Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul says he has heard several complaints from residents and has his own frustrations with the “eyesore” property on the east side of Roswell Road across from City Springs. The city has long aimed to spruce up the area with a park and paths, but projects have been stalled due to a lawsuit over booting three billboards from the property. The suit was drawn out for a year.
City Attorney Dan Lee said at a Nov. 19 City Council meeting that the city cannot redevelop the land until a judge issues an order for the signs to come down.
“I have been getting a lot of questions about the property…the wasteland, as it’s become known,” Paul said at the meeting. “The only thing that’s missing is simply for the judge to issue an order.”
“Sometimes judges don’t have a deadline so they don’t rush to…make a decision,” Lee said.
The property is a triangle of concrete and gravel that has remained untouched since commercial buildings were torn down by the city in August 2018. The billboards there display advertising for various businesses; in late November, they included one of City Springs’ own tenants, the Hydra hydration clinic.
The issue with the property dates back years. In February 2016, the council approved the property to be taken using eminent domain. But in February 2017, the city came to an agreement to purchase the four-parcel site known as the Roswell Road/Johnson Ferry Road/Mount Vernon Highway triangle from the former owner W.B. Holdings Triangle LLC, whose principal is Adam Orkin, for about $4.8 million. After the purchase was agreed upon, the condemnation was dismissed.
The city purchased the land for two projects. One is a park planned for the Roswell Road side of the triangle, called Triangle Park, that would face City Springs, the city’s civic and arts complex. The other is a project estimated around $30 million to reconstruct the Johnson Ferry/Mount Vernon Highway intersection into dual roundabouts to decrease traffic and increase walkability in the downtown area.
After the purchase, Lee attempted a trade-off scheme to allow the billboard to be “upgraded” into an LED version in exchange for the billboard company, Outfront Media, removing three of its other, existing billboards anywhere in the city. But the council killed the proposal saying it did not serve the citizens well.
Outfront Media is an outdoor media company that operates in Canada and the U.S. It owns the billboards and the poles, but it was leasing the ground from Orkin.
According to Lee, prior to the purchase, Orkin extended the lease with the lessees that rented the three billboards on the property. The amendment to extend the lease held a clause that said if the property was sold to an entity that could condemn it, the lease would cease to exist, Lee said.
After learning of the clause, the city sued for an eviction warrant, and the case was heard in Fulton County Superior Court in December 2018, according to Lee.
Simultaneously, OutFront Media sought attorney’s fees, saying if a city files a condemnation and then dismisses it, the condemnee is entitled if they have an interest in the property.
“We answered, saying the interest dissolved when the property sold, just as the billboards’ right to be there dissolved when the property sold and the lease ended,” Lee said.
Now, Outfront Media and the city have been waiting a year for a judge’s decision as to whether the billboard company is entitled to attorney’s fees and whether the billboards must come down.
“We have been waiting on a decision ever since,” Lee said.
Orkin and Outfront Media did not respond to requests for comment.
City spokesperson Sharon Kraun said the lease terminated upon the sale of the property, but the city is following the required legal process in order to “evict” them.
“If you rented your home and then sold the property and the tenant refused to leave, you would have to go through a similar process to have that tenant formally removed,” Kraun said.
Lee said the city’s options are to seek a rehearing or to file a complaint in a higher court against the judge not issuing an order in a respectful amount of time.
“I think we’ve gone on long enough to where a complaint is appropriate,” Lee said. “We paid $5 million and you can’t use it.”
District 5 City Councilmember Tibby DeJulio asked at the Nov. 19 meeting if the lessee has been paying rent to the city on the billboards.
“Being the monetarist person around here, is their rent being paid on that billboard and if so, where is it going? And how much is it?” he asked.
Lee said the billboard company tried to pay the city a year’s worth of rent — about $24,500 — but the city returned the check because it would negate the city’s case in court.
On Nov. 27, the city received notice from the court that the judge issued an order that allows the billboards to come down.
“The judge ruled in the city’s favor on all counts,” Kraun said in a Nov. 27 email.
Kraun said it is unknown when the city will bring down the signage.
Interim City Manager Peggy Merriss said city staff is brainstorming site improvements to make the area more aesthetically pleasing. The improvements should be able to stay after the billboards come down to be as economically sound as possible, she said.
“When the billboards get torn down, what we have done won’t get torn down,” Merriss said at the meeting.
“We are developing short-term solutions to improve aesthetics,” Kraun said.
“It is in the top two eyesores in the community right now,” Paul said.
Though finding a temporary solution may be a new idea, Kraun said the city’s long-term plans to create a park and a more walkable downtown in the area remain the same.
In September 2017, the city issued a document with an overview of the various construction projects around City Springs, including a miniature 1.05-acre park across from City Springs in the triangle on Mount Vernon.
“The Triangle Park is envisioned as a new, passive park for the city adjacent to the City Springs Development. The park will offer a front-row seat to the beautiful City Springs Performing Arts Center and Civic Center,” the document reads.
In November 2017, former city manager John McDonough said the future park may include flags and some type of veterans’ monument.
The idea for a park reappeared in the city’s comprehensive plan for the recreation and parks system, which was released in February.
“One of the trails the plan included was a connection from the Abernathy Greenway to the Hammond Springs Shopping Center. That connection crosses Mount Vernon and Johnson Ferry at the planned City Springs Park II (Triangle Park),” the document reads.
Although the park has been a long-envisioned goal, it will not be an easy feat for the city. At the Nov. 19 meeting, Lee said that even though the city has now obtained an order for the billboards to come down, the demolition will be a long process because of all the concrete.
This story has been updated with additional information.