By John Schaffner

The Sembler Co. announced Aug. 27 the signing of four anchor tenants for Town Brookhaven — Publix, Costco, LA Fitness and CineBistro, an upscale dinner-and-a-movie house — the developer’s plans to start construction this fall, even without a controversial tax break approved by DeKalb County.

Work should begin in November with the stores opening in late 2010, Sembler said.

The announcement of the four anchor tenants shows retailer interest in the 54-acre Town Brookhaven mixed-use project, but it apparently will not end the Florida developer’s bid for a larger tax break that the firm claims it needs to complete the project with restaurants and boutiques.

Sembler President Jeff Fuqua says he needs the tax break to help attract about 40 smaller retailers and local restaurants. The firm has a bank loan and investor capital, but he says the tax break will give him more money to build customized tenant spaces and lower lease rates.

The Sembler Co.’s bid for a $52 million 100 percent tax abatement for the Town Brookhaven development, was charged with controversy as DeKalb residents, mobilized by Rep. Mike Jacobs (R-Brookhaven), decried the authority for even considering the abatement.

Town Brookhaven was granted a 10-year tax abatement Dec. 29 of last year. Estimated at $20 million, that abatement is a graduated tax exemption: Owners pay 5 percent of property taxes the first year, and the percentage rises annually to 100 percent in the 11th year. As the economy continued to falter, Sembler sought to enhance its abatement. Under the proposal, Sembler would have deeded the Town Brookhaven properties to the authority, which would finance the purchase with bonds and lease the tax-exempt property to Sembler for 20 years.

While Brookhaven residents generally have expressed a desire to see Town Brookhaven completed, most who have spoken on the issue opposed subsidizing an existing project so substantially with tax dollars — especially without the approval of officials accountable to voters.

Sembler’s request has been temporarily withdrawn, but not until after the Development Authority deferred a decision on the tax abatement, pending a review and revision of the authority’s policies. That action came at the suggestion of DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis, the Board of Commissioners and the authority’s own underwriting adviser.

Eugene Walker, who became the focus of an ethics discussion that brought down Sembler’s bid for the $52 million tax abatement, announced Aug. 18 that he would resign immediately as chairman of the Development Authority to shield the agency from criticism directed at him.

Walker drew complaints from residents and public officials alike earlier this year when he championed the unprecedented tax break for Sembler, which had donated $18,000 last year when Walker successfully ran for the county school board.

In announcing his resignation from the Development Authority, Walker said his presence on the board was a “distraction” for other members. “I don’t want to get in the way of any development that would be positive and strong for DeKalb County,” he said. “That includes Sembler.”

The new chair of the Development Authority is Judy Turner, President and CEO of First Decatur Bank.