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We wanted to send a report about last night’s meeting of the Decatur Variance Board of Appeals.
It was a long meeting, lasting from 7:30 until almost 11:30. We counted more than 150 people in attendance, with people filling every chair, lining the walls, and overflowing into the hallways. Many were dressed in green.
The opposing team was there, too, all of them paid, aside from Mr. Hightower himself. His lawyer is Linda Dunlavy, who lives in Oakhurst, and she brought along a couple of engineers, and a couple of others whose functions weren’t as clear.
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Also in attendance, quite unusually for a variance hearing, was the city’s lawyer and another lawyer that the city had hired especially for the situation. In addition, there was a court recorder, also highly unusual.
Hightower’s lawyer was well prepared and started out by calling attention to the court recorder and the recording device set up on the podium, saying that her team and the city were splitting the cost. It was an oddly litigious move for a Zoning Board meeting, and as she spoke, she made other legal arguments, so the threat of legal action seemed to hover above her.
She spoke for a long time, and she was very critical of the city and even, it seemed, of the Zoning Board itself. This was followed by a lengthy question-and-answer period.
Then the city representative, Angela Threadgill, took the floor to clarify some points raised by Linda Dunlavy. After she spoke, Ms. Dunlavy had another chance to speak, and there was more back and forth between her and the board and Ms. Threadgill.
Finally – it must have been ten-o-clock by this point – the chair of the zoning board said it was time to open the public comment period. The Decatur staff member who helps run the meetings said that before the public comment period started he wished to submit for the record fifty-one letters, which had been received by the city as of 3:00 PM. He said that he had looked through them and that as far as he could tell all of them spoke against the variance request.
The chair then opened the public comment period by asking whether there was anyone in attendance who wish to speak in favor of the plans. Silence.
Then he asked whether there was anyone who wished to speak against the plans. People began standing up. James Johnson went first, making a bold speech that established a strong narrative from the very beginning. He said that what Mr. Hightower and his team were doing was very obvious: they were trying to get the city to pay a higher price for the land by going through the motions of development, with the threat of legal action in the background. He went on to attack their variance request point by point, very persuasively. Later, Doug Tozzi reinforced this point in his own passionate comments. Eric Nicoletti spoke authoritatively about the stream buffer, which helped make clear that the Hightower team hadn’t done their homework properly. Sarah Zingarelli talked eloquently about the history of the area and environmental impacts. Other neighbors spoke about stormwater impacts, hydrology, the huge elevation differentials, traffic, owls, the economic benefits of forests, the use of greenspace in planning documents, and many, many other things.
After a dozen or so people had spoken, the public comment period was closed, and Mr. Hightower’s lawyer had a chance to make rebuttals. She said she had sixteen pages of notes and planned to go through each one. Fortunately she was less long-winded the second time. There were more questions and more answers, and finally it was time to vote.
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The upshot? The board voted to table the request because there were too many questions and concerns about the proposal, including emergency vehicle access, stream buffer variances, and a number of other technical things.
There were groans from the audience as the decision was made, but this isn’t a bad outcome for us. A lot of issues were flagged and Hightower and Dunlavy will have to resubmit with a lot more work. That will cost money, and what we made clear last night is that their way forward will be difficult. They will have to prepare plans to high standards, which won’t be cheap. Perhaps most importantly of all, they got a taste of how numerous and committed we neighbors are.
So this was a qualified victory. It’s not clear when they will be ready to submit another request, but I think it’s safe to say, based on last night’s turnout and the letters that were sent, that neighbors are passionate and committed to preserving this land. We will be ready to do this again and again, and, with luck and perseverance, we may be able to convince them that the best way forward is to just sell the land to the city.
Thanks to everyone who came out and who wrote letters. It was an impressive showing. There will be more meetings to attend and letters to write, but for now we can be proud and grateful.