Permitting, Infill, Trees and Variances
When Are Permits Required?
We always recommend pulling a permit for building and remodeling jobs, unless it is very small. Local and State law exempts some kinds of work, such as roofing and painting, but requires permits for construction jobs valued at over $2500. If a building inspector discovers an unpermitted job in progress he can issue a stop work order, shutting down the site until a permit is issued, with a fine doubling the cost of the permit. Permits are based on the cost of construction, and can run from $50 to several thousand for larger jobs.
Permitting adds a bit of time and cost, since inspectors can take several days to show up, and require extra sequencing of work. Permitting in the City of Atlanta also often requires us to develop as built plans, even for unrelated area small jobs, showing room square footage and window/door egress measurements for fire safety.
Atlanta is currently under restricted permit services and hours due to budget constraints, and has numerous staff shortages. Permits in Sandy Springs can be somewhat unpredictable due to the newness of codes and staff, and the switch from a contracted service to a city function. Permitting in the small section of Dekalb in Brookhaven we work in and Cobb for the Vinnngs area is relatively straightforward and predictable. Paces has never been issued a Stop Work Order.
What Are Infill Ordinances?
Atlanta and Dekalb have Infill Ordinances that can limit site placement for new homes and additions, rooflines and height, and placement of amenities like garages, pools and tennis courts. Atlanta Infill legislation was sponsored for several years by Mary Norwood before passage last year to limit McMansion development and out of scale homes and placement on lots.
While these laws can be frustrating to homeowners looking to build or add on to existing homes, especially on challenging lots, they do serve a useful purpose to neighbors who don’t want a new house towering over them right on their lot line, or sited in front of their house closer to the street than adjacent homes.
In most cases well-intentioned and reasonable development can be devised, but the historical concept of “A man’s home is his castle, and he can do whatever he chooses” doesn’t always apply in in-town building. Be aware that these Infill Ordinances are in addition to zoning regulations for your classification, and are often more restrictive, limiting things like garages closer to the street than your front door, for instance.
What About Trees?
Tree ordinances for all Buckhead jurisdictions often cause the most consternation to clients looking to add to or update their homes. In some ways new construction is easier for trees issues, due to a cap in arborist’s fees and how the regulations are implemented. While you may own your lot and the trees on it, generally you will violate the law and risk fines if you cut a tree over 4” around (measured at chest height).
A tree’s root system for permitting purposes is considered to be equal to 1 foot for every inch of tree circumference. A midsize tree can have circumferences of 24” to 48”, meaning the Arborist Department will not allow more than about 20% of that computed 24’ to 48’ circular root area to be disturbed during any construction activity. The arborist department requires you apply for a tree permit, post a sign on the property for public comments for 2 weeks, and pay a tree recompense fee.
Trees not removed but whose roots are impacted still pay the fees, whether they subsequently live or die. A small offset credit to the fee can be earned by planting additional trees on the property – a licensed landscape firm must usually document this for an inspector. Numerous problems with this ordinance can occur where trees are near property lines and roots or branches cross land lots, or when structures like foundations or driveways across lots are involved.
Can I Get An Exception to Local Ordinances?
Often our clients want to build homes or additions that conflict with local zoning ordinances, especially in older neighborhoods that encompass much of the Buckhead area. Most often portions of a garage or home may encroach on a sideyard or rear yard setback, or a courtyard or fence/wall may be in the front setback.
Many older neighborhoods had no setback requirements when they were first developed, but starting in the 1960’s local ordinances were added stating that there was, for example, a 15 foot side-yard setback within which owners could not build permanent structures. Even though your house or garage may already be built inside that setback and grandfathered, you must usually get a variance to for a building permit to make changes to that structure, build a new garage, etc.
After determining if a variance is the best way to proceed, Paces can help clients by producing and filing the paperwork, helping solicit neighbor approvals, meeting with your neighborhood civic association variance representative, presenting to your civic association and the NPU, getting their approvals forwarded to the ZRB (Zoning Review Board), presenting the variance request in council chambers, and getting the mayors approval, hopefully without a stop at the BZA (Board of Zoning Appeals). Variances can take from about 3 months to several times longer, depending on the complexity of the situation.