By DOUG NURSE The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Published on: 11/04/07
The city of Milton delights in its rural, rustic charm.
Two-lane roads are lined with trees. Well-tended black fences meander over rolling hills. Horses graze in breeze-rippled pastures. The equestrian backdrop is the signature of this north Fulton city and a magnet to high-end home buyers drawn by the prospects of living in a community that is pretty enough for a postcard. But some newcomers are coming face to face with an unavoidable dose — or whiff — of reality.
Jeff Runner's Yellow House Farm includes elegant stables and a 48,000 square foot indoor riding arena on 36 acres in Milton. He has been embroiled in a battle with neighbors who are upset he built a large arena for horses, and that he puts the manure in a dumpster near the property line.
Postcards don't stink.
As city officials are finding out, some Milton residents are more enamored with the visual aspects of a rural environment than with the inevitable byproducts.
"People have high expectations up here," said Milton Community Development Director Tom Wilson. "They like the way it looks. They don't like the way it smells or how it sounds.
"People will call and say, 'I smell horse poop' or 'I see a greenhouse,' 'Are they building a chicken house?' 'Do they use chemicals or fertilizer?' "
Wilson recalls a telephone conversation with a woman who was livid about a pile of horse poop on a gravel road near her home. Wilson explained the area is considered agricultural, and horses naturally fit that description."She was not happy," Wilson said.
Milton's culture clash was, perhaps, inevitable. The city started as a cotton-farming area, dotted with small crossroads communities. Because of a lack of railroads or major highways, Milton was largely bypassed from the tidal wave of growth on the Northside in the '80s and '90s.
It has become increasingly popular with people who can afford to live in an equestrian community within commuting distance of Atlanta. Dozens of horse farms are within the city limits.
The current average asking price for a home in Milton currently tops $800,000, according to Lauren Holmes, managing broker of Crye-Leike Realtors.
Milton, with 20,000 residents on 44 square miles, is twice the size of neighboring Alpharetta with half the population.
Residents love to talk about their horse farms and the need to protect the rural-tinged vistas. The city's logo depicts a galloping horse. The city Web site has a picture of grazing horses.
Kathleen Smith, of Hidden Haven Farm, says many of Milton's newcomers don't understand that agriculture is sometimes a messy, smelly enterprise.
"Farming isn't pretty," she said. "People want the Disneyfied version of agriculture. I hear people moved here for its ruralness, but it's not rural. When you live a rural lifestyle, you don't have covenants. We're being pushed out, but then people complain that we're leaving."
About 90 percent of Milton is zoned for agriculture, which allows one unit per acre. Agricultural zoning allows a wide variety of uses that doesn't fit the increasingly suburban nature of Milton, such as chicken farms, pig farms, kennels and horses.
City Councilman Neal O'Brien said he understands the potential for conflict."If you built a lovely estate house," O'Brien said, "you might find it unpleasant to live next to a chicken house."
Sometimes the clash is institutional.
For example, horse arenas typically are 35,000 to 40,000 square feet, but the rules adopted by the city only allow for 25,000 square feet. And the city has been reluctant to grant variances.
On Oct. 16, the Board of Zoning Appeals denied a request by Jonathan Levy of Arlington, Va., to build a 45,000-square-foot covered arena on 22 acres. A frustrated Levy said Milton's supposed love affair with horses is mere pretense.
"It's unmitigated hypocrisy," Levy said. "They're touting themselves as an elite equestrian community, but heaven help you if you want to build a real show barn. If they wanted to be a top-flight equestrian community, they would set up a special equestrian zoning ordinance that applied only to equestrian properties greater than 10 acres. It's all rhetoric."
Levy vows to sell his property to a developer and move to another county.
Jeff Runner, owner of Yellow House Farm, has been embroiled in a dust-up with some neighbors. One adjoining property owner, Ted Cox, says Runner violated the development regulations when he built a 36-stall, 48,000-square-foot barn and arena complex. He maintains that Runner's arena is improperly operating a commercial venture and that the structures violate several provisions of Fulton County's development laws.
He frets that the steel-ribbed arena, built two years ago, is within easy eyeshot of his back windows. Moreover, a large Dumpster for the horse dung sits near the property line of another neighbor."Of course it smells," Cox said. "It holds manure for 36 horses. There's noise, there's lighting. There's no buffers, no variances."
Runner said the stacked-stone and wooden barn and the arena were approved by Fulton County before Milton became a city last December. He said the county has assured him the buildings and their operation are fully compliant with the county's rules. He said some people want to dictate what he can do with his land."Why did they move here?" Runner asked. "People think a horse barn is a little shed with a couple of horses in the pasture. The reality is that's not a horse barn. That's a person with a couple of horses."
Karen McGoldrick, owner of Prospect Hill Farm with its six horses, said horse farms and subdivisions don't mix. She remembers a community forum last year where the tension was evident."I heard people complain 'Your horses scare my dogs.' 'Your riding instructors speak too loudly.' 'The hoofbeats make too much noise.' 'They make too much dust,' McGoldrick said. "There was such anger. These people aren't animal people."
The conflicts are not limited to horse farms. Wilson, the community development director, said he's fielded complaints about people timbering their property, operating landscaping businesses, and one case involving greenhouses on agriculturally zoned land.
Smith, of Hidden Haven Farm, says she deliberately keeps her animals — a horse, sheep and chickens — out of sight from neighbors. That means there are large portions of her land that she doesn't use.
"People move here from somewhere else to get a little piece of paradise," Wilson said. "They've lived in residential developments all their lives, and they expect the same kinds of protections they've always had."
The city is about to embark on its first comprehensive plan, and that might present an opportunity to change much of the zoning from agriculture to a more traditional residential zoning.
However, Mayor Joe Lockwood said he's a little uneasy making en masse rezonings from agricultural to residential, saying property owners might feel the city has taken away all their options, save development.
"It might accelerate development," he said. Lockwood recommends prospective home buyers check out what would be around their property."People need to be aware of what they're getting into and not be surprised," Lockwood said.