By Gerhard Schneibel
Sandy Springs is at risk of losing control over some zoning decisions as a result of the clear-cutting it carried out last fall on the site of the planned Morgan Falls Overlook Park.
The city cleared bamboo and wisteria from part of a 27-acre parcel on Morgan Falls Road with the intention of installing a dog park, but when the cutting revealed a scenic view of Bull Sluice Lake, the City Council changed its plans.
The cutting encroached on a 25-foot shoreline buffer intended to protect water quality and views of the shore from the Chattahoochee River. A variance from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division is required to remove vegetation from the buffer.
The Fulton County Soil and Water Conservation District was scheduled to meet March 18, as the Sandy Springs Reporter went to press, to discuss revoking or amending an agreement that allows the city to issue land disturbance permits without review by the county. (For the outcome of that meeting, look for an updated version of this story at www.reporternewspapers.net.)
Alan Toney, the supervisor of the conservation district, said the agreement with Sandy Springs was enacted last year.
“I think everybody was a little bit shocked at what happened,” he said. “I’m leaning towards amending their (memorandum of understanding) to let us look at their public works projects.”
Toney said he suspects the clear-cutting decision came from the top because he believes the city’s staff is “very competent, and they know the rules.”
“Normally, you would give them some time to work it out if you thought there was a problem with training or something, but that’s not what’s going on here,” he said.
Some city residents were angered Dec. 9 when the city changed its plan to install a dog park on the site. City Manager John McDonough said a temporary dog park would be installed by Jan. 23 on a nearby 3-acre site the city leases from Georgia Power, but that has not yet happened.
Albert Langley of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources said his office received a complaint about the clear-cutting from the Atlanta-based Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper.
“Typically on a complaint like this, we would refer it to a local issuing authority, but since it involved action by a local issuing authority, we investigated it ourselves,” he said.
Langley sent Sandy Springs’ assistant director of land development, Blake Dettwiler, a letter March 4 in which he acknowledged the city was given spoken approval by the Atlanta Regional Commission to “remove invasive species” from the park property.
Dettwiler said Sandy Springs “never had the intention of just leaving the site like it is now.”
The city plans to replant the buffer with species native to Georgia using part of the $1.7 million the City Council appropriated for the park Dec. 9, he said. The money initially was going to make improvements to the leased 3-acre Georgia Power site and to build a boat dock there.
Dettwiler said the city didn’t violate any laws because it removed the bamboo and wisteria by hand and left their root structures intact, minimizing erosion. The city will use an “appropriate, water-soluble herbicide” to keep the plants from growing back while it works with the Department of Natural Resources and the National Park Service to fix the problem, he said.
Had the city applied for a variance, the Department of Natural Resources would “clearly have allowed” a variance to remove the bamboo and wisteria, Langley said.
Sally Bethea, the executive director of the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, said she is concerned about “decision-making being handled ad hoc and not in compliance with important environmental laws.”
“The city of Sandy Springs is supposed to be administering and enforcing these same laws on other developers,” she said. “The fact that they didn’t abide by them here is very troubling.”