Did College Park violate the law in approving battery storage plant?

College Park’s approval of a battery storage facility and an accompanying $1.6 million in payments to the city is being questioned by the public and the mayor. Courtesy City of College Park Government Facebook

Credit: Courtesy City of College Park Government Facebook

Credit: Courtesy City of College Park Government Facebook

College Park’s approval of a battery storage facility and an accompanying $1.6 million in payments to the city is being questioned by the public and the mayor. Courtesy City of College Park Government Facebook

The state Attorney General’s office is looking into whether the College Park City Council violated the law when it approved rezoning for a controversial battery storage plant — after two residents and the city’s own mayor asked the office to investigate.

Last summer and in 2021, College Park rejected the building of a $400 million battery storage facility that would border the city of South Fulton after residents voiced concerns over the possibility of uncontrollable fires or explosions.

It now appears Southwest Atlanta Energy Storage will be built after all on a 62-acre property on Welcome All Road in College Park.

Mayor Bianca Motley Broom said she believes City Council violated state and local zoning laws in March by approving rezoning for the battery plant project without providing notice of a public hearing. She said council approving $1.6 million in payments to the city from NextEra Energy Resources, the company that will build the facility, is also improper.

Separately, Motley Broom is currently suing the city of College Park over ordinances passed by City Council in January that limit her powers to speak during debate on agenda items.

College Park approved rezoning of the battery storage property from business park to light industrial in a split vote on March 18 without a public hearing, public knowledge or input. Councilman Joe Carn was the sole vote in opposition, but there was no discussion on the item by any of the councilmembers. That was followed by a unanimous vote to approve receipt of $1.6 million to the city of College Park from NextEra.

Motley Broom, in a March 21 post on her website, mayorbianca.com, said the city’s acceptance of the funds “is not a good look.”

“The argument could be made that in exchange for a rezoning approval, the city will receive $1.6 million,” she wrote.

Andrew I. Cohen, director of research for the Jean Beer Blumenfeld Center for Ethics at Georgia State University, agrees. The accompanying funds from NextEra create an appearance of a conflict of interest, he said.

And the city appears to have violated the Open Meetings Act, according to Richard T. Griffiths, a spokesman for the First Amendment Foundation.

The rezoning item and the NextEra payment to College Park were added to an amended agenda at the start of the March 18 regular meeting with no supporting documents and little explanation.

During a series of questions from Motley Broom, Acting City Manager Emmanuel O. Adediran said the agenda items were brought to him by Councilman Roderick Gay before the meeting.

Gay told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week that when the council considered the rezoning in August there was not a subsequent vote to deny the rezoning; therefore, it was presented as a renewed motion at the March meeting and no public hearing was required.

However, Griffiths said: “To make the argument that ‘Well, we already looked at it before so it was still standing’ falls flat because it’s clearly a violation of the Open Meetings Act in relation to the agenda item.”

Motley Broom, who did not vote on the March 18 council meeting agenda items, said she was not informed about the additions beforehand.

“Why would we ever want to be in a position of not giving the public an opportunity to comment on this pivotal decision?” Motley Broom told the AJC.

A spokesperson for state Attorney General Chris Carr on Tuesday confirmed that Motley Broom asked the office to look into whether the city council violated the law. The spokesperson also said the Attorney General’s Office has heard from two residents expressing concerns of violation of the Open Meetings Act.

Assistant Attorney General Kristen Settlemire sent a letter to College Park City Attorney Winston Denmark dated March 27 inquiring about the residents’ concerns. Settlemire wrote that she was not assuming the city violated state law and said that it’s an issue of “whether city council properly considered those items at its March 18 meeting, in light of the fact that they were not included on the agenda.”

Settlemire added: “This office also reserves the right to pursue litigation in these matters where it deems doing so is appropriate.”

Griffiths said the open meetings law is designed to prevent officials from excluding the public from having a say in city decisions.

“The public deserves to know what’s being discussed in meetings in advance. And momentous decisions that will affect communities need to be laid out for the public to be able to consider.”

Southwest Atlanta Energy Storage will house lithium ion batteries and is scheduled to open in December of next year, according to NextEra.

Reaction and backlash

During a community meeting, last Thursday, College Park officials said unspecified safety measures are in place for the coming project.

NextEra did not answer inquiries from the AJC or respond to questions about concerns raised by Motley Broom and others about the $1.6 million in payments.

The company spokesperson said NextEra stands by an emailed statement sent to the AJC last Friday about its interest in the community.

“At NextEra Energy Resources, we believe in building strong relationships and making a difference in local communities,” spokeswoman Sara Cassidy said. “Through our projects, we strive to contribute to a sustainable future while creating jobs, economic growth and tax revenue that goes directly to supporting local schools, infrastructure and programs.”

The rezoning decision, residents say, was made in an “underhanded” fashion.

On Monday, Paul Loveless was among several residents who admonished council members during their regular meeting.

He compared the rezoning approval to placing a target on the community.

“I don’t want to die as a result of an explosion or fire,” said Loveless, who added that he is a nearly 40-year resident of College Park. “It freaks me out to think that you guys would take our lives for just a little more than $1.6 million.”

Residents’ fear of an outbreak of fires is rooted in news reports of fires at other battery storage facilities around the country.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency website has addressed the growing hazards of battery storage facility fires. A 2019 article on the site says that fires can easily spread, causing an explosion, and can be difficult to extinguish.

College Park resident Mose James told the AJC he grew up in the neighborhood adjacent to where the battery storage facility will be located and he has concerns about the possible danger.

“The woods where they plan on putting the battery plant is where we rode our bikes through (as kids),” James said. He noted the area is economically depressed and speculated that a battery plant would not be approved in a more affluent area.

“The people that we voted to protect us are failing us,” James said. “It feels like the people that we elected are not working in our favor and they’re putting us in harm’s way for money.”

On his YouTube channel, James has pointed out NextEra’s $5,000 donation to an annual community festival hosted by Councilman Gay, and also $3,300 in contributions to the past mayoral campaign of Gay’s wife, Pamela Stoner Gay.

Councilman Gay, a fourth-generation resident of College Park, confirmed the contributions and said, “I would hope that my character, my years of service, my education would far outrank any presumption that I would be willing to be part of legislation because someone helped to benefit a community festival.”

NextEra has previously given the city $15,000 that benefitted a local elementary school, Councilwoman Jamelle McKenzie said during Thursday’s community meeting.

The company did not respond to requests to confirm the donations.

College Park documents related to the battery storage facility project on the mayor’s website include a March memo from NextEra showing that the battery facility entity, Southwest Atlanta Energy Storage, will commit to three “investments” totaling $1.6 million.

The document reads that $200,000 will be paid “upon rezoning,” another $600,000 will be paid “upon commercial contract award,” and an additional $800,000 paid “prior to obtaining project build permits.”

During last Thursday’s community meeting, McKenzie listed community initiatives that the funds are to be spent on, including park upgrades, a blood drive, voter education events and free self-defense lessons.

An earlier version of this story misstated the date that Settlemire sent a letter to the College Park city attorney inquiring about residents’ concerns.