. He’s raised about $20,000 in total, about half of which came in the form of a contribution from himself. The usual suspects of downtown business owners contributed earlier in the campaign.

But recently real estate interests have kicked in to Mitchell’s coffers. The first was shopping center mogul Penn Hodge. More recently it was a $1,000 contribution from the Atlanta Board of Realtors.

Al Holbrook contributed $1,000. He’s behind Solomon Holdings and was granted the contract to build the first (and failed) attempt at the City Center development. Holbrook may be eying another bid at the project, based on participation lists filed with the city.

And Jack Peevy contributed $1,500 to Mitchell’s campaign. Peevy owns property between Avalon and City Center, an area that may develop following completion of these projects.

DeRito has hired Fred Hicks with HEG LLC to be his consultant. Hicks has had the golden touch recently in the campaigns he’s worked on in Milton. Will the same hold true in Alpharetta?

Mitchell has hired Eamon Keegan who two years ago worked for DeRito in his failed mayorial bid.

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