As the Georgia Department of Transportation moves ahead on plans for a new system of toll lanes along Ga. 400 and I-285, frustration and fear are rising among residents concerned about a different toll – the one on their homes and back yards for possible land-taking.

At three community meetings in Dunwoody and Sandy Springs in January, GDOT officials disappointed residents by claiming it’s too soon to know property impacts of the lanes, which could require widening the highways and which may rise over 30 feet high. In a backlash to those meetings, several homeowners reported that GDOT is studying or making offers for land-taking in their yards. And it was revealed that among the options under GDOT consideration is demolishing eight homes on Sandy Springs’ Crestline Parkway for an interchange and tearing down part of a Dunwoody townhouse while leaving the rest standing.

Dunwoody resident Bob Wolford stands in a narrow Georgia Department of Transportation right of way in the Georgetown neighborhood that could be consumed by the new toll lanes. He is among the residents worried about possible land-taking and noise impacts to homes and community facilities. (Dyana Bagby)

“I really do believe this is being done way too quickly, and they’re not being transparent… like saying they have no plans in place when they obviously do,” said Amanda Cusick, a resident of Sandy Springs’ Montrose Lane, who shared a detailed land-taking plan for her street.

GDOT’s “express lanes” or “managed lanes” project would add four new toll-only lanes along I-285 and Ga. 400 in the Perimeter Center area over the next decade, with the intent of improving overall traffic flow. The Ga. 400 lanes also would carry a new MARTA bus rapid transit route, which requires other access points and stations.

GDOT has repeatedly refused to fulfill open records requests from the Reporter for proposed property-taking information, citing varying and sometimes contradictory grounds, some of which an attorney on the board of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation has called unlawful.

GDOT officials say that full proposed property-taking impacts will be revealed for the Ga. 400 toll lanes at a series of meetings in February and March, with a local stop March 12 at Sandy Springs City Hall. The I-285 toll lane details will not be revealed until later this year. In addition, the toll lanes that will run on Ga. 400 south of North Springs MARTA Station are now considered part of the I-285 project. All plans and related property-taking could still change, GDOT says.

GDOT is now conducting an environmental study for the I-285 toll lanes that will determine where sound barriers and right of way will be needed. The study is expected to be finished in two years.

City and community leaders in Dunwoody and Sandy Springs have been active in meeting with GDOT and raising concerns about the toll lanes’ possible impacts on property and traffic. In Brookhaven, City Councilmember Linley Jones said she has heard from a few residents seeking information about the I-285 toll lanes, but not many. Information from GDOT is also scarce, she said. “We’re not getting as much information from GDOT as we would like at this point,” she said.

Meanwhile, several local homeowners say they’re already facing land-taking and figuring out what it means for their futures.

‘Frustration and anxiety’ in Sandy Springs

Last year, GDOT privately showed Fulton County Schools administrators drawing of possible property impacts at Sandy Springs schools, including Dunwoody Springs Elementary. When the Reporter requested the same details for properties adjacent to the school, GDOT said the information did not exist, and its officials later refused to take audience questions at a community meeting about the toll lanes held at Dunwoody Springs.

Meanwhile, less than 600 feet to the south of the school, GDOT had already planted markers in John Mason’s back yard on Sandy Springs’ Spindle Court. They indicated, he says, that the new toll lanes’ property-line fence could come within 30 feet of his house.

“… I understand completely the frustration and anxiety many residents along Ga. 400 are feeling” about the project, Mason said in an email.

A Georgia Department of Transportation plan showing proposed property acquisition and easements on Sandy Springs’ Montrose Lane for the I-285 toll lanes project, as resident Amanda Cusick said was provided to her as part of an appraisal process.

Mason said he first heard from GDOT contractors about possible toll-lane property impacts in April 2017. In June 2018, he said, they requested sketches of his back yard, then surveyed it a few weeks later. Since then, he says, GDOT has repeatedly delayed a decision on property-taking and says it is “reevaluating” the options. The final decision, he’s been told, in the hands of a GDOT appraiser.

“I don’t think I want an appraiser making such a life-altering decision for me,” Mason said.

Rob Harvey of Sandy Springs’ Montrose Lane is another homeowner surprised by GDOT’s claims that no decisions of property-taking have been made. That’s because GDOT already showed him detailed plans to put the new I-285 lanes 50 feet closer to his house than the current highway, and made an offer in January to buy part of his back yard in 30 to 40 days.

Harvey is not a fan of GDOT appraisers, either. He said GDOT’s land acquisition contractor made a basic offer for part of his property, but would not pay damages. That’s despite word that the lanes would not come closer to his house, but also be elevated to an undetermined height.

“… The appraiser said this won’t really impact the value of your property,” Harvey recalled. “I said, ‘How could putting a gigantic interstate 50 feet closer and taking away my green space buffer not impact the future value of my property?’”

Harvey said the GDOT contracts told him they would entertain a counter-offer, but also made it clear that eminent domain is on the table. He says if he’s forced to sell, he would consider moving out, but he’s worried the plan is already lowering his property value.

“I would probably try to sell,” he said. “The problem is, [the toll lanes plan is] already out there. I think it’s already too late to sell, to be honest with you.”

Preserving a Dunwoody community

Bob Wolford’s home in the Georgetown community in Dunwoody is located about two football field lengths from the edge of the westbound lanes of I-285. The steady roar of 18-wheelers and cars zooming by on the interstate easily drown out the sounds of songbirds. And the scarce trees between his home and the interstate give him and his neighbors a clear view of the traffic as it speeds by.

“My wife and I have kind of gotten used to [the noise] over the years. What’s really disturbing is when trucks hit their brakes, or there is an accident,” he said.

In December, GDOT contractors showed up in Wolford’s driveway and said they were conducting an environmental study for the new I-285 toll lanes.

They showed Wolford illustrations on their touchscreen tablets, where a red line went directly through his house. His home was in the “area of potential effects,” or APE, of the new toll lanes, they explained, as they walked around and took pictures of his house and yard, shooting in the direction of I-285.

The environmental study is expected to determine where sound barriers are needed in residential and commercial areas along I-285. Looking across I-285 to the eastbound lanes, or the Brookhaven side of the interstate, noise barriers already exist, protecting single-family neighborhoods from the traffic noise. But what happens to the current barriers or if more barriers will be needed won’t be known until the environmental study is finished in 2021.

Only dozens of feet separate the 50-year-old Georgetown Recreation Club and its swimming pool, now protected by a blue cover as seen at right, from I-285 in Dunwoody. Bob Wolford, a Georgetown resident who played at the club as a child, said he and others worry right of way acquisition for the new toll lanes could eat up the club’s property and destroy the historic community center. (Dyana Bagby)

The Georgetown Recreation Club, where the Georgetown Dolphins children’s swim team competes against other local swim clubs and parents and families from nearby neighborhoods have socialized for 50 years, is located just dozens of feet from I-285 wall. The club’s swimming pool and tennis courts are in the crosshairs of any construction of toll lanes. Kent Nichols, president of the club, pleaded with GDOT representatives at a Jan. 22 community meeting organized by Dunwoody City Councilmember Lynn Deutsch to not harm the club as it acquired right of way for the project.

“We are interested in preserving that as part of our community in any way possible,” he said.

Sheila Garvin has lived in the Chateau Club townhomes for 15 years. Located in three separate buildings, the townhomes are also only dozens of feet from I-285. Two years ago, GDOT representatives visited their homeowners’ association, Garvin said, and they were told GDOT could take just a part of one building if needed as part of right of way acquisition to build the new toll lanes.

“I stopped listening at that point. You can’t take half a building. You should take the whole building,” she said.

At the Jan. 22 meeting, GDOT representatives said it is still too early to determine how right of way acquisition could affect the Chateau Club townhomes or any Georgetown property. GDOT spokesperson Natalie Dale said later in an email that taking part of a building is “unique and not a common practice,” but it can be an option.

Wolford said he expects the GDOT consultants to revisit him again as part of their environmental impact study that is expected to also determine where access points to the toll lanes will be as well as what right of way is needed to construct the toll lanes.

“The truth is, we’re already impacted,” Wolford said. “Once they’re done, we are still living here. The work they are doing is impacting us now, our standard of living, the values of our property.”

–John Ruch, Dyana Bagby and Evelyn Andrews

John Ruch

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