Upzoning the Ellis Island of the South

June 10, 2019

Readers of this space hear a lot about NIMBYism, the impulse of individuals to oppose changes to land-use regulations that allow new types of structures near their homes, offices, and places of assembly. The NIMBY—short for “Not in My Back Yard”—impulse is one of the fundamental forces that determines what gets built and where. But it’s an abstract concept, one that’s hard to understand until you see it play out in community meetings and zoning board or utility commission hearings. Recently, I got to experience up close the furor that this impulse generates, courtesy of a faction of Clarkston, Georgia residents.

Clarkston, a suburb of Atlanta, is a special kind of community. It’s been called the most ethnically diverse square mile in America—“The South’s Ellis Island,” as one writer put it. Initially developed as a bedroom community along Atlanta’s ring road, Clarkston has seen waves of immigration over the past half-century, and has now become one of the greatest amalgamations of refugee households in a nation built on an immigrant-heavy founding myth.

From a land-use policy perspective, Clarkston is special in other ways, as its comprehensive plan demonstrates.

It’s one of the rare towns where renters make up more than half of residents. Its households are larger than average. Two-thirds of Clarkston homes are rental apartments. Its buildings are old, with 84 percent constructed before 1980. And it saw almost no construction for more than half of the current decade. Yet the town’s population has continued to grow over that time, from less than 6,000 in 1990 to more than 12,000 today. With demographics like Clarkston’s, one would expect the town to have undergone substantial zoning reform as its population grew. But it didn’t, even after undertaking a comprehensive planning process in 2016. As the region developed, Clarkston’s housing stock stagnated.

That status quo became increasingly untenable, and Clarkston’s politicians sought answers. Their search eventually lead me to spend hours getting to know the details of the town’s zoning code, searching for what might be preventing the redevelopment of apartments at higher density.

What I found were rules that limited development on almost every front. In a town of 1.5 square miles, there are three types of residential zones, an industrial zone, and five types of residential/commercial mixed-use zones, each with different allowed densities and building types. Setbacks and landscaped buffers keep homes far from the street and spread apart by large yards on all sides. Minimum lot widths make it all but impossible to build townhomes, duplexes, and other intermediate-density residences. Limits on floor-area ratios result in buildings that cover only a fraction of their lots. And new townhouses require a developer-owned, 10,000-square-foot playground within 300 feet of most properties. Rules on property use prohibit home-based businesses, small daycares, and neighborhood-serving retail in residential areas and even micromanage the use of commercial buildings.

Also surprising was what I didn’t find. Clarkston had already fixed some of the easy problems that plague other municipalities: Parking requirements are minimal and accessory dwelling units are allowed in most zones.

My research would culminate in a case study presented as testimony to the town council last October, which has been discussed by the council and community in the months since. While most parts of the testimony were relatively uncontroversial, two points would prove particularly contentious: a proposed reduction in minimum lot-size requirements and scrapping of minimum lot-coverage ratios. I argued that these rules generally work to achieve the same goal as other building mass requirements, including setbacks and floor-area-ratio maximums, and that they could be safely loosened or repealed across the board without notable changes to Clarkston’s built form.

Together, the policy changes considered in my testimony would allow an almost 200 percent increase in Clarkston’s population density over the course of a generation. To some, the changes are modest. But to others, any increase in allowed density is enough to spark front-page backlash. Now, the people of Clarkston and their elected officials will determine whether Clarkston remains locked in amber, or whether it will be able to develop enough new homes to maintain its affordability and hold onto its position as a place well-suited for another generation of new Americans to call home.