An insurance agent says he is fighting the city’s eminent-domain taking of his business at the corner of Mount Vernon Highway and Sandy Springs Circle, a court battle that appears to be delaying a streetscape project.
Randy Beavers, who had sold State Farm insurance from 135 Mount Vernon since 2005, said the city already forced him to move out to rented space, a situation he calls a “nightmare.” The City Council in February approved eminent domain takings of Beavers’ property and parts of others as right of way for a redesigned Sandy Springs Circle featuring sidewalks and a multiuse path.
The city is offering $358,000, Beavers says. He wants $2.2 million.
“Until this is resolved, they can’t do anything,” said Beavers. “They can’t widen the road. They can’t tear my building down.”
The city did not respond to questions about Beavers’ case and the status of the streetscape project.
The Sandy Springs Circle project is part of a 2012 master plan for a denser, more walkable downtown area, now known as City Springs and anchored by the brand new, $229 million civic center of the same name. The plan was developed with public input and approval, but carrying it out has involved land-takings that have sometimes been controversial, both in the community and on the City Council. The city has authorized eminent domain in many cases, but officials usually emphasize it is a negotiating tactic that in all but one case has been resolved without a court trial.
Officials made similar statements when the eminent domain of Beavers’ property and three others was approved. City Attorney Dan Lee said at the time that it was largely triggered by a technical deadline for right of way acquisition that was attached to federal funding for the streetscape project. Mayor Rusty Paul said at the time that the city would “continue to negotiate in good faith” with property owners.
Beavers said his negotiation did not go well. He says the city never responded to his counteroffer, instead ordering him to move out of his building – a house converted into an office – by May 19 or pay $3,000 a month in rent to stay.
He called the city’s legal team “the most ruthless people… I don’t know how they sleep at night.”
Beavers started his insurance agency in the late 1970s and acquired the Mount Vernon house from a former client. According to Fulton County property records, the house dates to 1940 and sits on about a quarter-acre. The county values the entire property at about $390,000 for tax purposes.
“When they sent me that offer, it was like a gigantic slap in the face,” Beavers said of the $358,000 offer, which was noted as an appraised value in the City Council’s original eminent domain approval discussion.
He said the condemnation order gave him 45 days to move his business, and imposed a big new expense: $40,000 in rent at the Springs shopping center on Johnson Ferry Road. He said he hoped to stay at Mount Vernon and never retire, but eminent domain also removes the option of renting to another business if he did.
“When you have to shut your business down [and move], it hurts production tremendously,” he said. “How’s this going to affect me over the next 25 years?… They’re taking my ability to make money.”
Beavers said his attorney, Harry Camp, is seeking to get the condemnation order set aside and leave his property alone. Camp could not be reached for comment.
The City Springs civic center is still frequently described by city leaders in terms of a shuttered business it replaced: a vacant Target big-box store. But the project also required taking the property of many existing businesses, from a Waffle House and a Sherwin-Williams paint store to smaller, local shops. All told, the city spent more than $37 million acquiring more than two-dozen parcels, according to data previously provided by the city. Many of those acquisitions began as eminent domain filings, and some went into court-supervised negotiation, but only one went to trial, according to the city. That was a case involving a restaurant that sat on the main City Springs site. In the other cases, a price was agreed on, and sometimes included moving expenses.
Beavers’ $2.2 million counteroffer is based partly on one of those City Springs agreements just two doors down. That’s where photographer Eric Bern, in a similar dispute over relocating his business in 2014, got about $1.1 million from the city for the land and expenses. The city wanted the site for an extension of Blue Stone Road, which recently opened.
The Sandy Springs Circle project is different but related via the City Springs district master plan. It stalled in 2016 as well over concerns about public input and land-taking at the Sandy Springs United Methodist Church Activities Center, across the street from Beavers’ property. The church says the city has altered the design to resolve its concerns.
More recently, the city last year bought 140 Hilderbrand Drive, right next door to Beavers’ property and similar in size, for about $686,000. Partly that was for the same streetscape project, and partly so the city could bank the land for possible denser redevelopment, as sketched out in that old master plan. The plan’s sketch includes Beavers’ property as well. The idea of the city or a future developer making money from his eminent-domained property bothers him, too.
Meanwhile, Beavers said, the city’s downtown redevelopment is already so successful that taking the money and buying a new office is out of reach. “The closest thing is about a half-acre for $3 million with no building,” he said.