In 2012, Sandy Springs began a time of rapid change. The city settled lawsuits that had dragged on for years, pursued economic development and completed a design of plans for what leaders hope will be a vibrant downtown.

Neighborhoods had their own battles. Residents fought plans to develop property containing a cemetery, and members of a homeowners association near Chastain Park are in the middle of a fight to contain a development in their back yards.

Here’s a look at some of the top continuing news stories in Sandy Springs over the past 12 months.

Is this the year that downtown planning got real?

This year may turn out to be a defining moment for the city. It began in January. The city announced it was seeking companies interested in helping to develop downtown.

The announcement sounded innocuous enough. Sandy Springs’ long-standing plan was constructing a city hall on the Target property it purchased in 2008 for $8 million. But council members soon revealed that there was a change in attitude regarding the use of the property, in no small part because the older plan could have required the city using its powers of eminent domain to take property from owners uninterested in selling. Some of the newer council members – Gabriel Sterling, John Paulson and Chip Collins – wanted to explore other opportunities.

In March the Main Street Alliance, one of the biggest backers of the Target becoming a city hall proposal, announced it had changed its position and said it would support turning the former retail store into park space.

Eventually the city hired Boston-based firm Goody Clancy to undertake the downtown planning efforts. Goody Clancy methodically went through several months of study, hosting input meetings over the summer that brought in hundreds of residents who submitted their ideas. At its most recent meeting, the City Council approved the consultant’s recommended plan. That plan calls for Target to become a mix of residential, retail and civic space as well as a parking area. The main civic space for the city would lie between Johnson Ferry Road and Mt. Vernon Highway, facing Roswell Road.

Heard Family Cemetery

A dispute surrounding the ownership of the Heard Family Cemetery blew up into a controversy that’s continuing to play out in Fulton County Superior Court. A man who has title to the property filed for a permit to build a house on it. Christopher Mills, a local real estate attorney, wants to build a house on a portion of the 1-acre parcel he says does not contain graves.

Aside from the burial plots, the site is also the scene of federal troops crossing the river during the Civil War at what was known as Isom’s Ferry. There currently is a historical marker commemorating the event.

Mills sued the city in August after officials rejected his permit application because the property contains a cemetery. Mills got the property from his in-laws, who obtained it by paying delinquent taxes on behalf of a woman who was a descendant of Judge John Heard, a Confederate veteran who is buried there. But cemeteries are tax exempt in Georgia. It ended up on the tax list by mistake, but it’s still unclear why. Mary Ann Elsner, the woman who signed over the rights to Mills’ in-laws, wasn’t the only Heard heir interested in the fate of the property.

Other Heard relatives picked up on the story and eventually 28 of them joined a motion to intervene in the case. Mills’ attorneys have responded, saying they do not object to the family members joining the suit. What happens next is up to the judge, unless both sides can come to an agreement on their own.

T-SPLOST fails

Voters in a 10-county region of metro Atlanta that included Fulton and DeKalb counties sent politicians a message last July by voting down a penny sales tax intended to pay for regional transportation projects. That message? “We’d rather be stuck in traffic than trust you guys with another $7 billion to $8 billion to spend.”

The money was to be spent on a list of specific projects designed to reduce traffic jams by fixing roads, extending MARTA and adding bike and walking paths. The voters shot the program down, with 63 percent voting against it. Now planners and regional politicians are looking for other ways to raise money for the most badly needed projects, such as improvements to the intersection of Ga. 400 and I-285.

Neighborhood groups oppose complex

Neighborhood associations in Sandy Springs and Buckhead have teamed up against plans for a mixed-use development and apartment complex near the intersection of Wieuca and Roswell roads.

JLB Partners and Core Property Capital are behind the project. They initially proposed 700 apartment units and a seven-story parking deck and would demolish apartments now on the property. If left at its current size, it would force millions of dollars worth of road improvements to accommodate the expected increase in traffic.

Four neighborhood associations have registered complaints about the project. They are Cherokee Park and High Point Civic in Sandy Springs, and Chastain Park and North Buckhead Civic in Atlanta. The developer has asked Sandy Springs to defer its zoning application until next year. Sandy Springs Councilman Chip Collins sent an email to residents on Nov. 16 saying the City Council may vote on zoning in March, at the earliest.

Parks

As Sandy Springs works to increase its available park space, some of its more noteworthy projects are still a long way from completion. City Council in January enthusiastically approved a resolution to accept donated “playable art” for installation in its Abernathy Greenway Linear Park. It had all the makings of a feel-good story, free playground equipment being donated for premiere park location and a City Council beaming with pride.

It was supposed to open by the end of this year, but like many best-laid plans, the playable art park ran into the usual bureaucratic delays. The city added restrooms and a pavilion to the project, which pushed back the park’s opening date. City Council plans to award a contract for the Phase Four construction in January, which means construction could begin in March. The bathrooms were added to the project with the expectation the playable art would be a runaway success and draw crowds of people.

Lost Corner Preserve, on Brandon Mill Road, finished the year on track to open to the public for the first time since the city obtained it in 2008. The 26-acre park contains tall oak trees, planted at least 100 years ago and left untouched by the family of Peggy Miles, the woman who sold the land to the city for use as a passive park.

The park, located within 2,000 feet of the Chattahoochee River, is dotted with streams and rock falls and contains the Miles family home. This year, the park’s caretakers have received a $90,000 grant to build trails that will allow the public to enjoy the green space. City officials are considering adding a new entrance and parking lot to Lost Corner Preserve, which should allow opening the property to the public next year.

The city also is negotiating to buy from Fulton County yet another piece of riverside land to use as a park. It’s located on Old Riverside Drive.

Economic development

As Sandy Springs worked to develop its downtown, its economic development strategy gained traction. In December 2011, the council hired an Economic Development Manager. The city on Jan. 3 appointed an economic development advisory committee to provide input on how to grow the city’s economy. Also in January, Graphic Packaging made official what had long been reported, that it was moving its corporate headquarters from Marietta to Sandy Springs, lured by economic incentives offered by the city.

Mayor Eva Galambos made the rounds, giving speeches to the business community and neighborhood groups, focusing specifically on the need to nurture international trade. In August the City Council received a basic economic development plan to use as a guide going forward. CBS Corp. this year announced plans to bring its IT Services center to Sandy Springs, a move expected to generate 101 jobs; economic incentives likewise were a lure for the company.

Major business news included Branch Properties’ decision to buy the struggling City Walk development, and Regent Partners has purchased the Concourse Corporate Center in Sandy Springs, which includes the iconic King and Queen buildings. The Sandy Springs/Perimeter Chamber of Commerce began promoting its initiative to turn the city’s famous “Pill Hill” into a Silicon Valley of medicine. Kirk Demetrops, president of MidCity Real Estate Partners, announced a $36 million development of seven medical office buildings at the northwest corner of Ga. 400 and North Hammond Drive. The city also hired an economic development director, Andrea Hall.

It wasn’t all positive developments, however. Gwinnett Technical College decided to open its North Fulton branch in the rival city of Alpharetta. Owners in Powers Ferry Landing’s business district asked the city to put more emphasis on economic development there, drawing attention to the area that is within Sandy Springs’ borders but not commonly associated with the city.

The city also announced Permit Go!, an attempt to address developers’ complaints about the city’s permitting process.

Lawsuits settled

City Council tied up several legal loose ends, resolving litigation that had dogged the city for years. The city settled a religious discrimination complaint filed against it by the Church of Scientology, a case that began with a 2009 application to rezone the church’s building at 5395 Roswell Road. The church wanted to expand, but the council narrowly approved a zoning application that limited the church’s size to 32,053 square feet, instead of the 43,916 square feet the church wanted. The settlement gave the church the extra space it wanted.

A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit asking the court to revoke the charters of Sandy Springs and Dunwoody because of alleged dilution of minority voting rights. The City Council narrowly approved a settlement of a lawsuit filed by MLGP Lakeside over plans to develop the property at 5775 and 5795 Glenridge Drive. The deal allowed the project to proceed with 40 percent reduction in office density. The city voted to allow new billboards as part of an agreement with advertising companies that will limit the presence of the signs in the city’s main thoroughfare, a deal reached after the state Supreme Court in 2011 granted the permits along Roswell Road. The compromise will also keep the ads out of the city’s town center area around the triangle formed by Roswell Road, Mt. Vernon Highway and Johnson Ferry Road.

In December, the City Council voted to pay Fulton County $500,000 to settle a lawsuit about overtime costs for county firefighters who provided services to the city prior to the city establishing its own fire department.