Diversified Holdings, LLC just can’t seem to sell their property in Suwanee, GA. It’s zoned for high-density commercial uses, but potential buyers are only interested in building apartments. On top of that, Diversified believes the property, as zoned for commercial uses, is only worth 20 percent of what it would be worth if it were zoned for multi-family residential uses (i.e. apartments). Needing change, the company asked the city to rezone the property; that request was denied as the city’s 2030 comprehensive plan calls for the property and surrounding area to be a major commercial center.
Dissatisfied with this allegedly arbitrary decision, Diversified asked the Georgia Supreme Court to intervene. In a unanimous decision, the Court agreed with the City of Suwanee in denying the rezoning application. The United States and Georgia Constitutions allow governments to zone for the health, safety, and welfare of the community. If zoning decisions are not arbitrary or capricious in nature, then courts generally will not intervene.
In finding that the city acted reasonably, the Court cited several justifications for maintaining the commercial zoning including the fact that the surrounding area has no sidewalks. As the justices concluded, it is reasonable to believe that a lack of sidewalks would undermine the health, safety, and welfare of potential residents. While the property may be more valuable when zoned for residential uses, this isn’t the standard used for determining whether a denial of a re-zoning application is arbitrary or capricious.
The City of Suwanee spent a considerable amount of time gathering public input in creating their comprehensive plan. Since the denial of the re-zoning application fits squarely into the long-term plan, the city provided some reasonable explanation as to why the property should be zoned commercial, and the company still retains economic value in the property without the re-zoning, the city’s actions are perfectly reasonable under both the United States and Georgia Constitutions.
This Georgia Supreme Court isn’t saying that the current zoning and comprehensive plan are the best ways to promote the health, safety, and welfare of the community; it’s simply saying that the city had some reasonable explanation for denying the re-zoning application. The best urban planning scheme to maximize health, safety, and welfare would likely include much more mixed-use development and would certainly include sidewalks. Such a scheme would allow for safer walking conditions, reduce auto-related deaths due to a reduced reliance on vehicles, and potentially increase property values.
In fact, Suwanee has zoned many parcels for planned mixed-use development, including those on Lawrenceville-Suwanee Road across from the development. Considering that the city’s zoning map has many single-family residential zones (i.e. detached houses) abutting commercial zones, it’s unclear why the city wouldn’t approve a re-zoning of Diversified’s property from commercial to multi-family residential; following the re-zoning, the property would just be another residential zone abutting a commercial zone. If the city felt that those living in apartment complexes are in greater need of sidewalks than those living in single-family residential zones, then the city could have conditioned the re-zoning on Diversified providing funds to build a sidewalk. The city could also simply provide more sidewalks itself. Ultimately, the city may have wanted to avoid creating a precedent of deviating from the comprehensive plan.
This situation demonstrates why it’s important for all community members to participate in the creation of long-term comprehensive plans. While urban planners and members of local planning commissions offer thoughts and opinions, the enactment of zoning regulations is a purely legislative function that must be done by elected officials. Non-elected planning commissioners and elected city councilmembers need to be educated on the perils of auto-centric development and the benefits of widespread mixed-use development. Since courts aren’t designed to deeply question zoning decisions beyond asking if there is some degree of rationality, it is incumbent upon the community to make sure the best urban planning policies are used to promote health, safety, and welfare.