Planning chair: Flexing political muscle unethical

ALBANY — The long-time chairman of the joint Albany-Dougherty County Planning Commission said Wednesday morning he understands all too well how politics can rear its ugly head after the Planning board’s ethics were questioned by an Albany City commissioner.

Planning Commission Chairman William Geer, who has held that position for the past 14 years and has served on the board for 22 years, said elected city commissioners have a different approach to planning and zoning issues than the appointed board.

“I will note that there’s a different school of thought among a planning commission that’s appointed and politicians who are elected to office,” Geer, a pecan farmer, said Wednesday. “Elected officials sometimes vote to appease their constituents rather than looking at what’s best for the city or county.

“The worst thing you could see happen is a planning commission become puppets of politicians. Because any kind of flexing of political muscle by an elected official to influence a planning commission member is unethical.”

Geer’s comments came in reaction to City Commissioner Tommie Postell’s remarks at Tuesday’s commission meeting questioning the Planning Commission’s vote to recommend approval of a rezoning matter that would allow Lanier Oil to open a Homerun Foods convenience store with an adjoining Dunkin’ Donuts franchise at 2307 Dawson Road. When Planning staff indicated it had recommended denial of the request, Postell took the Planning board to task.

“This is three times I know of they’ve gone against staff’s recommendations and left it for us to decide what to do,” the Ward VI commissioner said. “If we go with their recommendation, we end up with egg on our face, and if we go against their recommendation, we end up with egg on our face. I don’t know if they’re just disregarding city ordinances and voting based on some good-old-boy network, but we need to meet with that group and find out what’s going on.

“If they’re being influenced to vote a certain way by people they know, that’s a breach of ethics.”

Ward IV Commissioner Roger Marietta later asked City Manager James Taylor to set up a joint City Commission/Planning Commission meeting to discuss protocol, saying, “I’ll pay for refreshments out of my (city account) or out of my own pocket.”

Geer said Wednesday morning he welcomed such a meeting.

“I think anything that will bring about closer communication between the two groups is a welcome idea,” the Planning Commission chairman said.

The point of contention surrounding the rezoning request is how noise at a proposed drive-through window at the Dunkin’ Donuts facility, which is not allowed under the current C-2 zoning of the former Mason Jewelers property, would impact residential property located across an adjacent alley. Engineer Tod Lanier, who represented the interests of the property owner at the meeting, said he was confident the owner would adhere to findings of a sound study conducted to determine what kind of buffer would best reduce noise.

The Planning Commission had made its approval conditional on the erection of a minimum 6-foot masonry wall at the back of the property that would, in addition to lessening noise at the drive-through, deny access to the alley from the Homerun Foods/Dunkin’ Donuts property. Ward V Commissioner Bob Langstaff suggested conducting the sound study to determine if the masonry wall is the best noise filter.

The commission eventually voted 7-0 to approve the rezoning request.

“See, that’s why I don’t understand (what Postell’s comments) were about,” Geer said. “There’s all this political flexing going on, and then they vote to approve our recommendation. I know it’s only human for politicians to go along with their constituents, but the public sometimes gets disillusioned with their votes.”

Lanier said at the meeting the Homerun Foods/Dunkin’ Donuts proposal is not a done deal, even with the commission’s vote.

“Dunkin’ Donuts did sign a letter-of-intent to bring a franchise to one of Homerun Foods’ existing locations,” the engineer said Wednesday. “There are a couple of things outside the compliance issues that must be secured before they make a decision on the Dawson Road location, though. First, Homerun Foods must consummate the purchase of both pieces of property in question (the former Mason Jewelers location at 2307 Dawson Road and a 0.14-acre adjacent tract that houses the strip mall anchored by the Two Chicks establishment).

“Then Dunkin’ Donuts would have to formally sign a lease specific to that location. Their letter-of-intent is for another Homerun Foods location, so if this agreement goes through there could be two Dunkin’ Donuts in our area.”

At a prebriefing prior to Tuesday’s business meeting, Taylor answered commissioners’ concerns over a proposed special events ordinance that would require organizers to secure a permit and insurance coverage for events conducted on city property. Ward II Commissioner Ivey Hines and Ward I’s Jon Howard expressed concern over such requirements for events “folks have always had on city property.”

Taylor was curt in his response.

“This board can vote to allow any event it wants to and decide to eat the liability,” Taylor said. “But you need to be aware that the city will be eating the liability. (Providing security, blocking off access roads and cleaning up after such events) costs money, and as I told you in the email I just sent all of you, I don’t have any more money (for such events) in my budget. I’m broke.”

Taylor told the board the city is “not trying to make any money off these events, we’re trying to cover our costs.”

The board voted 7-0 to approve the ordinance.

The commission also approved, without discussion, a $145,000 personal injury settlement with Thomas Cole Jr. arising from an accident involving a city Public Works vehicle.

Commissioners also OK’d $89,300 in Housing and Urban Development HOME funding to be allocated to R&M Marketplace to rehab two affordable housing units at 2407 Doncaster Drive and 413 Corn Ave. Residents of a nearby neighborhood watch group had expressed concern that the proposal would bring undesirable elements into their community, but Ward III Commissioner Christopher Pike, who had held a public meeting on the matter Monday, said the project would allow for private home ownership rather than a “lease-to-own” situation that stirred residents’ concerns.

“I’m very comfortable in moving forward with this project,” Pike said.

The board also authorized the use of $251,250 in special-purpose local-option sales tax VI funds to build a storage shelter for the Albany Fire Department.