Did you know, in the City of Atlanta, a majority of projects require a permit to simply be allowed to apply for a building permit? How about this. Did you know it currently takes approximately 4-5 months to get this initial permit before you can apply for a site or building permit? Each additional step in the approvals process increases costs, adds complexity, unnecessarily burdens small projects.
This initial permit, a Special Administrative Permit (SAP), was initially intended to be conceived as a pre-review for major projects. Our current ordinance specifically states that it is intended to be used where complex or unusual technical determinations are involved. It has now bloated to the extent that a single home renovation in places like the English Avenue neighborhood now requires this SAP. If the work is minimal enough, you can get an Express Permit in a day. Anything beyond minimal, however, or anything affecting the front façade now requires a 4-5 month long SAP permit process before you can even apply for a building permit. A one-day review versus a 4-5 month long process before that one-day review can happen is a pretty stark differential.
One of the reasons the review period is so lengthy is because the State of Georgia passed a law requiring all SAPs to have a public hearing. So that small renovation in English Avenue needs a PUBLIC HEARING before getting a permit. This permit for a permit makes sense for a 30-story tower in Midtown. That is a major project. A home renovation is not, and never will be.
The most rational thing to do would be to significantly reduce the scope of areas and zoning districts that require SAPs. Unfortunately, this requires some big picture thinking that is seemingly absent in our current leadership at Housing and Zoning. A passable alternative would be to rationally split projects into major and minor. Let all major projects require an SAP with all the baggage and hearings associated. Take minor projects and have them go through a rebranded process called Design Review Permit (DRP). There are no state hearing requirements for DRPs. Eliminating the hearing would moderately speed up the review process while still giving the Office of Zoning and Development the review authority they seem to covet (in spite of all the person hours required to review these extraneous applications). The City of Atlanta has already begun splitting SAP projects into major and minor, so it seems they are aware of the current issues. Without reducing the review burden for those minor projects, however, this change will do nothing meaningful.
Another angle to consider alongside the process updates noted above, would be to simplify the underlying zoning category regulations so they don’t require months of pre-review to make sure a project is in compliance. Atlanta has single districts with 30+ pages of regulations, often with overlay districts on top with another 30+ pages of regulations. At some level, it’s reasonable that it might take months to review projects that have to conform with so many rules.
This simplification is allegedly a core part of the zoning rewrite. We’ve been generally skeptical, but we did look at Greenville, SC’s updated zoning ordinance recently. It was updated by Code Studio in a similar fashion being contemplated for Atlanta. It may not be accessible for a lay person, but it was radically easier for a professional to engage with. Last we checked, we don’t believe they are using SAPs. Maybe those can go the way of the dodo as part of Atlanta’s rewrite too.
The City of Atlanta is actively trying to expedite the delivery of attainable housing throughout the city. A rethink of the SAP process is a wonderful place to start.