Macon-Bibb P&Z cuts fees, preps for long-term planning changes


Liz Fabian

Macon-Bibb County Planning and Zoning commissioners approved a second convenience store on Mercer University Drive at Log Cabin Drive at their June meeting. P&Z is expected to make policy changes that will allow for better planning and less redundancy in the future.

Macon-Bibb County Planning & Zoning commissioners slashed fees and are about to launch a major revision in the way they do business.

P&Z Executive Director Jim Thomas estimated the cuts would total about $60,000 annually.

Mayor Lester Miller’s restoration of $210,000 previously removed from P&Z’s budget was contingent on the fee reductions.

“It also will allow them to hire more staff and do more due diligence,” Miller said last week.

During last month’s Fiscal 2022 budget presentation, Miller said he hears daily from concerned citizens, business people and developers.

“What they tell me is, we have to do better,” Miller said. “We overcharge people for business licenses, permits and zoning permits. We overcharge people for several things that do with signage and starting a new business there, and it has to be addressed.”

Commissioners authorized Thomas to prepare a new fee schedule to take effect July 1.

The mayor reviewed those cuts last week.

“Most of the savings is for small businesses and individual homeowners,” Miller observed.

For example, the permit for having a home business dropped from $300 to $200 and the $50 fee was dropped to verify zoning compliance for a home business license renewal. P&Z also will no longer charge $250 for an expedited zoning certificate. They also waived charging up to $150 to verify zoning compliance for commercial and industrial business license renewals.

The fee for a certificate of appropriateness requiring Design Review Board approval dropped from $240 to $150, and the charge for certificates of appropriateness handled by staff went from $157.50 to $50. Permitting a second single-family dwelling on a single lot will go from $900 to $600.

Commissioners also capped commercial and planned development fees at $7,500 instead of charging $1,875 plus up to $40 per acre.

Instead of four categories for conditional use for shopping centers, they shaved off the larger fee of $6,555 for properties over 500,000 square feet and will charge a maximum of $5,310.

All applicants who attend a pre-development review will save $100 off their fee.

The commission also is reducing fees for appeals from $472.50 to $250 and decreasing cost for requesting a new hearing from $780 to $450.

‘We need to be strategic’

During last week’s administrative meeting, P&Z commissioners also discussed revamping their entire operation as they prepare the 2022 comprehensive plan update and replace outdated codes.

Instead of zoning by land use regulations, Miller and some commissioners prefer a form-based code that puts a greater focus on urban design.

P&Z Commissioner Josh Rogers pointed out Bibb County’s population has not changed much since 1980 but he invited his colleagues to consider all the things that have been built since then.

“I think we need to be strategic about the types of outcomes we want for the county,” Rogers said.

The current zoning process does not place much emphasis on planning. There’s a continual cycle of new shopping centers luring businesses away from older properties that often remain vacant for years.

Last week, commissioners approved new construction of a convenience store in the 4200 block of Mercer University Drive. A little more than a year ago, they approved a similar store on the other corner directly across Log Cabin Drive.

“We don’t do any market analysis. … It’s a problem. We’re causing it. If we didn’t issue the permits it wouldn’t happen,” Rogers said. “We can visualize what we want the community to look like but we’re not doing it.”

Commissioner Tim Jones mentioned Houston County.

“They don’t have businesses moving,” Jones said. “What are we doing different so we’re not growing? Ride down Riverside Drive. Parts of it are deserted. Presidential Parkway has nice buildings. … What are we doing? We’re doing something wrong.”

Commissioners’ hands are tied in many instances because current land-use categories permit businesses that they do not believe will be good for the community in the long run. It doesn’t matter how many similar businesses are in that neighborhood as long as the zoning designation is appropriate.

“I’m very libertarian. I think people should be able to do what they want with their property,” Rogers said. “The amount of blight we have is a limitation on the community. I think we have to do something different to get a handle on it.”

Overhauling the system and creating a new code won’t be cheap.

Both Miller and Thomas believe it will cost up to $2 million to hire a firm to research codes, bring them up to date and develop a new system for Macon-Bibb County. Multiple public meetings are expected before changes are approved.

Sarasota, Florida, spent $1.5 million over five years to create a form-based code, Thomas said.

“That’s what it costs to do that kind of stuff. It’s a pretty in-depth analysis,” Thomas said.

The mayor wants a 3-5-year strategic plan with “smart goals” for the community. Miller also wants a better way to measure P&Z’s response times and effectiveness, track vacancies and blight.

“It’s a big ask, but there are people who do it,” Miller said. “It will be well worth it in our long-term plan.”

Recently Approved Projects

592 Second St. – Commissioners allowed the owner of 7th Street Salvage to remove a non-historic, roll-up door and install a new window and brick in its place. The building at the corner of Plum Street was built as a Standard Oil service station in 1917.

870 Pio Nono Ave. – Shannon Davis was granted conditional use approval to operate an event center in 1,600 square feet of an existing building near the intersection of Hillcrest Avenue.

909 Second St. – The commission approved a 27”x96” sign for the new downtown Bike Tech location.

911 Patterson St. – Commissioners approved Alpha-Isaac Etheridge’s application for an auto broker’s office in a former professional office.

4230 Mercer University Drive – Approval granted to Cunningham & Company Engineers to build a convenience store with fuel stations and alcohol packaged to go on three lots near the corner of Log Cabin Drive.

4540 Cavalier Drive – Commission approved Rowland Engineers’ construction of an office and warehouse development in west Bibb County.

5226 Ocmulgee East Boulevard – Polar Squire granted permission to build a multi-message billboard on the property.

5297 Bloomfield Road – Jerneicey Brown permitted to house a daycare in an existing center.

5773 Arkwright Road – Conditional use granted for a professional office building near the intersection of Wesleyan Drive.

Civic Journalism Senior Fellow Liz Fabian covers government entities in Macon-Bibb County. Contact her at 478-301-2976 or [email protected]