As the city of Sandy Springs gears up two studies about adding transit and multi-modal lanes on a widened Mount Vernon Highway, residents have growing fears that it will require demolishing many houses. City officials say that idea came from early conceptual drawings and any actual plans are many months away – but they also will not rule out the eminent domain taking of homes.
Four homeowners associations in the affected area – the southern stretch of Mount Vernon east of Glenridge Drive – are gathering for an Oct. 24 special meeting that City Councilmember Chris Burnett will attend. Among its organizers is local resident Brian Eufinger, a former competitor of Burnett’s for the council seat, who issued a flyer using Revolutionary War-era lingo to say the HOAs must “stand together or we will surely die apart.”
“I don’t want to be homeless,” said Eufinger, whose house is among those touched by the road-widening line in preliminary drawings. He said he knows it’s early in a process, but also says the city has a history of moving ahead with preconceived plans. He also questioned the need for a wider road or transit options, likening it to Atlanta’s little-used Downtown streetcar and saying it could “waste $20 million and displace a hundred residents” for nothing.
City officials don’t deny that the drawings show houses might come down, or that the final plan could require that. But they also say it’s far too early in a process that has yet to nail down any recommendations, let alone plans, and which will have public input meetings – the first of which is coming on Nov. 14.
City spokesperson Sharon Kraun said the 10-month-old early drawings were purely conceptual, only showing that “if you simply laid this [widening] down in the middle of Mount Vernon as it exists today, what would the impact be?” And the result, she noted, showed, “That’s a lot of impact.”
“That is so way ahead,” she said of concerns about house-taking in the final plans months or years from now. “Can I tell you 100 percent we won’t need any right of way if we go ahead and implement any of those ideas? I’m not an engineer. I can’t speak to that … It’s too early.”
Burnett said he has heard from some concerned residents and is “encouraging people not to get too concerned too quickly … I hate not being able to be more specific, but we’re just not there yet.”
Asked whether he’s comfortable with eminent domain of houses being on the table in the first place, Burnett said, “I guess I could never say I’m comfortable with taking homes.” He said he believes “there are ways to shift the roadway – and I’m not a traffic engineer – where most of the land needed to be taken is on the north side of the road,” opposite the houses in question.
The city’s plans for Mount Vernon Highway go back to an $11 million multi-use path that was one of several projects on the list for last year’s voter-approved transportation special purpose local option sales tax. That path, to run between Roswell Road and the Sandy Springs MARTA Station, overlapped with another TSPLOST item – a study of possible mass transit along such routes.
By the City Council’s annual retreat in January, the Mount Vernon concept had morphed into a concept for not only multi-use paths, but also additional “multi-modal” lanes on the street. The multi-modal lanes would be restricted to use by alternative or mass transit, such as bicycles, shuttle buses or self-driving cars.
The conceptual drawings of various lane configurations — up to 79 feet wide, or a total road width around 90 feet — were shown at that meeting. The widest version showed that it would have “major conflict” with 19 houses fronting on Mount Vernon Oaks Drive and Cotswold Lane, as well as others in the area. That appears to mean at least taking large portions of the houses’ yards and a high brick wall; in some cases, it clearly means demolishing the home.
Since then, according to Kraun, the city has hired two consulting firms to study different parts of the Mount Vernon concept: KCI and Gresham, Smith and Partners. One is working to refine recommended transit and multi-modal options for the corridor and the other on how such options would work.
The consultants started work in recent weeks and are expected to finish studying by year’s end, with a public presentation of final recommendations in February or March, Kraun said. Any actual design, based on their recommendations and public feedback, would follow and would take at least many more months.
The city and the state have other significant projects on both ends of that stretch of Mount Vernon: a city plan to improve the intersection with Johnson Ferry Road, which in a rethinking phase after a controversial dual-roundabout plan, and the state’s project to replace the bridge over Ga. 400 as part of its I-285/Ga. 400 interchange reconstruction. Kraun and Burnett said it is unlikely that either project will limit the options for the multi-modal/transit study.
Eufinger acknowledged that he had been aware of the conceptual drawing showing possible house-taking since it was released in January, but that he was not immediately concerned.
“I didn’t think there was a snowball’s chance in hell the TSPLOST was going to pass,” he said.
Recently, he said, residents became concerned when surveyors began entering yards as part of the study. Then, about a month ago, Gresham, Smith and Partners consultants held a meeting with HOA members. (Affected HOAs include Glenview, Mount Vernon Parc, Mount Vernon Walk and Registry Glen.) Eufinger said residents were frustrated that the consultants talked in transit “buzzwords” while dodging any discussion about the possible house-takings.
Eufinger said the concept is similar to the city’s controversial study of widening Hammond Drive, less than a mile south of Mount Vernon. There, the city is already buying up houses as land-banking for the possible widening. Both Eufinger and Burnett expressed skepticism about the Hammond widening plan during last year’s council campaign, though Burnett has since voted with the council majority to purchase more houses. The difference on Mount Vernon, Eufinger said, is the many other uses, including schools, a library and businesses.
Eufinger cited several doubts about the idea of Mount Vernon widening and transit, with or without house-taking. He said it would not improve traffic unless “they agree to tunnel under Roswell Road at Johnson Ferry,” where cars hit a bottleneck, and that traffic is only a problem at peak rush hour. “Hellen Keller could drive down Mount Vernon safely 100 hours a week,” he said.
He also questioned the need for a shuttle or other transit option.
“If they’re so confident, prove it,” he said. “Run a free shuttle along that route. See if people ride it.”
Burnett said he understands the local concerns.
“I have to be honest with people and say, ‘I can’t tell you today what it’s going to look like,’” Burnett said. But, he added, he assures residents that the study recommendations will get “diligent” council review so the “impact on their quality of life is as minimal as possible,” and an “abundance of public meetings.”