The Sandy Springs City Council is balking on some settlements for right of way acquisition for city road projects, claiming the costs are too high and calling for a fuller explanation. City Attorney Dan Lee blames the prices on Sandy Springs land costs increasing exponentially.
While the city is mainly acquiring strips of land for a long-anticipated streetscape project, there have been two settlements involving entire properties for land-banking purposes. One of those parcels now contains a gravel parking lot for city vehicle parking.
The Sandy Springs Circle streetscape project is a $7 million redesign of Sandy Springs Circle between Hammond Drive and Mount Vernon Highway. It will convert four travel lanes to two, plus a turn lane and on-street parking, and add sidewalks and a multiuse path.
At a Sept. 3 meeting, the council denied an eminent domain settlement offer for a small piece of land at 6010 Sandy Springs Circle, saying the price is excessive.
The $499,750 recommended by staff as a settlement is for 0.146 acres the city would use for the project itself and 0.309 acres the city would temporarily own for up to two years for construction.
The unanimous denial came after the council deferred a vote on the settlement at an Aug. 20 meeting.
The proposed compensation amount is because of the negative impact of the construction, which would take approximately six or seven parking spaces from the shopping center, according to city documents.
Because of the denial, the settlement will go to court the week of Sept. 30 and Lee says the jury could rule the compensation should be the same, higher or lower.
The council is concerned the price is too high when compared to an eminent domain lawsuit that was settled in August, in which the city paid $862,500 for Randy Beaver’s former State Farm insurance agency at 135 Mount Vernon Highway, only a few hundred yards away from the Sandy Springs Circle property.
The city paid about $40 per square foot in that settlement, while the 6010 Sandy Springs Circle settlement proposal was nearly $80 per square foot, District 3 City Councilmember Chris Burnett says.
“Isn’t this substantially more per square foot than we just agreed to pay for a superior-use property right across from City Springs?” Burnett asked at the Aug. 20 meeting.
The six properties, if acquired at their original appraisal, would have collectively cost $1,335,200.
The total cost for the four settled properties is $1,489,471.96 in terms of the streetscape project, and two properties’ cost has yet to be determined.
However, when including the total cost for 140 Hilderbrand, the total eminent domain purchase is $2,175,406.06.
Officials estimated in 2016 that right of way acquisition for the entire project could cost $2.8 million to $3 million.
Lee says the reason the settlement purchases are more expensive than the city anticipated is because of steadily increasing land value.
“Sandy Springs land values keep going up,” Lee said.
The council is also expressing concerns regarding eminent domain takings on the Johnson Ferry Road/Glenridge Connector Sidewalk Project.
The project aims to improve the intersection at Johnson Ferry and Glenridge and is currently out for bids for construction.
At a Sept. 17 meeting, the council deferred a purchase for property rights at 800 Johnson Ferry Road for $362,139.75. An appraisal previously estimated just compensation would be roughly half that amount, at $183,500.
The property needed for the project is 0.04 acres, along with certain construction easements totaling around 0.06 acres, according to city documents.
“This is insanity,” District 1 City Councilmember John Paulson said. “I cannot support this.”
“I am starting to see a pattern here,” Burnett said.
Lee also pointed out that this is only for right of way and the settlement would be what is owed before utility line relocation and construction even begins.
“Other than getting a sidewalk, what are we accomplishing spending that kind of money, just starting with the land acquisition?” Burnett asked.
“You are getting a sidewalk,” Lee said.
The council deferred the vote until Oct. 15 to have a chance to go over the settlement and review their options.
When the city purchased Beaver’s property at 135 Mount Vernon, a house dating to the 1940s and sitting on about a quarter-acre, city staff recommended to purchase the entire parcel rather than just the small piece of land needed for the streetscape project to bank the land.
“Taking down a house does not allow the city to gain the rest of the lot, so it left a major scar on the property and the city’s only use could have been to have the sidewalk expanded and prohibited any further or future construction on the property,” Lee said.
The house has since been demolished, but it is still undetermined what that development may be, Lee says.
The city also chose at a June 6, 2017 meeting to purchase the entire property at 140 Hilderbrand and a lot of about four-tenths of an acre for $685,934.10, not just the small amount of property needed for the streetscape.
That purchase was to bank land for a possible, undetermined redevelopment between City Springs and Heritage Sandy Springs. However, there have been no further talks of redevelopment at that parcel.
The property was purchased as Antiques & Clocks of Sandy Springs, but has since been used as an office for the Performing Arts Center and, now, after being demolished, a parking lot for city vehicles.
“When we have multiple large events taking place on the same day, we ask staff to use alternate spaces, including the gravel lot on Hilderbrand,” Kraun said. “This has successfully supported the additional parking needs.”
The only property in private ownership left on the block is a business called Professional Cleaners and Gown Preservation. The city and the business did not respond to questions about the future of that property.
The streetscape project’s right of way acquisition could also potentially impact the Heritage Sandy Springs Museum, where a stake indicates part of the front lawn will be taken.
Sandy Springs Circle Streetscape acquisitions
The following list of properties acquired by the city for the Sandy Springs Circle Streetscape project shows the city’s appraisals amounts, followed by the settled or pending amounts.
75 Hilderbrand Drive: $269,300; $496,287.96
140 Hilderbrand Drive: $83,500; $685,934.10 (including acquisition of entire property)
135 Mount Vernon Highway: $358,800; $862,500
227 Sandy Springs Circle: $37,600; $47,184
6010 Sandy Springs Circle: $305,600; Denied for a settlement of $499,750 and awaiting trial
6025 Sandy Springs Circle: $280,400; Still in negotiations