Advisory committee member appeals Atlanta training center’s permits

February 6, 2023 Atlanta Law enforcement was out en masse Monday morning, Feb. 6, 2023 at the site of Atlanta’s proposed public safety training center, clearing the woods in anticipation of construction on the controversial facility beginning in earnest. SWAT teams from the Atlanta, DeKalb County police departments, as well as Georgia State Patrol troopers and representatives from other agencies, were seen at the site in southwest DeKalb County. Construction contractors were also there with equipment. Amid the beeping of trucks backing up and the clanging of heavy equipment off Key Road, construction workers busily prepared the site with a backhoe and a bulldozer. Police officers in olive green uniforms patrolled the area atop all-terrain vehicles. The operation was taking place several days after officials announced that initial land disturbance permits had been approved for the $90-million facility — and about three weeks after a similar clearing operation resulted in the death of 26-year-old Manuel “Tortuguita” Teran. During that fatal Jan. 18 incident, Teran is accused of firing at troopers “without warning,” wounding one. Teran died after several other troopers returned fire, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation has said. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

February 6, 2023 Atlanta Law enforcement was out en masse Monday morning, Feb. 6, 2023 at the site of Atlanta’s proposed public safety training center, clearing the woods in anticipation of construction on the controversial facility beginning in earnest. SWAT teams from the Atlanta, DeKalb County police departments, as well as Georgia State Patrol troopers and representatives from other agencies, were seen at the site in southwest DeKalb County. Construction contractors were also there with equipment. Amid the beeping of trucks backing up and the clanging of heavy equipment off Key Road, construction workers busily prepared the site with a backhoe and a bulldozer. Police officers in olive green uniforms patrolled the area atop all-terrain vehicles. The operation was taking place several days after officials announced that initial land disturbance permits had been approved for the $90-million facility — and about three weeks after a similar clearing operation resulted in the death of 26-year-old Manuel “Tortuguita” Teran. During that fatal Jan. 18 incident, Teran is accused of firing at troopers “without warning,” wounding one. Teran died after several other troopers returned fire, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation has said. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

A member of the committee tasked with helping guide the future of Atlanta’s public safety training center is challenging the recently issued permits that cleared the way for construction.

Another member of the same citizen committee, which Atlanta and DeKalb County leaders recently touted as a valuable source of community input, resigned following last month’s fatal shooting near the training center site — and is questioning the group’s worth.

“I think there’s a lot of people who are on the committee who are fine with it and didn’t feel like it was our place to raise questions or push back on how things are being done. And that we were just kind of there to hear them give updates on what was being done,” said Starlight Heights resident Nicole Morado, who resigned Jan. 18, the same day Manuel “Tortuguita” Teran was killed while allegedly exchanging gunfire with state troopers near the training center site.

Initial land disturbance permits for the $90 million, 85-acre training center were approved by DeKalb’s planning department last week, about 11 months after they were requested.

The permits allow for grading, clearing and infrastructure improvements at the site. Some of that work appeared to begin Monday morning.

Later the same day, online news publication Saporta Report first reported that Amy Taylor, another member of the community stakeholder advisory committee (CSAC), had formally challenged approval of the permits.

Jon Schwartz, an attorney working with Taylor, later provided The Atlanta Journal-Constitution with a copy of the related documents, which accuse the city and county of overlooking existing restrictions on sediment discharges and exaggerating the amount of greenspace that would be preserved.

Schwartz also confirmed that the challenge was filed in collaboration with the South River Watershed Alliance, a local environmental advocacy group that raised similar issues before the permits were granted. He did not provided further comment.

It was not immediately clear if and how the matter would proceed, or if it would have any immediate impact on work already underway. But Taylor’s filing is effectively a request for a public hearing in front of DeKalb’s zoning board of appeals.

According to that board’s schedule, the earliest the matter could be heard is April 12.

Documents suggest Taylor has standing to appeal because she lives within 250 feet of the training center site.

“The county received the appeal for the Land Development Permit for the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center yesterday and it is under review,” a DeKalb County spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “It would be inappropriate to comment on the substance of the challenge.”

The training center site, which would host facilities for Atlanta’s fire and police departments, is in DeKalb but owned by the city. DeKalb officials, therefore, have no real say on the project beyond the administrative permitting process.

DeKalb officials previously released a timeline of the steps taken during that process, with CEO Michael Thurmond suggesting it produced “protections and enhancements [that] are really above and beyond the development policies and procedures of our county.”

Among other things, officials have said construction of the facility would have “double erosion control.”

The idea behind the stakeholder committee, meanwhile, was to bring individuals who live near the training center site together to provide input and try and make the development as palatable as possible for neighbors. Officials have said regularly that the committee was not tasked with weighing whether or not the training center should be built at all.

Various recommendations made by the committee — including relocating the firing range away from residential neighborhoods, removing a planned explosives range altogether, and moving the site’s primary entrance off Key Road — have been accepted during the site plan design process. They were also included in the memorandum of understanding signed last week by Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens and Thurmond.

Morado said she was glad those items were considered, but called the overall situation “definitely not ideal.”

“Knowing real victims aren’t getting protection from authorities because they’re preoccupied removing protestors or protecting a land development site seems short-sighted and an improper use of resources,” she said.

Morando said she disagrees with the use of force against protesters at the site.

“Just not agreeing with that kind of use of force, and knowing that someone’s child was taken from them because they wanted to save a forest, just didn’t sit well with me,” she said.

It’s possible that Taylor’s future on the advisory committee is up in the air as well.

While the situations differ, a now-former member named Lily Ponitz was dismissed from the committee last June after publicly questioning environmental testing at the training center site, even publishing a guest column in the Saporta Report.

At the time, committee co-chair Alison Clark said the issue was with how Ponitz expressed her dissent. Bylaws name the chair as the committee’s “designated spokesperson.”

Clark said in a text message Tuesday she didn’t know how the situation would “ultimately be received by committee members” but Taylor hadn’t been “disparaging and/or challenging the work of the CSAC as [Ponitz] did.”

“Personally, I don’t think it becomes a problem as long as her work on the committee is done with an understanding of our role separate and apart from her appeal to the county,” Clark said.

She said the committee is “still doing valuable work.”

Its next meeting is set for Feb. 21.

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Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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