A former NFL and Georgia Bulldogs star’s clearing of a backyard woodland is infuriating his Sandy Springs neighbors, who call it destruction of wilderness for a mini football field. But the athlete’s contractor says he’s just making a bigger – and perfectly legal – yard where his kids can play ball.

Champ Bailey – a recently retired Denver Broncos cornerback and All-America player for the University of Georgia formally named Roland Bailey Jr. – and his family bought the mansion at 995 Heards Ferry Road in May 2017 for $2.9 million, according to county property records. The property included a wooded section of about 0.7 acres that neighbors thought was protected under a 16-year-old zoning condition. But the city says that condition doesn’t apply, and in August, Bailey got permits to raze the woods, expand the lawn and erect a 15- to 30-foot-high retaining wall.

Neighbors Dr. Stewart Szikman, left, and Dr. Jerry Sherman stand in Szikman’s back yard at 930 Ivy Falls Drive while discussing the wall rising behind them as part of Champ Bailey’s yard project. Bailey house is seen in the background. (John Ruch)

That didn’t sit well with Dr. Jerry Sherman and Dr. Stewart Szikman, who live in the houses downhill from Bailey’s back yard at the end of the Ivy Falls Drive cul-de-sac. Their own backyard view transformed from trees into a concrete-brick retaining wall. They’re talking to lawyers, and Sherman said he was willing to spend $50,000 on a lawsuit for loss of property value.

Sherman described the work is a loss of “an acre of urban forest inhabited by owls, foxes and other animals” and says Bailey is “raping the land so he could put a football field in his back yard.”

“Who’s going to want to buy a house with that sitting in the back yard?” Sherman said, referring to the wall rising on the slope above his picture windows.

“Never in my wildest dreams would I imagine someone would take down all the trees for a football field,” said Szikman.

“We’re not mad at Champ Bailey. Every dad wants to be able to play with his kids,” added Szikman, who said he’s a fan and fellow Georgia grad. He said the neighbors are unhappy with the city permitting and the impact on their property, with the message being, “Sandy Springs, you guys dropped the ball.”

Bobby Webb, the contractor on the project, said Bailey was not immediately available for comment. But, Webb said, it’s not really a football field and more of a family yard. Plans filed with the city show a 30-by-50-foot “sports court,” a 55-by-12-foot batting cage and an open area.

“He’s creating a back yard…so he can take his kids out and throw a ball with ’em,” Webb said of Bailey. “He’s really upset with [the neighbors] right now because people are trying to stop him doing what he wants to do on his own property. He’s one of the nicest guys. All he wants to have is a yard to throw the ball to his kids.”

Webb is a former president of the Greater Atlanta Homebuilders Association’s North Fulton chapter and a well-known custom home builder in Buckhead and Sandy Springs, where he has built houses for such famous athletes as basketball legend Julius “Dr. J” Erving. Webb said he built Bailey’s previous house elsewhere in Sandy Springs, adding that the football star moved to Heards Ferry specifically to have the larger back yard for family ball-tossing.

“There’s been a lot of people saying things, behind the house, that are not true,” Webb said. “My opinion, they’ve enjoyed the luxury of looking back into woods and not knowing where their property line is. Now they’re shocked to find out where the property line is.”

Webb said he informed some neighbors about the project beforehand, but Sherman and Szikman – whose side-by-side properties abut the largest section of wall — said it was a surprise to them.

This area of the retaining wall will rise to 30 feet high when complete, according to contractor Bobby Webb, while other sections will be various heights no lower than 15 feet. (John Ruch)

Sherman and Szikman acknowledge that lawyers they’ve consulted tell them the project is legal, though they are seeking a second opinion. Sherman said that regardless, it’s a cautionary tale about a woodland not being as protected as neighbors assume.

“Everybody needs to be vigilant of something like this,” he said.

In part, the controversy is an example of ongoing debates about whether Sandy Springs’ tree protection ordinance should be stiffer. Records indicate that Bailey paid about $2,100 into the city tree fund in exchange for removing some of the larger trees. City officials have said they likely will take up tree ordinance revisions this year for addition into the new city zoning code.

The dispute also involves obscure details of two successive zoning codes, both of them now defunct. Sherman and Szikman believed  the woodland was safe under a Fulton County rezoning dating to 2001, four years before Sandy Springs’ incorporation. That rezoning included a condition that a 40-foot buffer area of the back yard remain “undisturbed.” The city’s own zoning code would have honored that condition, prior to a new zoning code that went into effect in September 2017, just weeks after Bailey’s project got permits.

City spokesperson Sharon Kraun said the original rezoning indeed had that condition, but it related to a subdivision plan that the original builder never carried out. Instead, only one house was built, in 2003, so that condition was never triggered and does not apply under any zoning code, she said. And the city’s own code at the time of the permit filing did not have any buffer requirement in that residential area, she said.

Photos taken by neighbor Dr. Stewart Szikman show similar views of the wooded area as it looked prior to the clearing at right and after the clearing at left.

“They may be right about this,” Sherman acknowledged, though he said a “second opinion” from an attorney is forthcoming.

The neighbors also floated concerns that the project might have gotten a break from city officials due to Bailey’s celebrity or Webb’s involvement in advising the city on codes during the incorporation period. Kraun said that’s not true, and both she and Webb said the permitting process was in fact unusually long and complicated.

“Mr. Bailey’s never been in here [to City Hall],” Kraun said, and building plans are given a numerical code so that the planner does not know the applicant’s name. “It’s a case number, not a person,” she said.

“This was one they looked at every which way,” Kraun said of planning staff’s scrutiny of the plan and its zoning implications before deciding to permit it.

Webb said that he has gotten previous retaining wall projects permitted in about two weeks, but this one took about four months. He said that was because “the city of Sandy Springs really scrutinized this, went back and forth … They crossed every ‘T’ and dotted every ‘i.’”

The main concern city staff made Webb address, he said, was water runoff.  He said that while he understands that neighbors may not like looking at that wall, that runoff work will benefit them.

“The only thing I can see they have a problem with is, they have to look at a wall,” Webb said of the neighbors. But, he added,  that wall should fix existing water runoff issues, so from that perspective, “They’ve got a great situation.”

Updated version: This story has been updated with additional comments from Stewart Szikman.