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Emanuel: Moratoria destroy 'predictability' of ordinances

Story updated at 12:52 AM on Sunday, June 4, 2006

In a civilization governed by the rule of law, ignorance of public policy can be no excuse for violating the laws on the books. For this to be viable, though, law must be a matter of public record, and must only be subject to change through consistent, above-board methods that make known to those it will affect just what is going to be changed and why, and when those changes will take effect.

The Athens-Clarke County Commission repeatedly has subverted this process through its preference for governance via moratorium. The county has well-documented, publicly determined zoning ordinances; however, upon deciding that they no longer approve of certain sections or aspects of these ordinances, commissioners have made routine practice of issuing moratoria to suspend otherwise legal activity (in this case, land use) until they are able to put more restrictive, or differently applied, ordinances on the books.

The commission's ability to establish moratoria exists so that, in case of emergency, they may act ahead of changes in law. Imposing moratoria for the sole purpose of unilaterally suspending zoning ordinances with which they disagree is not the commission's proper function.

A matter of even greater concern, though, is the methodology used by the commission to enact these moratoria. Since 2003, five moratoria have been adopted. Two were passed at special sessions held on meeting dates not ordinarily used for voting. A third was placed, as it should have been, on the agenda of a regular voting session, but not until the afternoon before the vote was taken. This particular measure, enacted in February, was a knee-jerk reaction to the University of Georgia's decision to move several fraternities out of their generations-old houses on Lumpkin Street, and the decisions by at least two of those fraternities to relocate to off-campus sites.

With little or no public notice, the commission - remaining true to the county government's usual attitude of loving students' monetary contributions to the local economy, but not wanting students actually living in their neighborhoods - quickly imposed a six-month moratorium on the off-campus construction of fraternity and sorority houses.

The sale to one of these fraternities of property then zoned for multifamily use had closed less than a week before; however, as a result of the commission's unfortunate action, the fraternity must now wait until August before it can do anything with the land - assuming the zoning ordinance is not made more restrictive by then. If the fraternity is barred from ever using its new property, it might well (with good cause) take the case to court, thereby costing both the organization and county taxpayers a great deal of money.

Were they located off campus, the county government would likely be fighting to protect many of these historic fraternity houses currently being absorbed by the UGA administration as vigorously as they now are prohibiting them.

This attitude is demonstrated by another recent development on the land-use front. In anticipation of the establishment of a downtown historic district, the commission enacted a six-month moratorium on the issuance of permits for altering the exteriors of any buildings in the "central downtown business district." This decision was dubious at best.

As a 2003 Athens Banner-Herald editorial noted when the commission was considering regulating downtown development by prohibiting large-scale residential construction, if the commission's micromanaging of development and small-scale renovation were to become "a de facto prohibition, downtown could lose out on an opportunity to broaden its retail and commercial mix."

The editorial went on to note that the county, in the name of preserving the "historic" nature of downtown, could be throwing away a chance to diversify the downtown business scene from being "heavily tilted toward bars and restaurants," a diversity which doubtless would improve the city's "economic vitality."

Both of these situations, as well as the other moratoria, also affect Athens' short- and long-term developmental viability. The financial and locational decisions of individuals and businesses assume predictability on the part of the county's zoning and development ordinances.
Unfortunately, the commission's habit of routinely suspending these ordinances as a matter of course has all but rendered them meaningless.

Jeff Emanuel, a Special Operations military veteran, is a senior at the University of Georgia.

Published in the Athens Banner-Herald on 060406

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