Overview and Analysis: DeKalb County’s Zoning Code Update and its Ramifications for Developers

Council Urges Adoption
For the past several years, the Council for Quality Growth has been involved in the Zoning Code Update in DeKalb County; the Council has taken a particularly active role over the last 18 months by working one-on-one with Zoning Administrator Marian Eisenberg and Director of Planning and Sustainability Andrew Baker to allow our members to provide valuable insight and expertise to inform this process.

DeKalb County continues to progress in updating its Zoning Code, and is scheduled to fully adopt the Zoning Code Update by the summer/fall of this year. The Zoning Code Update aims to implement the adopted 2025 Comprehensive Plan. The intent of the Update is two-fold: (1) to “Create a User-friendly Document” and (2) to “Create New Design Standards and Criteria for Development”.
In order to accomplish these goals, the new Zoning Ordinance is divided into nine (9) Articles.
Article 1 – General Requirements – not only outlines the purpose and intent of the Ordinance and provides the general applicability and authority for the updated Ordinance, but it also covers the topic of interpretation by the Planning Director and institutes transitional provisions for development projects. In addition, it contains official zoning maps and the interpretation of those maps, and seeks to address the issue of conflicts with other provisions that may occur in the future.
As part of the Zoning Code Update, zoning districts have been consolidated and new districts created when necessary. In particular, several mixed-use districts have been created, filling a key gap in the current zoning ordinance for developers. Article 1 contains a very clear conversion table highlighting old and new districts under the revised Zoning Code (see below).
Article 2 of the Code deals with zoning district regulations, and encourages a shift towards higher-density development in DeKalb. It not only creates density “ranges”, but also creates “incentives” for developers to increase densities to the maximum level; these incentives are based on the location and quality of development.
Articles 3 and 4 help to further streamline and standardize the Zoning Code. Article 3 seeks to standardize both the applicability and plan submittal requirements for overlay districts, while Article 4 consolidates all development districts and uses into a single table while also adding some new uses. Article 4 also provides new Wireless Telecommunication standards and new and improved supplemental regulations.
Article 5 tackles the issues of site design and building form standards, including the topics of required streetscape dimensions, required transition elements and Open Space and Enhanced Open Space. In particular, twenty percent (20%) of development acreage must be dedicated to Open Space, and of that Open Space, fifty percent (50%) must be enhanced and functional Types. Article 5 also addresses the quality of building materials, and provides measurements and graphics to illustrate key points.
Articles 6, 7 and 8 deal with the issues of Parking, Administration and Enforcement and Non-conforming Situations respectively. Among other changes, a new consolidated parking table with minimum and maximum allowable parking spaces is included (Article 6) and both the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) and the director have new “criteria” for variances or waivers to the design standards outlined in Article 5 (Article 7). Finally, Article 9 of the Zoning Ordinance includes 42 pages of new and improved definitions with illustrations to increase clarity on zoning code requirements in DeKalb County.
Laurel David, an attorney at The Galloway Law Group, LLC, has been involved in DeKalb County’s Zoning Code Update project since the initial task force was created over three years ago. She provided insight into the key changes in this Zoning Code Update, as well as the ramifications for developers in the future.
One key change in this Zoning Code Update is the expansion of provisions and opportunities for mixed-use development. Under the old Zoning Ordinance, it has been difficult for developers to build mixed-use projects because of a gap in the Ordinance; the Update seeks to fill that gap, and even includes a few different mixed-use zoning designations. Ms. David believes that this will encourage increased density around activity areas and transportation nodes. However, even with this encouragement of higher density development, the Zoning Code Update still preserves the traditional neighborhoods.
However, one potential and unexpected consequence of this increased focus on mixed-use, higher density development projects is that, once the Zoning Code Update is adopted, it will actually become harder for developers to rezone outside of these activity areas where higher-density projects are preferable.
The Zoning Code Update should also reduce much of the arbitrary standards that have plagued developers for some time in DeKalb County. Under the old Zoning Ordinance, there have been many cases where developers have been asked to construct sidewalks, fund streetscape improvements, and invest in many other public improvement projects as part of their development project. However, the standards by which these public improvement projects were applied were very arbitrary. The Zoning Code Update creates new, uniform standards that will apply to all developers across the board. While these new standards are more rigorous than those currently in place, Ms. David expressed confidence that developers will be pleased that the standards are clearly defined and uniform for all.
The Council will continue to update members on ongoing developments with the Zoning Code Update, particularly as it approaches final adoption.