Biz zone churches OK’d in Morrow

— The Morrow City Council cleared the way for churches to move into much of the south side of I-75 this week.

Council members voted unanimously Tuesday to change Morrow’s 27-year-old zoning ordinance to allow places of worship in areas zoned for “General Business.” The change mostly affects the commercial corridors along Mount Zion Road and portions along Ga. 54 by allowing smaller churches to move into storefronts that have sat empty during the national economic downturn.

“However, they do have to be within the guidelines of restaurants that sell alcohol, which is [a distance of] 300 feet,” said City Manager Jeff Eady. “They weren’t allowed and now they are.”

The ordinance approved by the council states Article IX, sections 902, 910, 914 and 917 of the city’s 1986 Zoning Ordinance are being changed to allow churches in more areas of the city.

Sections 902 and 917 deal with the state-mandated distance that have to exist between churches and places that serve distilled spirits. Section 910 is being changed to allow churches in “General Business” zones. While that section was the focus of officials, section 914 also allows churches in Morrow’s “Agricultural” district.

City officials realized they had to address the code when a church approached them about getting permission to move into the old Homelife store on Southlake Mall’s ring road. The church was turned down because the area was zoned for “General Business,” and not an acceptable use for the property, said Eady.

It’s not an uncommon issue for Morrow officials. In recent years, a stream of stores have left the Southlake Mall area for, mostly, McDonough. That has left behind vacant storefronts in a key commercial area for not only Morrow, but Clayton County as a whole. That hasn’t gone unnoticed by churches looking for a place to call home, said Eady.

That explains why there is a large swath of the city, south of I-75, that doesn’t include a church. The closest church to that area is Mount Zion Baptist Church, at the corner of Mount Zion Road and Mount Zion Parkway. However, that church is outside the city limits and is therefore guided by county zoning laws.

“We get this a lot where there’s several vacant buildings and they just say, ‘Can we have a church in there? Can we have an assembly in there?,” said Eady. “And, if you look at our zoning code, you couldn’t.”

But during researching the application for the old Homelife location, officials discovered Georgia law wouldn’t back up an exclusion of churches in those zoning areas. That opened up the possibility that the exclusion wouldn’t hold up in court, said Eady.

“By law, you can’t restrict that so we basically corrected a zoning error,” he said.

Now that the code has been changed, the door is open for the church that prompted the review to try again with better chances of success — if its leaders still want to try and move into that space.

They would still have to be 300 feet away from existing restaurants, according to Official Code of Georgia Annotated section 3-3-21.

Churches are not an isolated zoning-related issue. Eady said many of Morrow’s zoning ordinances have not been updated since the zoning code was adopted in 1986. That could run the risk where state laws have changed while affected codes have stayed the same, putting city and state laws in conflict with each other, and the city has to address that.

Mayor Joseph “J.B.” Burke said this will not be the only zoning ordinance re-write residents see. There are several ordinances that need to be addressed because of their age.

“There are going to be many more because, No. 1, they’re antiquated and No. 2, they prevent, I think, growth,” said Burke.

Eady said it is a necessity because society has changed over the last three decades.

“The economy is in, as the new buzz word says, a ‘new normal,’” said Eady. “Business models have changed since 1986. For instance, a rental car business, I think our code says a rental car business is required to have three acres. That’s a lot of land, but in today’s world, a rental car business may only have five cars on the lot, 50 cars on a lot somewhere else and they’ll actually go get the car and bring it to you.

“People just have different business models to make money in this economy,” he continued.

Since each ordinance change requires a first reading, followed by a second reading at a subsequent council meeting before a vote can take place, it will be a lengthy process that will drag into 2014 and possibly beyond.

There will be a guide Morrow leaders can use during the process, though. A livable centers initiative study presented to the city in early 2011 recommended ways the Southlake Mall area could be redeveloped, including mixed-use developments immediately surrounding the mall.

That will help shape what zoning codes will look like in the future, said Eady.

“It could be any number of things, and that’s why we’re doing a zoning re-write,” said Eady. “What is the highest, and best use of the property? But even knowing the highest and best use of the property, you have to do what’s right. If churches and assemblies are allowed, then they’re allowed.”