A former NFL and Georgia Bulldogs star’s clearing of a backyard woodland is infuriating his Sandy Springs neighbors, who call it destruction of wilderness for a mini football field. But the athlete’s contractor says he’s just making a bigger – and perfectly legal – yard where his kids can play ball.

Champ Bailey – a recently retired Denver Broncos cornerback and All-America player for the University of Georgia formally named Roland Bailey Jr. – and his family bought the mansion at 995 Heards Ferry Road in May 2017 for $2.9 million, according to county property records. The property included a wooded section of about 0.7 acres that neighbors thought was protected under a 16-year-old zoning condition. But the city says that condition doesn’t apply, and in August, Bailey got permits to raze the woods, expand the lawn and erect a 15- to 30-foot-high retaining wall.

Neighbors Dr. Stewart Szikman, left, and Dr. Jerry Sherman stand in Szikman’s back yard at 930 Ivy Falls Drive while discussing the wall rising behind them as part of Champ Bailey’s yard project. Bailey house is seen in the background. (John Ruch)

That didn’t sit well with Dr. Jerry Sherman and Dr. Stewart Szikman, who live in the houses downhill from Bailey’s back yard at the end of the Ivy Falls Drive cul-de-sac. Their own backyard view transformed from trees into a concrete-brick retaining wall. They’re talking to lawyers, and Sherman said he was willing to spend $50,000 on a lawsuit for loss of property value.

Sherman described the work is a loss of “an acre of urban forest inhabited by owls, foxes and other animals” and says Bailey is “raping the land so he could put a football field in his back yard.”

“Who’s going to want to buy a house with that sitting in the back yard?” Sherman said, referring to the wall rising on the slope above his picture windows.

“Never in my wildest dreams would I imagine someone would take down all the trees for a football field,” said Szikman.

“We’re not mad at Champ Bailey. Every dad wants to be able to play with his kids,” added Szikman, who said he’s a fan and fellow Georgia grad. He said the neighbors are unhappy with the city permitting and the impact on their property, with the message being, “Sandy Springs, you guys dropped the ball.”

Bobby Webb, the contractor on the project, said Bailey was not immediately available for comment. But, Webb said, it’s not really a football field and more of a family yard. Plans filed with the city show a 30-by-50-foot “sports court,” a 55-by-12-foot batting cage and an open area.

“He’s creating a back yard…so he can take his kids out and throw a ball with ’em,” Webb said of Bailey. “He’s really upset with [the neighbors] right now because people are trying to stop him doing what he wants to do on his own property. He’s one of the nicest guys. All he wants to have is a yard to throw the ball to his kids.”

Webb is a former president of the Greater Atlanta Homebuilders Association’s North Fulton chapter and a well-known custom home builder in Buckhead and Sandy Springs, where he has built houses for such famous athletes as basketball legend Julius “Dr. J” Erving. Webb said he built Bailey’s previous house elsewhere in Sandy Springs, adding that the football star moved to Heards Ferry specifically to have the larger back yard for family ball-tossing.

“There’s been a lot of people saying things, behind the house, that are not true,” Webb said. “My opinion, they’ve enjoyed the luxury of looking back into woods and not knowing where their property line is. Now they’re shocked to find out where the property line is.”

Webb said he informed some neighbors about the project beforehand, but Sherman and Szikman – whose side-by-side properties abut the largest section of wall — said it was a surprise to them.

This area of the retaining wall will rise to 30 feet high when complete, according to contractor Bobby Webb, while other sections will be various heights no lower than 15 feet. (John Ruch)

Sherman and Szikman acknowledge that lawyers they’ve consulted tell them the project is legal, though they are seeking a second opinion. Sherman said that regardless, it’s a cautionary tale about a woodland not being as protected as neighbors assume.

“Everybody needs to be vigilant of something like this,” he said.

In part, the controversy is an example of ongoing debates about whether Sandy Springs’ tree protection ordinance should be stiffer. Records indicate that Bailey paid about $2,100 into the city tree fund in exchange for removing some of the larger trees. City officials have said they likely will take up tree ordinance revisions this year for addition into the new city zoning code.

The dispute also involves obscure details of two successive zoning codes, both of them now defunct. Sherman and Szikman believed  the woodland was safe under a Fulton County rezoning dating to 2001, four years before Sandy Springs’ incorporation. That rezoning included a condition that a 40-foot buffer area of the back yard remain “undisturbed.” The city’s own zoning code would have honored that condition, prior to a new zoning code that went into effect in September 2017, just weeks after Bailey’s project got permits.

City spokesperson Sharon Kraun said the original rezoning indeed had that condition, but it related to a subdivision plan that the original builder never carried out. Instead, only one house was built, in 2003, so that condition was never triggered and does not apply under any zoning code, she said. And the city’s own code at the time of the permit filing did not have any buffer requirement in that residential area, she said.

Photos taken by neighbor Dr. Stewart Szikman show similar views of the wooded area as it looked prior to the clearing at right and after the clearing at left.

“They may be right about this,” Sherman acknowledged, though he said a “second opinion” from an attorney is forthcoming.

The neighbors also floated concerns that the project might have gotten a break from city officials due to Bailey’s celebrity or Webb’s involvement in advising the city on codes during the incorporation period. Kraun said that’s not true, and both she and Webb said the permitting process was in fact unusually long and complicated.

“Mr. Bailey’s never been in here [to City Hall],” Kraun said, and building plans are given a numerical code so that the planner does not know the applicant’s name. “It’s a case number, not a person,” she said.

“This was one they looked at every which way,” Kraun said of planning staff’s scrutiny of the plan and its zoning implications before deciding to permit it.

Webb said that he has gotten previous retaining wall projects permitted in about two weeks, but this one took about four months. He said that was because “the city of Sandy Springs really scrutinized this, went back and forth … They crossed every ‘T’ and dotted every ‘i.’”

The main concern city staff made Webb address, he said, was water runoff.  He said that while he understands that neighbors may not like looking at that wall, that runoff work will benefit them.

“The only thing I can see they have a problem with is, they have to look at a wall,” Webb said of the neighbors. But, he added,  that wall should fix existing water runoff issues, so from that perspective, “They’ve got a great situation.”

Updated version: This story has been updated with additional comments from Stewart Szikman.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.

21 replies on “Sandy Springs neighbors outraged by football star’s backyard ball-tossing project”

  1. The only thing I can see they have a problem with is, they have to look at a wall, Webb said of the neighbors.

    Webb might better have said:
    The only thing I can see they … have to look at a 30′ concrete wall instead of a forest of Nature’s Grace and Wildlife.

    1. You Really think that Webb gives a damn about a few trees when he sees $$ is cement walls..??

      We had a similar situation that happened near Dunwoody , Cement walls and dead trees, obnoxious homeowner….some people like designer pools and putting greens more than they like live trees and squirrels.

      1. Yes, Webb does give a damn about trees. I live with him, and we moved our house 5 feet forward (losing any hope of a back yard for our home) to preserve an oak tree that still stands 15 years later. He’s called arborists to his sites to save trees that would have died. He is doing a job for a family who wants a yard rather than trees and has taken a very legal route to get it. And, I can assure you there isn’t much $$ in building cement walls, so that is very much not the motivation here.

  2. We were promised that if we voted for cityhood that the beautiful park like tree canopy that made Sandy Springs so unique would be better protected and preserved. Well we’ve gotten the exact opposite of that. Ever since Sandy Springs became a city they’ve allowed clear cutting to go off the charts. Everywhere I drive I see massive clear cutting of trees. They’ve completely destroyed the character of Sandy Springs to the point that I can’t wait to move out of here. We were much better off as an unincorporated part of Fulton County.

  3. Once you hear the most often incorrect, knee-jerk statement of “it will lower my property value” you know you are dealing with emotion rather than fact. Maybe these neighbors should have bought the property so they could control it rather than trying to force their neighbor into maintaining his trees for their benefit. And, based on the pictures, it looks like these guys should plant their own trees before they before they complain about a lack of them in someone else’s yard.

      1. I find it interesting people talking of knee jerk reactions and not ruining value. How would you like a thirty-ish foot wall in your back yard that is right on the property line. A builder responding that they aren’t bad because they aren’t making much $ on building the extensive wall. Someone else stating they should have purchased the land if they wanted to control it. That is a very costly idea someone is proposing. Controlling what happens and not wanting it completely clear cut and finished off with an enormous wall is hardly controlling your neighbors land and certainly not what 93% of us thought we were getting when we signed up to have our own city. First the tax debacle this year and now it seems like the saving of trees and common sense zoning that “control” of our own city were going to give us has not seemed to work out too well!

        1. Just a few issues to ponder:
          Does anyone have any proof, at all, that the Dr’s property value will be ruined… or affected in any way. It can’t be the wall because I can see more of the Dr’s wall than Bailey’s wall. It can’t be the clear cut because the Dr’s yard is clear cut. Maybe the Dr’s property is “ruining” Bailey’s property value because his house is crammed to the rear of his lot and filled with concrete. These guys live at the bottom of a hill and have benefitted for years from looking at someone else’s “forest”. Is it someone else’s responsibility to do with their property only what their neighbors think will benefit them? Of course not! It’s hypocritical of them not to have their own screening.
          93% (probably 100%) of us voted for the city for more local control and we are getting it. The city is not perfect and never will be because peoples’ opinions differ but you should go to a few City Council meetings and see how things go. I’ve been to probably 15 meeting since the city formed and I am always impressed at how much these people care and how much thought they put into their discussions and decisions.
          I wouldn’t like a huge wall right behind me but if it’s not my property I have no say in it. I would be mortified if someone built a Mediterranean style house next to me because I think they are ugly. But if it’s not my property I have no say in someone else’s taste.

  4. Hypocrisy on full display here! Neighbors with no trees and a flat backyard complaining about someone who wants to create the same situation. Quick lesson for y’all, those aren’t your trees! Move if you don’t like it.

  5. Soliciting sympathy for a Sandy Springs “celebrity” housebuilder…..Lost 5 feet and “any hope for a back yard”….

    You appear to be correct with the legal route and he has all the right to take it.

    As for $$, be assured that this means referrals for other celebrities–thus the motivation

    The other side is that their is some sour grapes here and the steamed Doctors will need to pony up some $$ and put in some trees , so we will all be happy…Hurrah

  6. Wait, someone is doing what they are legally allowed and permitted to do on the property they own and that’s the problem? Can Bailey sue his neighbors because he doesn’t like what they do on their property? Why didn’t the neighbor buy the property if he wanted the Trees? Or should he just control all the properties around him without a financial interest?

  7. Check your zip code people- this is the big city. Did Anyone complain when you “raped” your backyard up to the property line and created that clutter of pool,pool deck,fence and lawn furniture?
    Remember when:
    – perimeter mall was a pastor complete with cows -1960’s
    – The concourse all the way up to Mount Vernon was a single-family neighborhood – 1980’s
    – Petsmart,total wine, FedEx why is a 17 acre one lot estate 1982
    – Walmart was 80 acres of woods
    Get out if you like it (and you don’t use those businesses anyway)

  8. Good points.
    If a neighbor clearing HIS lot within the rules of the City bothers you, I guess you’re in for lot of disappointments. Get out while you can. You old folks can no longer eat at the Brickery. The drive to Target is twice the distance from you since City of SS destroyed the block.
    But look on the bright side- The Mayors office will be closer a year from now while you are still fighting thi$, And also Roswell Road is now a paved road. I bet people complained about that in 1954 when that was done.

  9. I encourage everyone to pull up google maps on the address of the neighbor threatening legal action and going after the city. According to the map, the property has a massive driveway that leads all the way to the backyard, tons of impervious surface with a what appears to be a stone sidewalk and stone ppatio, (maybe over what is allowed by code), and even a large pool and hot tub. I wish that could be added to this article.

    Seems very odd that he is allowed to to have that much concrete and a pool put in but has a problem with others doing it.

  10. Folks, these are the attitudes of the people trying to influence Sandy Springs code. Jump over to the Sandy Springs Zoning Coalition Facebook page and read the “outrage” to what Bailey did on his own property. It is a rather small but vocal and involved group that wants the city to make you do what they want you to do with your yard. They have already gotten a highly-restrictive tree ordinance passed (http://www.sandyspringsga.gov/city-services/natural-resource-protection/trees) and are gunning for much, much more. So much more that they want Atlanta’s code to look liberal in comparison. They claim it’s mainly to keep builders from clear cutting to build subdivisions but it will affect you too. Say YOU planted a few trees in YOUR yard a bunch of years ago and now want to remove them to build a pool (or play field) for YOUR kids or grandkids. Maybe you can if the trees are not too large and you have enough others but, if they are, you now have a bunch of hoops to jump through and probably a tree bank contribution to make… because YOU want to remove a tree YOU planted on YOUR property. It’s a slippery slope my friends.

  11. Newsflash to everyone who is so outraged that the city might try to tell you what can be allowed on your property: That is called zoning; it goes on everyday; like it or not, the city does have the right to say what can and cannot be built on your property.

  12. I have to admit, the photographer who convinced the angered neighbors to pose in their treeless back yard where the only trees visible are in the yard of the neighbor they are protesting really crystalized the issue with his photograph. There may well be more to this story but that photo really does make the protesting neighbors standing in their clear cut backyard look foolish and hypocritical. Must be Georgia Tech fans. Personally I’d love to have Champ Bailey as a backyard neighbor.

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