On May 19, 2014, the Decatur, Ga., City Commission unanimously voted to amend the city’s zoning law to include a definition of “demolition.” Before that vote, demolition was not defined in law nor in regulations implementing the code.
Without a definition of demolition, the city had no way to quantify the number of teardowns. “The City has had a long standing practice of defining demolition for zoning purposes to be when 50% or more of a structure has been removed,” Decatur Planning Director Amanda Thompson wrote in a May 16, 2014, memo to City Manager Peggy Merriss.
Demolition, in Decatur, is defined as,
The complete removal of structure or a scope of construction (alteration, addition, renovation or reconstruction) of a structure where only the foundation of the original structure remains.
Based on that definition, undertakings like the two illustrated below might be considered “substantial improvements”¹ to a single-family residence but not demolitions:
Many communities around the nation and around the world more rigorously define demolition than Decatur. And, they do it in land use regulatory regimes that recognize that teardowns fit into larger environmental and community contexts. For example, in Benicia, California, demolition is “any act of pulling down, removing, dismantling, or razing a substantial portion of a structure or building. Substantial portion shall mean twenty-five (25) percent of the volume of the structure, building, or the roof structure.”²
Benicia enacted a demolition review ordinance within its larger efforts to address sustainability. According to the report prepared for the city’s historic preservation commission,
As the City moves to address the issues of sustainable development, several projects are in progress. There is a draft Climate Action Plan which includes recommendations for a green building ordinance and a construction/demolition ordinance. Also, effective August 1, 2009, the City will begin to enforce the required California Green Building Standards Code. All of these changes will eventually be reflected Title 17 Zoning Ordinance. Specifically, there is a proposed text change to add “Section 17.70.370 Demolition Review”. The intent of this change is to provide a direct correlation between the California Green Building Standards Code, Municipal Code Title 15 Buildings and Construction and the strategies of the draft Climate Action Plan.
In Benicia, it wasn’t just about preserving old buildings; it was about holistic sustainability.
Benicia’s demolition review law is comparable to others that define demolition as the removal of al least 25 to 50 percent of an existing building’s fabric or roof area and the enclosure of an existing building’s exterior walls. An illustration from a City of San Francisco report, Zoning Controls on the Removal of Dwelling Units, illustrates this:
The San Francisco example is for citywide regulation. Cities with historic districts use comparable definitions and standards and they are illustrated similarly:
It took 11 minutes for the Decatur City Commission to review the proposed definition and to vote. No one spoke on the proposed law during the public hearing. For some, like environmentalists focused on strengthening the city’s tree ordinance, it was a matter of not understanding the significance of the new definition. “The rest of us did not understand what they were doing. Sorry to hear about the problem with the definition,” wrote one Decatur resident in a May 20, 2104 email.
Other residents, like Angela Tacker who regularly criticizes Decatur’s development policies on local blogs, were notably absent from the city commission meeting. Yet, two days later Tacker commented about Decatur’s lax land use regulation on the Decatur Metro blog:
Developers are getting permits to do renovations, which means they have to leave up three walls and partial foundation. Builders are going in and taking down those three walls as soon other construction hides the walls, thus securing a new build with a renovation permit and skirting certain inspections, etc. Amanda Thompson knows quite well this is going on and in fact recently allowed a particular builder in Oakhurst to get away with this- and the house as it was being constructed was on a foundation that would not hold the weight of the new build -until a neighbor stepped in and insisted on inspections. He had to fight development to get a stop work order and force Thompson to follow her own rules. The stop work order is on the house and the story came from the neighbor. Believe it or not. That is not the only shady story I have heard, and having had dealt, along with several neighbors, with Thompson directly on a build near me that was clearly over the allowable limit on the footprint, I have no trouble believing any of it. Thompson fought us on our objections; fortunately, we had a lawyer on the block who forced her to make the builder comply.
Decatur tackled defining demolition in the process leading up to enacting a unified development ordinance slated for later in 2014. Last October, the city commission defeated a motion to enact a moratorium on single-family home demolitions to study the scale and scope of teardowns in the city. Several months later, a consultant was paid $20,000 to “analyze the impact that infill housing has on community character and housing affordability.” The report, which was finalized in February 2014, was never released to the public and didn’t state the basis — the definition used — for including what it called “infill housing” in its analysis.³
Teardowns are a critical issue in Decatur, yet city officials continue to enact policies that obfuscate the number of teardowns and their impact on the community. Like the new demolition definition.
1. Decatur also defined “Substantial Improvement” in the same ordinance: Substantial improvement means any combination of repairs, reconstruction, alteration or improvements to a building where the cost of the construction exceeds 50% of the fair market value of the structure prior to the improvement. Determination of Fair Market Value is based on the applicant’s submittal of either the existing records of the DeKalb County tax assessor or a current appraisal of the structure’s value. The cost of the proposed construction shall be determined by the applicant using detailed, complete (turnkey) contracts from a qualified state licensed contractor or by using published standardized construction value data published by the International Code Council (ICC). Values for the purpose of this definition are exclusive of land values.
2. The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Preservation Law Program published a report in 2006 titled, Protecting Potential Landmarks Through Demolition Review [PDF]. The report included several examples of demolition definitions Among them:
- Fifty percent or more of the roof area as measured in plan view (defined as the view of a building from directly above which reveals the outer perimeter of the building roof areas to be measured across a horizontal plane); or
- Fifty percent or more of the exterior walls of a building as measured contiguously around the “building coverage”; or
- Any exterior wall facing a public street, but not an act or process which removes an exterior wall facing an alley.
The city’s demolition review procedures apply to “the destruction, removal, or relocation of a structure not classified as an `incidental structure,’ or the permanent or temporary removal of more than twenty-five percent (25%) of the perimeter walls of a structure.” Incidental structures are accessory buildings such as sheds, fences, play structures, and so forth.
The demolition review requirement applies to any permit, without regard to whether it is called a demolition permit, alteration permit, or building permit, if it involves total and partial demolitions. A “total demolition” is “[t]he pulling down, razing or destruction of the entire portion or a building or structure which is above ground regardless of whether another building or structure is constructed within the footprint of the destroyed building or structure.” A “partial demolition” is “[t]he pulling down, destruction or removal of a substantial portion of the building or structure or the removal of architectural elements which define or contribute to the character of the structure.”
3. Decatur: Infill Housing Analysis, Market+Main (Draft, Feb. 3, 2014; Final, Feb. 24, 2014). Obtained from the City of Decatur through a Georgia Open Records Act request.