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Posted by on March 26, 2012.

Some on council wary of using eminent domain for City Hall

Some Sandy Springs City Council members say they aren’t looking forward to the possibility of using eminent domain to buy property for the city’s future downtown and City Hall.

It’s ultimately the City Council’s decision, the city’s attorney says.

If the council members’ disagreement creates a split vote on the council, it would require the tie-breaking vote of Mayor Eva Galambos. Galambos said she is set on developing downtown around land the city currently owns, the former Target property at 235 Johnson Ferry Road.

The eminent domain process would involve forcing the sale of parcels around the Target property. It’s a power routinely used by cities to buy up rights of way for road projects.

But this is different, some council members say. The property owners will be compensated, but several of them have said they do not want to sell.

Councilman Gabriel Sterling recently emailed constituents that he will not support eminent domain.

“I believe eminent domain is appropriate for a road or a sidewalk or a school or something that cannot go anywhere else,” Sterling said. “It is a tool of last resort because it is one of the most powerful tools given to government…and while there are other options on the table for a municipal complex, I will not be voting to close down businesses that have spent years building a clientele, providing service and creating jobs.”

Councilwoman Karen Meinzen McEnerny said she supports eminent domain.

“They’re not being kicked out of Sandy Springs,” she said. “They’re being compensated … There are built-in costs to help them move and costs to acquire additional property nearby. It’s not like we’re kicking them out of our community.”

Councilwoman Dianne Fries said she isn’t ready to go there yet.

“I don’t know if we’ll even need it,” Fries said. “I’m trying to stay extremely open minded.”

Councilman Tibby DeJulio said he’s not sure the city should move out of the building it currently rents at the Morgan Falls Office Park. If he is convinced of the need for a new city hall, he says using eminent domain to help construct it will be a “last resort.”

“We should first try to negotiate,” DeJulio said. “We should first try to mediate. We should first try to come to an understanding with property owners. Eminent domain is a necessary evil if it has to be done. Right now we don’t know.”

The city recently hired Boston-based firm Goody Clancy for $350,000 to develop the city’s downtown master plan. The final plan is due sometime in November.

Councilman Chip Collins said he hopes the planning process will help the city confirm whether the Target site is the best place for a city hall or help the city find a better spot.

“If there are two options for doing a city hall that are equally attractive and one involves having to use eminent domain and the other involves not, I would certainly side with the one that does not involve using eminent domain,” Collins said.

Councilman John Paulson, who also said eminent domain is a “last resort” measure, said he’s hoping the council won’t be asked to make that call.

“I’d be very reluctant to use it,” Paulson said. “It doesn’t mean I’m against it. Hopefully we don’t have to do that.”

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