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Landscaping rules getting high praise

By Paul Huggins
DAILY Staff Writer · 340-2395

Building Department Director Jimmy Brothers conceded that he "just blew it" when a construction project slipped by undetected and avoided Decatur's young landscape ordinance.

David Russell is owner of McBeeVee’s, which won a beautification award this year. He said the city spelled out its beautification ordinance in an easily understandable way.
DAILY Photo by Dan Henry
David Russell is owner of McBeeVee’s, which won a beautification award this year. He said the city spelled out its beautification ordinance in an easily understandable way.
Neither he nor city planners could explain how the church off U.S. 31 missed the review. They speculated that they mistook it for outside the city limits or merely an addition and not a new building. Brothers said because the church finished construction, he wouldn't press it to comply.

The good news is it's the only construction project since the ordinance became effective 2½ years ago that did not comply with the landscaping requirements. The 16 others did, earning a 94 percent compliance rate.

"It's better than I thought," Brothers said. "I'd be the first one to admit that."

Brothers said he thought communication problems among his department, building contractors and other departments had slowed construction and caused some properties to fall short of requirements.

Landscape and Beautification Coordinator Linda Eubanks said only a few businesses needed to make minor additions to their landscaping, once they installed plant-
ings. For example, one had to replace existing grass with new sod.

As for the communication problems Brothers mentioned, she said she needs more advanced notice when the Building Department asks her to inspect a property to ensure it is up to code. She said sometimes she had only an hour's notice.

On the whole, the landscape ordinance is slowly greening the city. Property owners and building contractors say it is easy to understand and to implement.

"As far as a commercial construction standpoint, we have not had any problems with the landscape ordinance," said Jack Fite of Fite Building Co. "As far as we can tell, most of the designers are on board, including landscape drawings that meet the landscaping requirements, and most of the time exceed them."

Easy to understand

David Russell, owner of McBeeVee's, which won a beautification award this year, said the city spelled out the ordinance in an easily understandable way.

"We're very happy with it, something that doesn't happen very often," he said.

Of the three building contractors and three property owners interviewed, one had a complaint. That was Benning Construction in Atlanta, which built the Walgreen drugstore on Beltline Road Southwest last year.

Kirk Matthews, Walgreen project superintendent, said the ordinance requires the contractor to sign a bond guaranteeing the landscaping will look good and survive for a year.

"If it's not maintained by the tenant or the owner during that year, things have a tendency to die or go bad," he said.

In Benning's case, the city contacted it about plants dying at Walgreen. Turns out, Matthews said, the store wasn't watering the plants, even though it had an irrigation system.

"I would recommend the tenant or the owner hold the bond in lieu of the construction company," he said.

Year for drafting

The landscape ordinance took a year to draft in committee, and that was after six or seven years of political debate on whether the city needed the ordinance. Those against it said it would burden small businesses, while proponents argued a more attractive cityscape would draw more residents and shoppers.

Protecting small firms

A compromise protected most small businesses by applying the ordinance only to new buildings or ones expanded by 50 percent or more. It placed minimal requirements on businesses with at least 15 parking spaces and buildings occupying 5,000 square feet. Requirements increased for businesses with 50 or more parking spaces.

Eleven of the 17 properties affected by the ordinance had fewer than 50 spaces and basically had to install landscaping at the building foundation or along the right-of-way. Larger business must do both, as well as in the parking lot.

Gold Rush on Sixth Avenue Southeast, which has 17 parking spaces, spent $3,800 on plants, mulch and sod to cover the basic requirements.

McBeeVee's on Presbyterian Drive Southwest, which has 68 parking spaces, spent more than $5,000, doing more than required, including irrigation.

Walgreen, which has 56 parking spaces, spent about $32,000, which was about $10,000 more than the building contractor said he usually spends on Walgreen's properties.

None of the businesses interviewed complained about the cost of the landscaping, saying it was in line with the overall project cost.

"It's not that big a thing from our standpoint. It might add two or three dollars per foot to the cost of a building," said Jerry Smith, a general contractor and part owner of Dollar General on Danville Road Southwest. That store has about $10,000 worth of landscaping, excluding irrigation.

Communication problems

Despite the widespread compliance, Brothers said the ordinance has helped reveal communication problems that extend to all areas of code inspection, and he has a plan to correct it in next year's budget. As it is now, the Building Department can't tell at any given time how or if a project meets code compliance with Decatur Fire and Rescue, Public Works, Decatur Utilities and the city's engineering, landscape and planning departments until the project is done.

"The (inspection) work may be getting done," he said, "but it may not be paralleling the construction process."

Brothers said his solution is to ask Mayor Don Kyle to reclassify one of his vacant code inspection officer positions to an office assistant. That assistant would be responsible for maintaining a current status report on all building projects and coordinating plans between city departments and clients.

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