The fight over 19 acres of land the city wants for the Peachtree Creek Greenway is heating up after court-ordered negotiations proved fruitless.
The city is refusing to pay more than its appraised value of $340,000 while the property owners say the tract of land is worth $2.3 million because it is prime for townhome development. The attorney for the property owners also states the city is “acting in bad faith and showing egregious conduct.”
The City Council voted in June to use eminent domain to acquire the undeveloped land at 1793 Briarwood Road that is included in the first “model mile” of the Greenway trail and park expected to break ground early this year.
The city appraised the property last year for $340,000 and said they tried to work with Mark Morgan and Lifestyle Family Group, the property’s owners, to pay that amount. The property owners say they intended to build a townhome development on the site and countered with a $2.3 million price tag.
With the vote approved to use eminent domain, the city filed in September a petition to condemn in DeKalb County Superior Court, which meant the two parties would enter into negotiations with a court-appointed special master. A special master essentially serves as a judge to hear evidence from both parties before making a ruling.
Those talks in November again proved fruitless. On Dec. 21, the city ceased talks with the property owners through the special master and filed a “Declaration of Taking” to seize the property. The city paid the $340,000 appraised value into the registry of the court, which is to then go to the property owners.
Christian Torgrimson of Purley Friese Torgrimson, an attorney for the owners, on Jan. 11 filed a court motion to dismiss the land-taking, alleging the city is breaking state laws in its use of eminent domain.
“[The city] has ignored statutory rules and protections by attempting to amend these ongoing proceedings, all in order to avoid the results of its unlawful actions and bad faith conduct and the required payment of fees and expenses incurred” by the property owners, she states in the motion.
The city declined to comment.
In the motion, Torgrimson said the 19 acres on Briarwood Road is one of the few remaining large tracts of land in the city “that since late 2016 has been primed for development of a townhome community along with other compatible uses.”
The motion said discussions between Morgan and City Manager Christian Sigman began in the summer of 2016.
On Sept. 19, 2016, City Attorney Chris Balch offered the property owners $120,750, stating the price “represents 5 percent premium over the appraised value obtained by the city,” according to the motion. No appraisal was included with the price offer, according to the motion.
On Sept. 21, Morgan made a counteroffer to sell an easement of the property for the $120,750 or sell the entire property for $495,000, “despite the fact that at the time he did not believe it represented fair market value,” according to the motion.
The motion says that Balch responded not with further negotiations, but instead “threatened Mr. Morgan with legal action and repercussions if he did not negotiate.”
Morgan was “shocked and understood Mr. Balch’s statements to be a direct threat of condemnation in order to force him to sell,” according to the motion. On Sept. 29, Balch emailed Morgan again and acknowledged his “unduly harsh” response, and increased the city’s offer for the 19 acres to $190,000.
In an interview, Torgrimson said the city violated state law by sending out someone to appraise the Briarwood Road property without informing the property owners.
“The city’s appraiser did at no time get on the phone and call saying he was going to appraise the property,” she said, which means the city essentially “admitted to trespassing.”
Morgan broke off negotiations with the city when he realized he would not be paid $495,000 and hired Torgrimson.
The only appraisal Morgan received from the city, according to the motion, was more than one month after entering into negotiations. That appraisal was a redacted two-page letter dated Nov. 15, 2015, stating the value of the Briarwood Road property was $191,500.
During the special master hearings in November, the city presented an appraiser who stated the land was worth $340,000 based on an appraisal made in December 2016. The appraiser acknowledged he did not contact the property owners to ask permission to inspect the land, according to the motion.
That appraisal states only 3.16 acres of the 19 acres can be developed. But Torgrimson said in an interview the appraisal needs to be thrown out for having no supporting information that fails to comply with state law.
“We don’t take this lightly,” Torgrimson said. “The city is acting in bad faith and showing egregious conduct. And we still don’t have a resolution. What we are trying to do is get the case dismissed.”
The $2.3 million number came up in settlement talks, Torgrimson added, and added the entire property can be developed into townhomes.
“The value of the property continues to increase. The Brookhaven market is exploding,” she said.
A hearing on the motion is expected to take place in February, she said.
The City Council last year approved a $35 million master plan for the Greenway that includes approximately three miles in Brookhaven. The 19 acres on Briarwood Road is included in phase one of the Greenway project, about a 1.25-mile section between North Druid Hills Road and Briarwood Road.