To manage unruly neighbors, Atlanta should move zoning enforcement to police: audit
By David Pendered
The city’s zoning enforcement is poorly managed and should be turned over to the police department; however, the city’s planning department disagrees with this notion. Or so says an audit submitted Tuesday to the Atlanta City Council.
Zoning enforcement is a hot-button, quality-of-life issue now regulated by Atlanta’s City Planning department. It joins the slate of matters involving city planning left by the previous council for the newly seated council to consider.
Two looming issues include the proposed tree protection ordinance and a proposal to allow additional residences to be established in existing neighborhoods near MARTA rail stations. The increased residential density is portrayed as an effort to ease the reported shortage of dwellings in Atlanta.
The performance audit that calls for police to handle zoning enforcement was overseen by Amanda Noble, Atlanta’s independent city auditor. This is the number one recommendation in an audit that states Atlanta’s peer cities have placed police in charge of zoning enforcement.
“We recommend that the Commissioner of City Planning and the Police Chief work together to align zoning enforcement responsibilities under Police’s Code Enforcement Section,” the audit states. “We spoke to leadership of Planning and Police and both were initially receptive to consolidating responsibilities. Planning, however, has since expressed reluctance to the move due to plans to restructure the Inspections and Enforcement Division with adequate staff, and because Planning houses historical documentation needed to conduct zoning research…”
Planning Commissioner Tim Keane pushed back strongly against the proposal.
“This would be ineffective,” Keane concluded in his Nov. 4, 2021 response to Noble. “It would confuse citizens and cause a delay in several processes, ultimately impacting customer service. The Atlanta Police Department is already over-burdened. As such this transfer of responsibilities will undoubtedly set both departments up for failure.”
The audit was conducted at the behest of the council into the Inspections and Enforcement Division of the Office of Buildings, which is part of City Planning. On Tuesday, the council’s Community Development and Human Services was assigned the audit recommendations. The committee chair is Councilmember Jason Dozier, who was elected in 2021.
Zoning enforcement is a city service that tends to be overlooked until a problem arises. Issues typically are reported by residents who see neighbors turning their home into a business.
Routine complaints include an illegal rooming house, auto repairs on residential property, a new building too close to a property line, an unlicensed daycare facility and a fence that exceeds a maximum height, according to the audit.
The process calls for residents to submit a complaint. An inspector is supposed to conduct an on-site visit within 72 hours, according to the audit.
The audit portrays the planning department as unable to handle the volume of complaints. Workers said they haven’t been trained on using the computer system. It recommends the employees receive training.
One example cited in the audit is the total of 4,733 complaints submitted on zoning and code enforcement issues, from the start of 2017 through 2020. Of these cases, 58 percent were not assigned an inspector. Another issue involved the closure status of cases. Case close dates were blank in 2,407 complaints, the audit stated.
Division workers explained that incomplete computer records may account for some of the shortfalls, according to the audit.