Putnam County terminates P&Z agreement, citing spot zoning by the City of Eatonton By Shannon Sneed

BOC Chairman Dr. Steve Hersey and Planning and Zoning Director Lisa Jackson discuss TSPLOST projects with the City of Eatonton at a recent work session. PC Manager Paul Van Haute now suggests “telling (the city) to pass the TSPLOST and use those funds to establish their own planning and zoning department.”

Putnam County Commissioners decided Aug. 7 to terminate their current agreement to handle planning and zoning issues for the City of Eatonton and enter into negotiations for a new contract. Citing fears of the loss of their soil and erosion permit powers because of the city’s decision to do “spot zoning,” County Manager Paul Van Haute told board members situational zoning that the city has undertaken has been problematic in the past couple of years -- referencing one case in particular, the Cotton Warehouse. “The zoning for that place, when it went to get its alcohol license was exceptionally close to that church behind the railroad,” said Van Haute. “The city opened their zoning, changed it to allow that use at the Cotton Warehouse, and then closed it.” Van Haute noted the county would be at risk of being involved with litigation problems if someone challenged the decisions of city officials for issuing those permits in that manner. Noting the county has to abide by the zoning regulations set forth, Van Haute said, “The elected officials can change it all they want and vote to do so and that is within their prerogative. The lack of support for following the rules have come to light more and more.” Advising the agreement is not clear who covers the legal cost if the P&Z gets sued, County Attorney Barry Fleming said P&Z Director Lisa Jackson fears “that it is just a matter of time before the wrong person with the right amount of pocketbook gets treated in such a way and a major lawsuit will erupt.” Van Haute also said since that 2007 agreement, the city has been paying $1,800 a year for the county’s service to take care of P&Z issues, which Van Haute advised did not cover much of the services the county has been providing. “We have been paying for advertisement, code enforcement inspections and her (Jackson) time doing all the planning and zoning for the city,” Van Haute said. “Tell them to pass the TSPLOST and use those funds to establish their own planning and zoning department.” Commissioner Alan Foster said he wanted to cooperate wherever possible with the city and rather than issuing a notice immediately, would like to negotiate an appropriate amount of compensation. “We’ve seen a tremendous increase in our workload with the planning and development office in general and that’s a good thing,” said Foster.“We’re seeing twice as many development permits as we did just earlier in the year, it’s off the charts.” Foster noted the county is already needing extra personnel in their planning and zoning office to meet the increase in their own workload, “not to mention the fact that the city’s load has increased.” Van Haute argued the issue that made him present a resolution to the board of intent to terminate the agreement was “the way zoning was occurring inside the city, going against our recommendations, trying to do something that is not conforming and forcing it down our throats ultimately puts our issuing authority at risk if we do this,” he said. Van Haute noted the P&Z board wouldn’t be able to any longer issue the city’s soil and erosion permits, “they would have to go to the state or Atlanta or somewhere to get them.” Fleming advised zoning law is a powerful tool in local government’s hands. “It restricts a property owner’s rights to do what they want to with their property in certain situations,” said Fleming. “Because it’s such a powerful tool, the law judges you very harshly if you don’t follow your own rules.” That form of issuing permits was sometimes referred to as spot zoning -- “you allow certain things here, but you don’t allow it there,” he said. The soil and erosion permit power belongs to the state, but they grant it to local government authorities. Fleming advised generally most communities would like to have that permitting authority because it allows local people to make the decisions on design, placement and other matters, such as what trees to cut down. “However, if the state catches you not evenly handing out those permits, in other words, if you pay special favors, they do have the ability to revoke your privileges, and they take back over,” Fleming said. BOC Chairman Dr. Steve Hersey asked whether a new agreement could specify the city could never do spot zoning. “The zoning itself is an abrogation of the common law and the general rule is it’s your property do with it as you please” said Fleming. “Zoning is about whether you can build a million dollar skyscraper or where you can put an animal farm of some sort.” Fleming advised wording the agreement so that it would be clear that the city would indemnify the county, meaning they would take care of all cost involved with legal fees and damages if somebody won damages. “Ultimately it’s the Putnam County issuing authority that is at risk,” said Van Haute. “So if we mess around too much in that zoning we lose our issuing authority and it goes to the state. So we can’t do soil and erosion inspection, plans and permits.” The board agreed unanimously they would issue their intent to terminate the agreement and enter into negotiation for an alternative agreement during the current cycle of city/county service delivery discussions which must be completed by Oct. 17.

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