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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?

TopGolf’s poles and nets now tallest structure in Alpharetta

Alpharetta might like to take a mulligan on its decision with TopGolf.

top golf logoTopGolf is a unique entertainment complex that leverages embedded RFID technology within a golf ball to create a high-tech driving range experience. In January of last year the city approved their plans to build along GA-400 just north of Mansell Road.

But along the way everyone forgot about the height of the poles and netting. City staff, planning commissioners and council all missed the opportunity to ask about it. And certainly TopGolf wasn’t going to make an issue of it last year.

And just how high are the poles? They’re 138 feet as measured from the average grade of the property. Measuring in averages can be a little distorting. Other TopGolf facilities across the country have poles as tall as 150 to 160 feet or about the height of a 12-story building. To put that into perspective, the tallest building in Alpharetta is the Windward Marriott at eight stories.

And if you’ve driven up GA-400 in the past few weeks you’ve likely noticed. The poles and nets tower above the pines in the undisturbed buffer along the highway. TopGolf also sits on rising land. Motorists entering the city from the south will be greeted by the sight.

It’s the kind of issue Alpharetta would have liked discussed a year ago. No one would want to turn away TopGolf, a unique attraction that will employ as many as 400. But the city might have steered them towards another location versus creating a potential eyesore on a hill.

Instead TopGolf had to come back with a height variance request last month, smack dab in the busy phase of their construction. It put Alpharetta’s Council between a rock and a hard place. Rejecting the request might create a second stalled construction project along Westside Parkway (the other being Fulton Science Academy’s land). And there’s no doubt TopGolf would have appealed such a rejection, especially after having invested so much to this point.

With no other choice, Alpharetta quietly and most certainly reluctantly approved the height variance. Sometimes it best to play your ball where it lies versus taking the penalty stroke.

Alpharetta corporate relocations to watch

Only a day after I teased that a deal was in the works, Governor Nathan Deal announced the Fiserv relocation to Alpharetta. It’s clearly the biggest economic development story the city has seen in years. But there may be others not far down the road. Here are two to keep your eyes on.


NCRIn the Atlanta Business Chronicle’s story on Fiserv, technology writer Urvaksh Karkaria mentioned this firm. They may be willing to leave their Gwinnett digs for a new home in Alpharetta.

NCR, who relocated their corporate headquarters to Duluth in 2009, manufactures ATMs, cash registers and kiosks. In July of 2011 they acquired Alpharetta-based Radiant Systems. Radiant makes many of the cash registers you see in restaurants. They occupy a building in the Brookside area of Alpharetta just off Old Milton Parkway.

Following the Radiant acquisition, fears were that NCR would close the old Radiant office and consolidate employees in Duluth. The Business Chronicle story suggests the opposite may be true.

It would be huge for Alpharetta to steal two large corporate residents from Gwinnett County in a short period of time. Additionally, when combined with the Fiserv deal, it would bring office vacancy rates down to levels not seen in years. The result could mean a rebirth in office construction in Alpharetta.

State Farm

But on the flip side, might Johns Creek lose this insurance giant?

State Farm has purchased 17 acres of land near the Dunwoody MARTA station. The plan is to have as many as 8,000 employees at a transit-oriented development. It’s a direction the company is taking nation-wide.

Will they close their office in Johns Creek? The company has operated a large corporate campus here for as long as this writer can remember.

He went to Jared, but not TGI Fridays

Jared, The Galleria of Jewelry, has filed plans with the city to build a new location at 6250 North Point Parkway. The plans call for new construction of a 5,500 square foot free-standing building.

JaredNorth Point will join four other Jared locations near north metro Atlanta malls – Gwinnett Place, Mall of Georgia, Perimeter and Town Center. Jared’s parent company, Sterling Jewelry, also owns the Kay Jewelers chain of stores. Kay operates a store across the street inside of North Point Mall.

If Jared follows through with their plans they will displace longtime North Point restaurant TGI Fridays. Fridays was one of the original restaurants near the mall, its opening dating back twenty years. One would presume the restaurant would close yet no plans have been formally announced.

In other retail news… Extreme value retailer Five Below plans to open in the Mansell Crossing shopping center on North Point. They sell products that cost no more than $5 targeting teens and pre-teens. The Alpharetta store, located next to T.J. Maxx where Avenue is now, would be the chain’s thirteenth metro Atlanta location.

EnduranceHouseAlpharetta will be the home of the first Endurance House location in Georgia. The chain has a niche focus, catering exclusively to triathletes.  Three metro Atlanta locations are in the works. Look for the Alpharetta store on Haynes Bridge and Old Milton next to Publix in the former Blockbuster location.

Photo credit: M. O. Stevens (creative commons)

Moving Dirt – Construction projects in Alpharetta and South Forsyth

If you’re looking for signs of the recovery, this might be it. From small to giant, new retail and entertainment projects are sprouting up everywhere. Here’s an overview.

Shopping Centers – Long vacant stripmalls are starting to find tenants. On the corner of Old Milton and North Point Parkways you’ll find the first new stripmall to be built in recent memory. It’ll be called Twin Oaks and will be anchored by the growing breakfast restaurant chain First Watch.

In downtown, developer Penn Hodge is renovating the “Alpharetta Beach Houses.” You’ll know these as the two old dilapidated buildings on the corner of Old Milton and Roswell Street. They are starting to look nice! Expect at least one new restaurant to occupy this space. This stretch of Roswell Street has the potential to develop into a miniature restaurant row. Pure Taqueria is almost next door and a new tenant is rumored to be coming to the empty restaurant space at 45 Roswell Street.

top golf logoEntertainmentTop Golf is making great progress on their fancy driving range along Westside Parkway. And a short dogleg right of here will be bowling alley Main Event. They’re renovating the former Home Depot Expo Design Center. And we’re still watching for Three Strikes Entertainment. That’ll be the name of the bowling alley on North Point Parkway. They’ve not started construction but have been going through the motions of getting their building’s elevations approved with the city.

Convenience storesQuikTrip is making great progress on their new store on Old Milton at GA-400. Once complete they will likely close their older location on Old Milton and Cotton Creek.

Racetrac is building near The Collection Forsyth (fka The Avenue). They’re nearly finished grading the land. Expect both Racetrac and QT’s new stores to be the next generation model of store with expanded offerings like frozen yogurt.

Big Box Retail – Construction on Forsyth’s third Walmart is quickly moving along. Look for them on Peachtree Parkway just a little north of the Target near the Brookwood/Mathis Airport intersection.

Rumors are circulating that the new Costco Wholesale location in Cumming might be revived. Negotiations for the land off exit 15 went sour earlier this year. While Alpharettaians may not visit this location, the hope is that it will cannibalize some of the crowd from the Windward store.

Oh, and there’s that big thing being built on Old Milton and GA-400. You know, with the huge PR and social media push.

Coro Reality to exercise options in Downtown Alpharetta

A long chapter in downtown Alpharetta’s development history may be coming to a close. Coro Reality is exercising its options to purchase 2.5 acres of prime downtown property. Looking back with hindsight, the deal is a case study in how not to arrange a public-private partnership with developers. Here’s the back-story.

Way back in 1997 Alpharetta’s Community Development Department was looking for ways to spur growth and development downtown. Sound familiar? They crafted a sweetheart deal with Buckhead-based Coro Reality Advisors. Coro was granted a 30 year ground lease on the properties along Roswell Street. They also had an exclusive option to purchase the properties during the life of the lease.

Coro promised they would develop two restaurants, retail and office space on the property. The city thought it was just what downtown needed, a little push to get development moving.

And to Coro’s credit, they did build Alpharetta Town Commons, the property where Corner Deli and Aria Salon now live. It’s a pretty building that fits well into Milton Avenue.

But one of the promised restaurant spaces turned out to be half baked. The suite where Corner Deli now operates was instead designed to be a coffee shop or ice cream parlor. It wasn’t built with a grease trap or restaurant-grade hood. Operating a deli here is pushing the space’s use.

Long vacancies have also plagued Alpharetta Town Commons. Meanwhile Coro’s other local property, the Alpharetta Crossing shopping center, has thrived. The property on Haynes Bridge (currently anchored by Walmart Neighborhood Market) received a lot of attention from Coro over the years, remaining almost fully leased through the recession.

By 2007 Alpharetta has had enough. Lead by the city’s Development Authority who oversees the ground lease, Alpharetta pushes Coro to do more. It was then that the spec restaurant space at 45 Roswell Street was born.

Measuring in at 5,300 square feet with a 1,300 square foot patio, it’s one of the biggest restaurant spaces in town. Certainly a large and thriving restaurant  would bring people downtown?

The restaurant has sat empty the entire time, unmarketable to an industry looking for much smaller spaces like Pure Taqueria down the street. Unfinished on the inside, it’s a beautiful facade on empty hopes.

Coro nearly had the place sold in 2011 to a film production company. The deal fell through. Thankfully the rumor is that Coro may have found a buyer for this space. And this may be the motive behind exercising the options on the property. We’ll keep an eye on who the future tenant might be.

The closure of the Coro story is relevant today. Alpharetta is actively seeking a development partner for the City Center project. The city has left the structure of that deal open, a negotiable detail that should be part of the proposals. Let’s hope there were some lessons learned from Coro that can be applied to City Center. Alpharetta can’t afford vacant and languishing properties in an area promised to be vibrant.

Alpharetta’s annexation advances rebuffed by Forsyth

Officials with the City of Alpharetta have been quietly considering annexation across the county line into south Forsyth. They’ve sough the blessing of the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners to begin a courtship of property owners on the other side of McGinnis Ferry Road.

Up until now discussions have taken place in private and perhaps in executive sessions. But on Tuesday Forsyth’s Commissioners discussed the matter in public during a work session. This blogger wasn’t there but I’m told the commissioners roundly rejected Alpharetta’s advancements.

View Larger Map

Following the creation of Milton and Johns Creek in 2006, Alpharetta found itself almost completely surrounded. The city’s only chance at expansion through annexation would have to come by way of Forsyth County. And even that option is narrow. Alpharetta’s border with Forsyth County is only about three miles along, stretching along McGinnis Ferry Road from Douglas Road to GA-400.

But grabbing land here may be to Alpharetta’s advantage. This part of Forsyth County is primarily zoned industrial, a land use that Alpharetta sees less and less these days. It may benefit the city to have a bit more.

Then there’s the land for the proposed Taubman mall on Ronald Reagan Parkway. The project has been stalled for years, yet still remains a prized piece of real estate.

And there’s residential in this part of the county, including where yours truly lives. Depending on how much of an annexation bite Alpharetta might take, I could be included. Residents along Shiloh and Old Alpharetta Roads would enjoy the amenities that come with being part of the City of Alpharetta. We certainly spent a lot of time in Alpharetta anyway.

And the idea of a new city in Forsyth also comes at a time when many residents are frustrated with land use decisions made in the county. The Forsyth HOA & Homeowners group recently kicked around the idea of incorporating a new city of Sharon Springs. It seemed to have decent support on their Facebook page. Residents weary of recent zonings certainly would consider annexation or new city incorporation as a way to gain influence in the process.

There’s a lot to consider in a plan like this. There may be advantages and disadvantages to all the parties involved. But it’s a conversation worth having, formally and in public. It’s disappointing that Forsyth’s been cold to the idea. Let’s discuss an Alpharetta in south Forsyth.

The legend of Booger Hill in Cumming

Today we feature a post from Mike Christensen. Follow Mike on Twitter @SCSA31274.

It’s that time of year again.  Time for little monsters to come to your door with hands out begging for you to give them something.  No, it’s not tax day, it’s Halloween!  The ghosts and goblins come out when the sun goes down to scare and spook all of us.

Georgia is home to some pretty scary haunted spots.  There are many ghost sightings from Savannah to any one of the state’s many Civil War battlefields and camps.

One particular spot I’d like to mention is one that I accidentally came across this year.  It’s a short stretch of road north of downtown Cumming with the unfortunate name of Booger Hill.  Now the name Booger Hill may strike as many giggles as it does shrieks, but trust me, this place is creepy.

The legend is back in the 1850’s. Two slaves were accused of raping and killing a white woman.  The locals then hung those two men from two oak trees and buried them nearby.  Now, in modern day, a road just happens to pass right between those very two oak trees.  If you park your car between those trees, and put it in neutral, the car will roll downhill.  Eventually, the car will come to a stop, and then start rolling backwards, allegedly pushed by the ghosts of those slaves who want you away from where they are buried.  If you go back far enough to pass those oaks, you are doomed to die on the way home.

This thing really works.  And it’s more than a little unsettling.  Travel north of Cumming on Bettis Tribble Gap Road. Once you pass Dunn Road, start to look for the oak trees.  They are with other trees, but you’ll see them.  It takes a minute or two once you’re in neutral to really get going.  Also, most people do this at night to enhance the scariness.  I would recommend doing it at night to avoid traffic.  I was a chicken and did it during the day and had several attempts thwarted by cars wondering what the heck I was doing.  I finally put on my hazards and let it rip.  My truck stopped and started backwards.  Not slowly, but fast.  Those ghosts must have really not liked me.  I was even having a little hard time steering, I was going so fast.

I’m not much of a believer in the legend, but I’ll admit, I did stop before I got back to the trees.  It’s also said that if you sprinkle flour on your hood that hand prints will appear.  When I tried Booger Hill, I had pollen on my hood, and no hand prints were seen.

If you don’t want to really do it, there are tons of videos on YouTube of folks taking the trip.  One even has a “ghost” or something seen when the headlights came back on.  I won’t go too spoiler alert on you, but there is a scientific reason that Booger Hill works.  Even knowing that, out in the country, in the dark, with your senses heightened, I can see how Booger Hill is a neat, tucked away Halloween treat.

Unprecedented grassroots opposition to density in Forsyth County

My wife and I used to live up Post Road in southwest Forsyth County. It seems like so very long ago. But back in the day we would occasionally get involved in issues like zoning and land use. It was during this time we were introduced to a small community group called The Post Road Committee for Proper Development.


One of the groups behind the Pledge for Balanced Growth.

These guys impressed me. The committee worked with developers to retain the character of that area, limit densities and add common sense zoning conditions. NIMBY was not their gameplan as they understood that growth was coming.

And they were very successful. Over the years the Post Road Committee had a hand in shaping just about every project you see today in this part of the county. If you’ve been to the new library on Post Road, thank the committee. About ten years ago they pushed a developer to donate the land where it currently sits.

Groups like this sat dormant for most of the economic downturn but their contacts remained in place. Fast forward to the summer of 2013 when zoning applications began pouring into Forsyth’s planning department. Not only did the Post Road Committee reconstitute but new groups have sprung up. Their missions are similar – keep densities in check.

But perhaps the most remarkable action came last week when five homeowner advocacy groups, including the Post Road gang, came together to create a Pledge for Balanced Growth. The document (opens to pdf) suggests six changes including throttling back the rate of zoning approvals, limiting setback variances and increasing impact fees. They’ve challenged Forsyth’s County Planning Commissioners and elected officials to sign off on these ideals.

The combined group represents over 10,000 homeowners across 300 neighborhoods. It’s an unprecedented grassroots effort, something this blogger has never seen in his time covering Alpharetta and Forsyth County.

So hats off to those organizing this tremendous effort. And keep an eye on this movement in the coming months. If small groups like my Post Road friends can shape a community, imagine what a combined effort of this size can do!

For more information check out the websites of Forsyth HOA & Homeowners, Fix Forsyth Traffic, Forsyth Citizens for Responsible Growth and Smart Growth Forsyth.

Breweries in Roswell, hooch in Forsyth, hard soda in Alpharetta

It’s been fun to watch the booming craft beer business in this area. From growler stores to breweries, this business is going gangbusters. Local municipalities are having a tough time keeping up. Alcohol ordinances are being updated all the time. There are yet a few more to report on this month.

Spirits USA logoRoswell is considering an ordinance to allow breweries. That city’s planning commission will hear the matter next week. Passage may come as soon as mid-November. No word yet on who might be interested in opening shop.

And Forsyth County continues to stay a step ahead in their alcohol laws. They are moving forward with plans to allow for distilleries. The proposed ordinance would allow for samples but not retail sale.

With deep roots in moonshine and bootlegging, Forsyth would be the perfect place for a craft moonshine distillery. I had secretly hoped someone would consider a business like this. Unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be the case.

The Cumming Patch reports that Spirits of the USA is behind this effort. Spirits makes a handful of liquor brands, many of which are flavor-infused vodkas. The company has operations in Florida and South Carolina but the founders have ties to Forsyth.

Back in Alpharetta, the folks behind Blind Murphy are branching out. Watch out Boone’s Farm! They’ve started making hard sodas under the banner of Naughty Soda. Their theme seems to be that of the naughty pin-up girl. Customers can expect a line of fruity-flavored drinks spiked with 5% alcohol. I guess the idea is to dizzy up your date if she doesn’t want beer?

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