Fulton development authority quashes incentive for Beltline project

Denial follows AJC reporting questioning tax breaks in hot markets.
The Development Authority of Fulton County has been criticized for granting tax breaks in hot markets such as the Atlanta Beltline. The authority turned down a project along the Beltline at a meeting Aug. 24, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)



The Development Authority of Fulton County has been criticized for granting tax breaks in hot markets such as the Atlanta Beltline. The authority turned down a project along the Beltline at a meeting Aug. 24, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Editor’s note: This story has been update to clarify a change approved to the authority’s executive committee.

The Development Authority of Fulton County (DAFC) on Tuesday shot down a proposed tax break for luxury housing along the Atlanta Beltline and voted to overhaul the governance of its board, a pair of actions that reflect a changing of the guard for the controversial agency.

DAFC also identified a familiar name as its sole finalist to be interim executive director — Sarah-Elizabeth Langford, a well-known real estate lawyer, daughter of a civil rights leader, Georgia Board of Regents member and ex-wife of former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.

DAFC, long criticized as a rubberstamp that grants lucrative tax breaks for projects in well-off parts of the county, deadlocked in a 4-4 vote, turning down the $4.5 million subsidy for Fairfield Residential, which had received preliminary approval just a few months ago.

But much has changed since that time.

In a series of investigative reports since early June, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution revealed a culture of loose financial oversight at DAFC under the leadership of former chairman Bob Shaw. Board members awarded themselves per diems or stipends that elected county commissioners later determined might not have been legal.

Shaw resigned from the board and in recent months four new members have joined.

Earlier this month, an AJC analysis showed DAFC gave preliminary or final approval to more than $328 million in tax breaks since the beginning of 2018, with the overwhelming majority going to projects in hot markets like Buckhead, Midtown and the length of the Beltline loop.

The Development Authority of Fulton County has given millions in tax breaks to developments in hot markets such as Midtown and along the Atlanta Beltline, an AJC analysis found.

Credit: Eric Fan

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Credit: Eric Fan

One of those projects granted preliminary approval was Fairfield Piedmont, the proposed development of 392 apartments on the site of a former extended-stay motel at 1944 Piedmont Circle NE.

To comply with the city’s inclusionary zoning rules, the project proposed 59 workforce housing units, or ones affordable to a family of four earning about $69,000 per year or 80% of the Area Median Income.

But the developer said the incentive would not produce additional affordable units beyond those required by zoning. Instead, developers said extraordinary costs such as demolition of the dilapidated hotel, severe topography issues and environmental remediation would cut into potential profitability of developing the site.

Developer Tommy Brunson did not dispute the apartment market is hot, particularly near the Beltline. But he said some $7 million in pre-development costs not covered by the incentive could cause returns to fall below the threshold desired by institutional investors.

“It makes this project infeasible from an economic standpoint in this market,” Brunson said.

But authority members Tom Tidwell and Kyle Lamont said some of the developer’s remediation cost can be covered by state brownfield tax credits.

Three residents submitted public comment in favor of the project, saying the site is currently a haven for drugs and other crime. Two residents spoke against it. One, Julian Bene, a longtime critic of DAFC, said Atlanta’s school children should not bear the brunt of a tax break for luxury apartments.

Board chairman Michel “Marty” Turpeau IV voted in favor and was joined by state Sen. Brandon Beach, the board’s vice chairman, Treasurer Sam Bacote and Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker.

Lamont, Fulton Schools Superintendent Mike Looney, Atlanta Public Schools executive Erica Long and Tidwell voted against the project.

It was only the second DAFC board vote against incentive in recent memory and the first since 2019.

Board changes

Last month, Tidwell and a majority of the board pushed to start discussions on a number of changes to how DAFC is managed and how it vets projects. The board also started discussions for a deep probe into the authority’s finances under former leadership.

Among concerns is the power of the board’s executive committee. DAFC bylaws establish a five-member executive committee that holds significant power and can conduct some business on its own.

That committee can have a quorum of as few as three members, with as few as a two-member voting majority. The executive committee sets policies for the full board and has in the past hired lobbyists and a public relations firm on the authority’s behalf.

On Tuesday, Tidwell pushed again for a change that would make the executive committee largely a four-member recommending body rather than a committee that can approve contracts and other authority business without input of the overall board. The executive committee could act in emergency situations, but its actions would be subject to approval by the full board at its next regular meeting.

The board approved the change by a 5-3 vote, with Beach, Looney and Turpeau opposed.

The DAFC board also approved plans for a deeper review of its bylaws and internal processes to be led by Bodker with a report in 60 days.

Langford named sole finalist

Turpeau, who in addition to chairman has served for several months as interim executive director, has promised to relinquish the staff role by the end of August.

The authority on Friday published a news release naming Langford as sole finalist to be the next interim leader.

“Sarah-Elizabeth has both the experience and the drive to lead our development authority forward in our desired focus to create more economic development opportunities in South Fulton County, including quality, safe affordable housing to ensure community retention,” Turpeau said in a news release.

According to her bio, Langford is listed as president of Five Points Development, an affordable housing company. The Howard University law school graduate also has worked in the government of Washington, D.C., and as an officer at National Church Residences.

“Throughout my career, I’ve focused on economic development as a means to serve people and communities. I look forward to keeping Fulton County competitive with other markets as we also seek to bring equitable economic opportunities and benefits to our diverse communities across Fulton County,” Langford said in the release.

A board vote is expected next month. Langford’s role is considered interim as the authority expects to conduct a search for a permanent leader, said Turpeau, who added that Langford is not disqualified from seeking that role.

The board also hired longtime community improvement district executive Tad Leithead as a consultant.

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