Public input results in changes to Salem Overlay

COVINGTON -- Officials working on the Salem Overlay are making modifications to the proposal based on public input. Another public meeting is set for 7 p.m. Thursday at Gateway Community Church, located at 11677 Brown Bridge Road.

During the Board of Commissioners' annual planning retreat, held over the weekend at the FFA-FCCLA Center, Development Services Director Scott Sirotkin updated commissioners on modifications to the document that they are expected to vote on in March.

Since the Board of Commissioners tabled the overlay in December, two additional public information meetings have been held, one with the general public and one with the development community. Thursday will be the third and final such meeting before the ordinance comes before the BOC for a vote.

Initially the overlay, divided into three tiers and a historic district, proposed developments in Tiers 2 and 3 to be mixed use, meaning there would be a mix of residential and commercial or office space on the same property or within the same building.

"What we have heard from the development community is that at this time, the market just may not support that type of development," Sirotkin said. The overlay will be modified to make the mixed-use development optional, providing some incentives.

Commissioner Nancy Schulz noted that the Salem area already has a defined character and there are not many large tracts of undeveloped land. When the Almon Overlay was done, she said the development community agreed it made sense to require mixed use because there were undeveloped areas, and developments would not have to be retrofitted to meet the mixed-use requirement. A property that is currently zoned commercial would still be required to meet building and design standards for new development. Properties zoned residential would have to go through the zoning process to be zoned commercial. Developers wanting property to be designated mixed use would not have to go through the rezoning process, but would be subject to reviews by planning staff.

After consulting with developers, officials have also decided to remove a requirement prohibiting parking in front of buildings. Retailers want some parking in front, as a full parking lot helps attract customers, Sirotkin said.

Now, one row of parking in the front of new buildings will be allowed, with the rest to be on the side or in the rear, similar to the regulations in the Almon Overlay.

Another change would be to requirements that gas pumps and drive-throughs be to the side or rear of buildings. Sirotkin said feedback indicated that would be difficult from a design and traffic perspective, so now, it's recommended that they be allowed in the front, but a requirement for a dedicated pedestrian crossing from the sidewalk to the front door is being added.

Another change is to the fenestration, or amount of windows and doors, required, from 70 to 60 percent. Also, wider buffers and additional plantings/sound barriers are recommended for properties abutting the historic district, which includes the historic Salem Campground and Salem United Methodist Church.

The town center, or Tier 3, would also be expanded to include properties at the Salem and Kirkland roads intersection, since officials have received feedback that mixed-use developments are more likely to be successful on large properties. There are several large tract properties there, including the area behind Kroger.

Chairman Keith Ellis reported during the overlay discussion that representatives with the Georgia Department of Transportation have indicated there is a new study to see if Salem Road can be widened to four lanes instead of six. The DOT at one time had the project at six lanes, but the county appealed that and requested four lanes. Local officials have been waiting years for the DOT to make a final decision.

Schulz said the DOT controls what happens with the widening, but added that the zoning and the road widening are separate issues.

She said it's important to move forward with the overlay to get zoning and development standards in place.

Once the Salem Overlay is approved, alcohol by the drink sales will be allowed in certain areas. Although by the drink sales were approved by voters in November and the ordinance went into effect Jan. 1, sales are limited to certain portions of overlay districts. There are currently only two overlays in the county -- in the Almon Community and Stanton Springs -- and there are no businesses within those areas that qualify to sell by the drink.

The proposed overlay runs along Salem Road south of the Rockdale line down to Ga. Highway 81. The ordinance as currently written states that the purpose of the overlay is to encourage clusters of close-knit growth to keep a "small town charm;" focus development around the intersection of Salem and Brown Bridge roads, as envisioned by the 2050 Plan and Newton County Comprehensive Plan; and to set the stage for preserving farmland and open space elsewhere in the county. Salem is one of five compact communities proposed in the county's 2050 Plan.

More details about the overlay can be found at http://salemoverlay.wordpress.com.