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Alpharetta Rejects Downtown School Moratorium

A proposal to put a hold on any commercial or academic school construction, expansion or conversion was made to give City Council time to consider what uses are best in downtown.

A proposal to put a three-month halt to adding or expanding any schools in downtown Alpharetta first was panned by business owners, and then City Council itself during a meeting at on Monday, May 15.

City Councilman Mike Kennedy proposed a resolution to put a temporary moratorium on applications for permits or business licenses for the construction or modification of academic or commercial schools, or the conversion of any existing building for a school.

Council Donald Mitchell said he considered the resolution after hearing downtown business owners tell him foot traffic to their stores was dropping.

The intent of the moratorium was to give staff and City Council time to examine whether school uses should be permitted in commercial zoning districts as a permitted or conditional use in the downtown district.

Councilman Chris Owens said he would welcome workshops on uses within commercial zoning parcels and on the city's alcohol ordinance in light of what they are trying to accomplish downtown.

Since he has been on council, they have been begging the downtown business owners and property owners to do something. "Help us to help you," is how he described it.

"I think moratoriums are the wrong message to send to business owners and property owners when they want to do something downtown," Owens said. "I am more in favor of carrots than of sticks."

Councilman D.C. Aiken was even more pointed in his remarks after seconding Owens' motion to deny the moratorium.

"I have a serious problem placing a moratorium on a specific use," said Councilman D.C. Aiken.

What some City Council didn't know was that the distance requirements between restaurants that serve alcohol are set by the city, not state law.  City Attorney Sam Thomas said the state requires minimum distances between packages stores, leaving distances between restaurants and churches or schools up to Alpharetta City Council. That distance now is 300 feet. Downtown, however, that 300 feet is measured from the door of the restaurant to the closest portion of the church or school.

City Council unanimously rejected the moratorium, but before they voted several Alpharetta business people spoke against it.

Melinda Willis, owner of River Academy, told council she shares their vision for downtown. She felt the moratorium was directed at her business because she plans an expansion. She was willing to make the same kind of agreement with any other restaurant to what she did for 52 Bistro. She gave approval for the restaurant to serve alcohol despite how close it was.

Architect Richard Debban, whose downtown Alpharetta business designed the expansion, said at the moment they complied with all city ordinances.

River Academy wanted to make a $1.3 million addition to an existing building in downtown. River Academy already serves 150 families, whose members spend time downtown in its shops and restaurants, Debban said.

"My passion is downtown," he said.

After spending Saturdays standing out at the Alpharetta Farmers Market supporting downtown and the proposed City Center, Debban said it's now happening.

"And now we get shot down," he said.

But Aiken told him the moratorium wasn't about a specific business or property. It was about a specific use in downtown.

Since the moratorium wasn't enacted, applications and permits filed by River Academy for its expansion, and those of a tile store seeking to locate in One South Main Street, will be processed by city staff. The tile store wouldn't have been affected by the moratorium.

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