The Atlanta City Planning Department circulated an online survey late last year to solicit residents’ input for the city’s massive overhaul of its outdated zoning code, but complaints that it was too confusing for regular people raised questions about how meaningful public input will be for the ATL Zoning 2.0 initiative, which will dictate how Atlanta can be built out for years to come.

Atlanta’s new planning chief, Jahnee Prince, acknowledged to Atlanta Civic Circle that some of the questions were quite complicated, in response to criticism from local affordable housing advocates that the survey, which closed Dec. 18, is “really confusing if you’re not a land-use professional.

Prince said on Tuesday that she has not yet seen the survey results, but she maintained that Atlanta is conducting a “very inclusive public outreach process” in its endeavor to rewrite the local land-use rulebook.

After completing the ATL Zoning 2.0 survey herself—which asked residents about complex planning systems, such as zone strings, frontage standards, and floor area ratio limits—Prince said in a Dec. 13 email that she found some of the questions “were quite technical.”

“Usually, you can tell if a question missed the mark by the comments section,” the planning chief said. “There could be a topic or two that we will have to follow up on.”

Other cities, Prince said, draft their zoning codes according to comprehensive development plans crafted by think tanks, and they don’t ask for community input until that’s done. By contrast, the Atlanta planning department has scheduled 13 rounds of public meetings and workshops for ATL Zoning 2.0.  

“We are taking a different, more inclusive path for our zoning ordinance rewrite process,” she said. “Everyone can participate in the zoning ordinance rewrite meetings. Everyone can participate in the survey. Everyone can read the information about zoning. Everyone can ask questions.”

Prince has been cagey about her goals for both the zoning code rewrite and the city planning department since Mayor Andre Dickens named her planning chief in September, but she’s already spooked local urban planning wonks by saying publicly she doesn’t plan to do away with single-family zoning—a land-use designation covering most of Atlanta’s residential property. 

Prince’s predecessor, Tim Keane, had said these restrictions are outdated and pose obstacles to developing new, denser types of affordable housing, which sparked vigorous opposition from many local neighborhood groups, such as Save Ansley Park.

But activist groups like Abundant Housing Atlanta, which lobbies for increased urban density and more diverse residential development, contend that lower-income Atlantans who could benefit from upzoning have little time to attend planning meetings and lack the urban design wherewithal to answer technical surveys. That means their interests could fall by the wayside, overshadowed by those of a few wealthier and more knowledgeable participants.

Prince said she appreciates the intricacy of the zoning process for regular folks, but she did not respond to Atlanta Civic Circle’s questions about how the planning department will weigh suggestions from different survey respondents and meeting attendees.

“Yes, writing a zoning ordinance is writing complex technical and legal language,” she conceded. “Not everyone has an urban design background; not everyone has a legal background. But lots of people have participated in our planning processes, and people know what they want for the future of their neighborhood.”

Atlantans interested in contributing to the planning department’s zoning code overhaul can find out about upcoming opportunities for public input here. The next public comment meeting to weigh in on ATL Zoning 2.0 is scheduled for Jan. 17.

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