It was a year of turmoil in city government, with political scandals and turnover in the mayor’s office. But that didn’t stop 2015 from also being a year of big plans, from MARTA station redevelopment to a new public charter school to a possible Peachtree Creek park.
Here’s a look at some of Brookhaven’s top stories of 2015:
Brookhaven Innovation Academy approved
After two years of effort and a previous rejection, the Brookhaven Innovation Academy, a new public charter school, finally won state approval on Aug. 26. That was only the beginning of the story, as BIA began a hunt for a school location and ran into an ethics dust-up over its new interim executive director.
Created by the City Council, BIA is focused on a science, technology and math curriculum, and is intended in part to cope with overcrowding in DeKalb County schools, especially Brookhaven’s Cross Keys cluster.
Approved less than a year before its scheduled August 2016 opening date, BIA raced to find a school location. The city’s decision to purchase the Skyland Center office building prior to BIA’s approval was partly informed by its possible use as a school. Since then, BIA has proposed using space in Skyland Park and Brookhaven Baptist Church, but it was still on the hunt in mid-December.
BIA’s relationship with the City Council triggered ethics concerns. The state required BIA’s board to cut the number of seats held by council members as a condition of the school’s approval. In October, BIA hired Councilman Bates Mattison as its interim executive director, which led Mayor Rebecca Chase Williams to order a legal opinion about the ethics of Mattison’s dual jobs. BIA removed a commission-based fundraising incentive from Mattison’s pay, and the legal review found that Mattison can hold both jobs if he abstains from BIA-related council votes and discloses his relationships with its funders.
Uproar at City Hall
Repeated scandals plagued City Hall and had a lasting impact on local politics. The communications director was fired, the city attorney resigned, and the state Attorney General ruled that City Council broke the law in keeping secret a report describing an incident involving former Mayor J. Max Davis as “sexual harassment.”
Communications Director Rosemary Taylor was fired in April after her dispute with a photographer at the Cherry Blossom Festival made news. Taylor complained that the photographer’s use of models was “not the image Brookhaven wants.” The photographer said Taylor’s comment was racist; Taylor said she was referring to what she described as their inappropriate attire.
That scandal was tame in comparison to the fallout from a February incident where Davis sprayed an aerosol can near two female employees. The incident became public in the spring, with Davis calling it a “joke,” but City Manager Marie Garrett calling it “sexual harassment” in an internal email.
City Attorney Tom Kurrie eventually resigned after advising the council to withhold that email while altering another one related to the incident. The state Attorney General’s office later condemned the council’s secrecy.
Davis, who had resigned to run for the House District 80 seat, blamed his loss in that election partly on the fallout. And John Ernst, the former chair of the DeKalb County Board of Ethics, won the mayoral race on a platform promising transparency and reform.
Ernst elected mayor, third in one year
John Ernst won a landslide victory Nov. 3 to become the third mayor of Brookhaven. In fact, he will be the third mayor within a single tumultuous year of leadership changes.
After Davis, the city’s founding mayor, resigned in June to make an unsuccessful run for a seat in the state Legislature, City Councilwoman Rebecca Chase Williams replaced him. Williams campaigned to retain the mayor’s office, but dropped out of the race in September, citing family health issues.
Ernst, an attorney and former chair of the DeKalb County Board of Ethics, took 88 percent of the vote over candidate Dale Boone to win the mayor’s seat, which will officially become his in January. “There’s no more ‘Brookhaven Yes’ or ‘Brookhaven No,’” Ernst said on Election Night, referring to committees that promoted or objected to creation of the city in 2012. “There’s just Brookhaven. I look forward to a better Brookhaven.”
Pill Hill apartments set Brookhaven against Sandy Springs, lead to call for better planning
Plans for a mixed-use project with 305 apartments on Johnson Ferry Road in Pill Hill sparked some friction between leaders of Brookhaven and Sandy Springs, and got some momentum going for better planning in the traffic-snarled medical center area.
The project’s site is on Emory Saint Joseph’s Hospital land in Sandy Springs, but close to the Brookhaven border. Brookhaven’s mayor protested developer North American Properties’ plan at Sandy Springs meetings this summer, complaining of lack of cross-border notice. Meanwhile, many residents in both cities criticized the project as increasing traffic, though North American Properties says it will be walkable and transit-oriented. The brouhaha led Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul to convene a meeting with Pill Hill hospital leaders, who committed to more coordinated traffic planning, though the details remain unclear.
Peachtree Creek Greenway plan begins
Longstanding dreams of turning the hidden Peachtree Creek along Buford Highway into a linear park turned into a plan this year under the new name Peachtree Creek Greenway. Spearheaded by a local nonprofit formerly known as North Fork Connectors, the greenway is currently focused on Brookhaven’s 3 miles of the creek, but the parkland goal ultimately applies to the entire waterway between Buckhead and Mercer University in unincorporated DeKalb County. Early draft designs show up to four different types of paths lining the creek, with similarities to Atlanta’s BeltLine.
Flowerland park idea is floated
Could Flowerland, a floral tourist attraction from yesteryear rise again on Chamblee-Dunwoody Road? Architect Andrew Amor last month presented a conceptual idea for restoring the former gigantic flower garden of Dr. Luther Fischer in what is now the D’Youville condominiums. Nearly a century ago, tourists flocked to Flowerland during the one day a year it was open to the public. Amor envisions the garden reviving as a public park, along with recreations of a pioneer settlement and a Native American village. But cost was the big question.
MARTA unveils potential development
MARTA on Sept. 3 announced the selection of the team that will redevelop the Brookhaven/Oglethorpe station area into a massive, mixed-use project starting in 2017. The plan includes housing, restaurants, green spaces—and maybe even a grocery store and a new City Hall.
Brookhaven City Center Partners was the winning bidder for the Brookhaven station area at Peachtree Road and Dresden Drive. The mixed-use project would begin with 330 apartments, more than 25,000 square feet of retail space and 117,000 square feet of office space, according to a MARTA press release. Future phases could include around 400 more residential units of senior housing and condos along with civic spaces and a hotel. The plan would reduce the size of the station’s parking lot, replacing 560 existing parking spaces and totally eliminating 900 spaces, according to MARTA.
Tree ordinance debate continues
Another year, another tree ordinance debate. A year after adopting its controversial tree-preservation law, the city revised it again with even tighter restrictions. A key provision is requiring developers to maintain 120 inches—in diameter—of trees per acre or 45 percent of the site’s tree-canopy cover. That still brought complaints from tree preservationists that the rule is too loose and from developers that it might be too restrictive.
CEO’s investigators call DeKalb ‘rotten to the core’
A long-awaited investigative report on DeKalb County government called on county Interim CEO Lee May to resign for an unidentified “questionable loan.” May refused. May himself had commissioned the report from Mike Bowers and Richard Hyde. The investigators at one point described the county government as “rotten to the core.”
Garbage pickups change to once a week
In February, Interim DeKalb CEO Lee May proposed the county cut garbage pickups from two days a week to one and that county sanitation workers pick up yard waste and recycling on the same day they collect garbage. The change, intended to save money, meant garbage trucks will come to residents’ homes once a week instead of four times a week.
Resident Gene Collins expressed his thoughts in a letter to the editor. “I always wondered why DeKalb was the only county (that I’m aware of anyway) that does trash pickup twice a week and recycling on a totally separate day entirely…this is just stupid,” Collins wrote.
Jackie Nealey agreed, writing her own letter to say, “It doesn’t get any simpler than placing everything at the curb on the same day (night before pickup).”
Under the new system, which went into effect July 6, county sanitation workers pick up recycling and yard clippings on the same days the workers pick up garbage. Officials said they made the move to once-a-week pickups to save money and to avoid a hike in the county’s garbage fee, which has remained unchanged since 2006.