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 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. While 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.

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.

Sembler’s request has been temporarily withdrawn, but not until after the Development Authority deferred a decision on the tax abatement pending a review and revision of the authority’s policies.