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Newton upholds Salem Overlay zoning
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Despite impassioned pleas by a prospective business owner, the Newton County Board of Commissioners refused to grant an exemption to the strict Salem Overlay zoning standards the board placed on the Salem Road corridor and surrounding area in early 2013.

The Board of Commissioners unanimously voted down a request from prospective business owner Michael Pressley to allow him to convert a Brown Bridge Road house near Salem Road into a business office and build a car sales lot on the property.

Pressley was seeking multiple requests, including to change the property's zoning from residential to commercial, but the board balked at his request for an exemption from the Salem Overlay, a set of zoning rules that seek to promote a higher-quality, mixed-use type of commercial and residential development in the area.

The Salem Overlay requires new commercial buildings to meet certain design and criteria, including the use of certain building materials, including stone, brick and textured cement stucco, as well as certain architectural features meant to create modern, aesthetically-pleasing buildings.

Pressley purchased the home and 1.08-acre property at 13125 Brown Bridge Road for $17,000 in May 2013, after the Salem Overlay had been approved by the board. He told the board Tuesday he had repaired the previously dilapidated home and had spoken to his immediate neighbors, who were OK with him opening a small automobile sales business on the property.

John Knight, who worked with Pressley on the property, told the board he saw the matter very simply: neither the Newton County Planning Commission nor county staff recommended the request be turned down.

Zoning Administrator Judy Johnson said the county's Department of Development Services neither recommended nor didn't recommend the request but did list a number of conditions that should be placed on the property should the Board of Commissioners decide to approve the request.

The Planning Commission actually voted 4-1 to approve the request to rezone the property and grant the exemption to the Salem Overlay, but did place restrictions on the business, including limiting the number of vehicles allowed on site.

One possibility mentioned was the property would be granted the exemptions - another exemption was granted for putting in sidewalks on the property - until the properties around it were rezoned to commercial, at which point Pressley's property would have to meet the Salem Overlay requirements. It was unclear if the house would have to meet Salem Overlay requirements at that point as well, or only if he would have to install sidewalks.
However, the Board of Commissioners did not want to delay the implementation of the Salem Overlay and voted down all of Pressley's requests Tuesday - Pressley's request technically included a rezoning, a change to the Future Land Use map from residential to commercial and a conditional use permit to allow the auto sales business to be located in the Salem Overlay.

Some businesses are allowed outright in the Salem Overlay - there are three separate tiers in the overlay with different requirements; Pressley's property found in Tier 2, which allows for both residential and some commercial uses - while others are prohibited and some, including car sales, require a special permit, which must go through the Board of Commissioners.

Commissioner Levie Maddox said Pressley got a good price for the property but said the idea of a Salem Overlay-type plan had been discussed for more than 15 years.

"I think some pledges were made along that path and journey, a commitment to residents out there to increase the standards," Maddox said. "I think I side with Commissioner (Nancy) Schulz, if it's a new use and new development and it does not trigger the standards, what does? What did we go through that long journey and battle to achieve? What kind of precedent do we set going forward?"

Maddox said the county is working to pass a similar zoning overlay in the Brick Store community on the eastern side of the county, which include Maddox's district and he said the board needs to be mindful of the future impact of zoning decisions.

Earlier in the meeting, Commissioner Lanier Sims asked Pressley whether he knew about the Salem Overlay prior to buying the property. Pressley said he did not, but Sims said that is part of his personal process when looking to purchase a property.

Three area residents spoke in opposition to the exemptions, including Baxter Bouchillon who said the point of the Salem Overlay was to make the area attractive to future residents and businesses to bring jobs and a higher quality of life to the area. Resident Gladstone Nicholson echoed the sentiment that higher quality businesses are needed in the area and urged the board not to "trample the 2050 Plan."

Title loan business approved

Another zoning case in Tier 2 of the Salem Overlay was also heard Tuesday night, but this was one was approved 3-1 by the Board of Commissioners.

The board approved a conditional use permit to allow a title loan business - a business that loans money in exchange for car titles and charges interest on the loan, taking the person's car title as collateral - to locate in an existing commercial development at 2536 Ga. Highway 81 South, which is at the intersection with Salem Road.
The business type is one that requires a conditional use permit to locate in the Salem Overlay. While Nicholson also spoke out against this business - he said such businesses conduct predatory lending, often charging such high interest rates the person is never able to pay back the loan and loses their car - the board approved the request.

The development, which has multiple other tenants and is known as Bailey's, does not have to meet the Salem Overlay commercial development standards, because it's still grandfathered in. No structural changes will be made to the tenant space, said attorney Jim Hardeman, speaking on behalf of the applicant.

Commissioner J.C. Henderson voted against the business, though he did not state specific reasons.

The board did request the business to limit its hours to 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., as part of the conditional use permit. Other conditions are that no vehicles can be permanently stored on the site and the business is limited to two to three employees. No modifications can occur to the business, unless the business receives permission from the Board of Commissioners.