Despite a last-minute stand by Brookhaven Innovation Academy parents asking the City Council to hold off on approving to buy some 30 acres of wooded property at PDK Airport, the council voted 3-1 to move forward with the $5.7 million purchase to keep the area as green space.
Councilmember Bates Mattison cast the lone no vote. He is the former executive director of BIA, a state charter school that began as a city initiative and is now an independent entity. The school is currently located in Norcross after its board could not find suitable property in the city limits.
Parents of BIA students were hoping a portion of the PDK Airport land could be used as a school site to bring it back into the city and have been sending non-stop emails since Thursday to the City Council asking them to delay the vote. Many also spoke at the meeting, pleading with council to delay the vote.
But part of the purchase agreement between the county and the city includes the promise of no development on the land, said City Manager Christian Sigman during the council work session before the council meeting. Any development, such as a school, would make the agreement null and void. The county must now approve the purchase for it to be final and is expected to vote on the agreement early next year. The $5.7 million price is set by the Federal Aviation Administration at fair market value, according to city officials.
Councilmember John Park, who represents the area where the green space is located, noted that two years ago, when the land was valued at $3 million, the City Council changed its comprehensive plan to make buying this piece of property a priority. The city has also made it part of its parks master plans to up its current five acres of green space per 1,000 residents to eight acres per 1,000 residents, which, he said, this land buy will bring closer to a reality.
“This is just a continuation of our goals as a city,” Park said. “We spent two years publicly debating this and four months looking for funding and vetting it. This fits with our policy.”
Mattison made a motion requesting a 30-day deferral, but it failed for a lack of a second. He said the City Council was neglecting its fiduciary duty by not exploring options to monetize the property, including allowing BIA to locate at the site and pay to cover the $5.7 million price tag.
“We have unanimous support to preserve this as green space. The only question is funding … how we are going to pay for it?” Mattison said. “There are ways we can monetize … including BIA as a participant. They could pay for the amortization of the $5.7 million. But this contract stops all of these options dead in the water.”
Councilmember Joe Gebbia, who helped start BIA and sat on its board of directors at one time, said his “heart breaks” that the school is not currently located in Brookhaven. He said he didn’t understand why the BIA board and parents did not approach DeKalb County about the site since they are the seller of the land. He also questioned the last-minute attempt to stop a plan that has been years in the making.
“You can’t wait until the 11th hour,” he said.
Former city council member and developer Jim Eyre said he wanted his tax dollars to go toward “paving, parks and police” and not the purchase of green space.
“If you want to do projects outside [paving, parks and police], put together a list and put it out to a referendum,” he said. “We did not vote for obscure funding for pet projects of a councilman.”
Eyre added that the land could be used for a soccer complex or a school. He also again accused Councilmember Park of benefiting from the purchase because his home is adjacent to the airport land. Park did not address the accusation at this City Council meeting, but denied any conflict of interest raised by Eyre at a September meeting.
Several BIA parents spoke as well, including Adam Caskey, whose son attends the school.
“I’m here to speak to you on behalf of the many united families that emailed you guys,” he said.
“The most important thing is a strong desire from BIA to come home. I’m here for more than 100 parents just to say please don’t forget about us. As a citizen, it would be a travesty for this institution to not ultimately make its way home,” he said.
Lori Geary, a Brookhaven resident who last month stepped down as a WSB-TV reporter and with children at BIA, said the property was ideal for a school, including a swimming pool.
“You have such a gem located in Norcross. We want to come here. Just slow down on this vote,” she said.
Several people spoke in favor of the purchase to keep the land as green space. Marianna Yates presented the council with a petition of 1,100 residents who supported the deal.
“This land … is a precious natural resource,” she said. If the city doesn’t buy it, she said she believed DeKalb County would likely sell it for development. “There is no other place like this in the city.”
Lissie Stahlman, a former school teacher, questioned BIA’s desire to be located across the street from a busy airport and wondered if it was a safe location for children.
After the vote, BIA board chair Jennifer Langley said the board will continue to search for a location in Brookhaven or the surrounding area.
“I think they [the council] made, I wont say a mistake, but they certainly left something, as Councilman Mattison said, left opportunities to actually fund the land off the table, one of those being Brookhaven Innovation Academy.”
Sigman told the council during its work session that to buy the green space was a “once in a lifetime opportunity.” The financing through a loan from the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority at .89 percent interest rate with a $500,000 loan forgiveness. He said that any delay in the vote to agree to purchase the land puts the loan at risk.
He also said the city would be using the $2.4 million the city is receiving from the county as part of the Skyland Park property purchase for a new school to help cover costs for the airport land buy. The $2.4 million was specifically set aside to purchase green space.
Heated work session
Sigman also tried to explain to Mattison during the work session that adding development to the property to help pay for the purchase goes against not only the agreement with the county but the loan restrictions that mandate the area be preserved as a green space.
But DeKalb County has kept the area a green space for a number of years already, Mattison argued, and the city could lobby the county to do so while also trying to negotiate a lower price.
Sigman said there was a “fundamental flaw” in Mattison’s argument because currently there is a fence around the property and the public has no access to it. With the city’s purchase, the public will be able to enjoy it as a green space.
City Attorney Chris Balch also explained that the deal is specifically between two government entities, meaning the purchase does not have to go out to a public bid process. Straying from that agreement could cause trust issues between the county and city, he said.
When Mattison asked Sigman about monetizing the land through conservation easement tax credits and tax incentives to investors to cover its cost, Sigman explained that governments don’t get conservation easements, only private companies do.
“How do they get that money back? By developing the property,” Sigman said.
Mattison argued that investors buy into the land and promise it won’t be developed, that the property could be transferred to a private company and sell bonds on the free market.
“If they don’t add value to the property, it is against IRS rules or a Ponzi scheme,” Sigman told Mattison.
“That is flat-out innacurate,” Mattison answered.
Balch explained that any kind of public-private partnership would mean tearing up the agreement with the county and the loan application the city has applied for. Any private entity wanting to purchase the land would require a public bid process, he said.
Mattison suggested the DeKalb Development Authority could take over the land to monetize it. Balch said development authorities are not in business to preserve green space but rather for economic development and creating jobs.
“This is the most one-sided contract I’ve seen in my life,” Mattison said. “We’re going to allow the county to tell the city you can’t do anything with this property.”
“When they’re the seller, we have to listen,” said Mayor John Ernst. “We can blow by this option again, but it’s going to cost us.”