The Rome and Floyd County Unified Land Development Code has governed growth across the community for the last two decades. But real estate developers and government officials alike have contended for the last couple of years that it has actually put the brakes on growth.
The hue and cry over complexities in the document got so loud recently that city and county government leaders decided that it was time to bring in experts to generate an entirely new document.
This week, representatives from Town Planning and Urban Design Collaborative started that process, a project that could take upwards of 18 months.
TPUDC is a nationally recognized planning and urban design firm out of Franklin, Tennessee. Brian Wright and Bill Wright met with government department heads and other officials for much of the day this past Tuesday before holding a town hall meeting at the Rome Civic Center that night.
A housing shortage in Rome and Floyd County prompted some leaders to seek immediate amendments to the existing code in an effort to jumpstart development, and the first target was the elimination of minimum lot-size requirements inside the Rome city limits.
That suggestion ran into an unprecedented stumbling block at the last City Commission meeting, when three commissioners, Bill Collins, Bonny Askew and Sundai Stevenson, opposed putting the change on first reading.
Putting an action on first reading is essentially informing the public that it is being proposed. It’s the prelude to the next step, at the next meeting, when a formal hearing is held to get public input before a final vote is taken.
By opposing first reading, the three commissioners didn’t even want the changes to get to that point. However, the six other board members voted to advance the proposed amendment and the hearing and vote are scheduled for the commission’s June 28 meeting.
Collins argued that the city should wait for the new code to be written.
He said most of the infill lots available within the city limits are in low-income, “challenged” areas. Infill development is new construction in already developed areas, often on lots occupied by old and blighted homes.
If minimum lot sizes are waived, Collins said, it would open those low-income communities to high dollar development that could potentially push out established residents — a process referred to as gentrification.
It’s a word the consultants with TPUDC said they heard several times during their town hall meeting. Principal consultant Brian Wright said some people who spoke Tuesday night urged the planners to be aware of community concerns related to that issue.
Up to this point, the Rome Community Development Department has built more than 30 single-family homes on infill lots, primarily in South Rome. The homes are being sold at cost, currently in the high $90,000 range. However, Community Development Director Bekki Fox just put that construction program on hold because the high cost of materials has upped the minimum price to more than $130,000.
The Northwest Georgia Housing Authority has also developed considerable infill housing along the Maple Street corridor in East Rome over the last several years. Much of that housing has been earmarked for tenants with Section 8 housing vouchers, which only require they pay up to 30% of their income for rent.
Private developers and builders have argued for months during meetings of a Special Committee on Housing that some restrictions in the current ULDC, such as minimum lot size, have prevented them from making investments in infill housing.
The Special Committee on Housing is proposing incentives of between $1,500 and $3,500 per house for infill development to spur new construction.
The consultants will be back in Rome later this year for a weeklong series of open sessions to get public input.
A Planning Palooza will be held from Aug. 20-25.
“That is a crucial part of this process,” said Brian Wright.
It will be a multi-day event, set up with specific meetings to address different topics. If someone has to miss a session that they may have particular interest in, TPUDC will have an office set up where people can drop in and get information.
Planners, economists, attorneys and artists will all be a part of the event.
The August event is when they’ll really narrow their focus to determine the best path forward. Bill Wright said that it should be interesting to most people who live in Rome and Floyd County.
Rome and Floyd County provide a unique situation, the consultants said, adding that having a joint planning office but separate governments creates some challenges.
“We’re just trying to figure out how to navigate the circumstances and write a code that works for everybody,” Brian Wright said. “That’s not one size fits all. You want to take the uniqueness and character of each area separately and respect that.”
The planners hope to really simplify the new code as well as respect what’s unique about the community.
The consultants also believe another challenge will be to figure out how to write an ordinance that is friendly to development but doesn’t allow just anything to go up anywhere.
As outsiders, the TPUDC officials indicate that part of their work is to seek out conflict points because they know those can cause problems down the road.
“We haven’t had a sense that we have anything to be concerned about,” Brian Wright said.
Customers may not always be right, but it doesn’t hurt to give them the benefit of the doubt, especially as businesses struggle to recover from the pandemic.
At the very least, you don’t want to call your customers liars.
Yet that’s basically what rental-car giant Hertz is telling a member of its Gold Plus rewards program after slapping him with a $400 charge for smoking in the car.
Sean Dungan, a professional photographer, recently dropped off a Hertz rental car at Boston’s Logan International Airport before flying back to Los Angeles.
A few days later, the bill arrived via email, including the smoking fee.
Here’s the thing: Dungan, 49, of Highland Park, Calif., says he doesn’t smoke.
“I did a long time ago,” Dungan told me, “when I was maybe 22 or 23. Not since.”
He said no smokers joined him on his five-day business trip to the Boston area, and nobody lit up in the rental car. No cigs. No vaping. No weed. No stogies.
“I was the only person in the car,” Dungan said. “I don’t smoke.”
So he called Hertz, which also owns the Dollar and Thrifty brands, battled his way through the company’s automated phone system and reached a service rep. “I just assumed a mistake had been made.”
Not as far as Hertz was concerned.
“Everybody I spoke with at the company said they wouldn’t reverse the charge,” Dungan recalled. “They all said that after I dropped off the car, a Hertz employee smelled cigarette smoke and that he corroborated it with another employee.”
I asked Dungan if there were any cigarette butts reported in the ashtray.
Were there any ashes reported on the seats or carpets?
So it was a couple of workers saying they thought someone had smoked in the vehicle without any physical proof?
“Yes, that’s it.”
Not exactly an open-and-shut case.
Hertz introduced a no-smoking rule in 2013. Prior to that, it had cars for smokers and cars for nonsmokers.
“Hertz is committed to providing a safe, clean fleet for our customers and employees,” the company says online. “In order to better deliver on this commitment, all Hertz vehicles are nonsmoking. A $400 cleaning fee will be assessed for vehicles returned with evidence of smoking.”
Ah, but this “evidence of smoking” provision is a bit squishy.
According to Hertz, a vehicle will be considered smoked in if a company worker witnesses a customer smoking, finds proof of smoking (“such as ashes, cigarette butts or burns”) or smells smoke inside.
“If there is no Instant Return Representative available when the car is returned, the Vehicle Service Attendant will make the determination,” Hertz says.
That’s apparently what happened in Dungan’s case. After he left his car at the lot and headed for his flight, a vehicle service attendant presumably popped his head in and decided he smelled cigarettes.
Then, Hertz reps told Dungan, the vehicle service attendant got another worker to give things a sniff. Then they added the $400 smoking fee to Dungan’s bill.
There are a number of things here that raise questions, not least this idea that a couple of workers can levy a fat fee without any physical proof of wrongdoing.
Dungan wonders if it was the Hertz attendant who introduced a cigarette smell to the car. “Was he a smoker? Did he have the smell on his clothes? I don’t know.”
Then there’s the timing. Hertz filed for bankruptcy protection in May 2020, one of the largest companies to do so during the pandemic.
The company’s stock surged last month after Hertz announced a multibillion-dollar deal with several investment firms to restore the company’s finances. A year ago, Hertz warned investors its stock could end up being worthless.
I’m not saying Hertz is imposing bogus fees on customers to improve the company’s balance sheet as it prepares to emerge from bankruptcy by the end of the month. Hertz says Dungan’s fee was “assessed appropriately.”
But you still have to wonder.
Christopher Elliott, who runs a consumer protection website called Elliott Advocacy, included Dungan’s situation in a recent article on rental car smoking fees.
“We’ve gotten a lot of smoking-fee complaints, almost all from Hertz customers,” he told me. “We saw a spike in cases after the bankruptcy filing.”
Rental car companies “turn to these types of fees to generate extra revenue,” Elliott said. “If you smoke in a rental car, you should pay a cleaning fee. But all of our cases involve customers who say they don’t smoke.”
I know, I know. It’s possible all these people are actually smokers and are just trying to dodge a fee by making a stink.
But it’s my experience that consumers who jump through the time-consuming hoops of a corporate appeals process, and particularly those who reach out to the media for help, tend not to be pulling a fast one.
Dungan estimates he’s spent at least four hours so far trying to untangle this with Hertz — not the sort of time commitment most people would make to weasel out of a fee.
After he got nowhere with Hertz’s front-line service reps, Dungan contacted the head office. Once again the company dug in its heels.
An official insisted by email that “a strong cigarette smell” had been detected in the car. Even so, the official said, Hertz would cut the fee in half, to $200, “as a one-time goodwill gesture.”
“We ask that you respect our final decision on this matter as we have fully addressed your concerns,” the official concluded. “Further requests to revisit this matter will not be considered.”
Dungan told me he doesn’t respect Hertz’s final decision. He says he didn’t do anything wrong.
“If they think I’m at fault, why would they refund any of the fee?” Dungan asked.
Lauren Luster, a Hertz spokeswoman, told me the 50% fee cut was “a gesture of goodwill” because of Dungan’s “loyalty status.” She also said Hertz won’t back down.
“Our records show that three employees confirmed the smell of smoke upon the vehicle’s return and that the vehicle was out of service for four days being cleaned and deodorized,” she said.
Dungan said this was the first time a third employee had been added to the equation; all his previous exchanges with the company featured two cigarette-smelling workers.
He also was surprised it took four days to clean and deodorize the car. Not only does this suggest a ton of cigarettes had been consumed, but all other service reps had said the car would be out of commission for 24 hours.
Dungan is now disputing the charge with his credit card company but isn’t hopeful he’ll prevail. After all, it’s his word against that of a billion-dollar corporation. Why should his card issuer believe him over Hertz?
“It’s all just so infuriating,” he said.
It’s also a reminder to the rest of us to add smell to the usual inspection of a rental vehicle’s dings and dents. Poke your head inside and give it a whiff before driving off the lot.
But here’s why Hertz doesn’t seem to be seeing the forest for the trees: As the company gets back on its financial feet, it’s counting on the loyalty of customers to restore it to health.
Telling a member of your rewards program that he’s a cheat and a liar doesn’t seem like the most surefooted way of building trust.
Dungan told me his days as a Hertz Gold Plus member are numbered. On his next business trip, he said, he’ll be renting wheels from another firm.
“I’ve heard good things about Enterprise,” he said.