Sandy Springs City Council rejected an eminent domain settlement offer for a small piece of land for a streetscape project, saying that the price is excessive. The denial of the nearly $500,000 settlement will now send the case to court later this month, where a jury could rule the compensation should be the same, higher or lower.

“I think it is incumbent upon us that we represent our taxpayers well,” District 3 Councilmember Chris Burnett said at a Sept. 3 council meeting where the settlement was denied. “I do not think the proposal…is indicative of that.”

The unanimous denial of the settlement for the Sandy Springs Circle streetscape project came after the council deferred a vote on the settlement at an Aug. 20 meeting.

The land needed for the streetscape project is located at the Centre Court shopping center at 6010 Sandy Springs Circle. It includes 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 proposed compensation amount of $499,750 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.

The overall 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.

The land was approved for an eminent domain taking by the city for the use of the project in February 2018.

However, the city and the owner of the property, Centre Court, LLP, have been going back and forth for over a year on what is “just” compensation for the land needed.

The city originally appraised the value of the property needed at $305,600, an amount that was set aside at the time of the taking in the Court Registry, where funds in dispute are held until the settlement of eminent domain cases.

The owner felt the appraisal was not accurate and countered with an offer of $701,000 to City Attorney Dan Lee.

Centre Court, LLP declined to comment at this time.

Lee ultimately recommended the council to settle at $499,750 — $194,150 more than the original appraisal — at an Aug. 20 council meeting, where the council chose to defer.

“This seems like a lot of money for this small parcel,” District 1 Councilman John Paulson said at the Aug. 20 meeting.

Before discussion at the meeting, Burnett disclosed that the owner of the property is the landlord for the bank he manages, First Landmark Bank, and asked Lee if he needed to recuse himself from the vote due to a conflict of interest.

Burnett originally recused himself from the specific vote about the right of way taking in February 2018 due to his landlord’s involvement.

After Lee said he did not think recusal was necessary, Burnett referenced insurance agent Randy Beavers’ former property, 135 Mount Vernon Highway, only a few hundred yards away from the Sandy Springs Circle property, for which the city paid $862,500 for earlier this month to settle an eminent domain lawsuit.

The city paid about $40 per square foot in that settlement, while the Sandy Springs Circle settlement proposal was nearly $80 per square foot, 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.

Lee says the main difference in price is because the temporary construction will take away a significant amount of parking space and interrupt business in the Sandy Springs Circle shopping center.

“That’s one reason for the exaggerated price…It’s a greater value to the city, unlike the corner lot with Beavers,” Lee said. “The temporary construction easement on this is more onerous because of the area that has to be worked on.”

Lee says the deadline for a settlement is approaching and the case will now go to a jury trial the week of Sept. 30. He said there is no way to know if the ultimate “just compensation” will be higher or lower than the amount council denied.

The only way to avoid a trial is if the owner and the council decide on an amount, which could be lower, higher or the current settlement amount. Any such settlement would still have to be approved by council before Sept. 30, according to Lee.

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