A legal challenge threatening to halt construction of a bridge over Interstate 285 to SunTrust Park, future home of the Atlanta Braves, could be lifted as soon as Monday, but the saga is far from over.
Cobb officials are weighing a proposal from a group of business owners that would allow the county to continue building the bridge while preserving the right of affected parties to seek rulings on legal issues and damages later.
The county maintains that the $11.5 million bridge is needed to provide safe access to the new ballpark, as well as to serve the many office workers and residents in the Cumberland area.
In May, the county successfully sued to condemn several parcels belonging to Galleria Common Area Associates, a sort of homeowners association for the Cobb Galleria, where the bridge is designed to anchor to a parking garage.
Galleria Common Area Associates responded with a motion challenging whether the county could use eminent domain to take away their property for a bridge to the stadium. This petition to “set aside condemnation” was scheduled to be heard on August 25.
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“The Bridge is not a valid public use or purpose justifying or permitting the county’s exercise of its strictly construed power of eminent domain,” the motion read. “The Bridge terminates, at the one end, within the Atlanta Galleria, and it has no connection or access to the public road system. Therefore, the Bridge is not being built for public road or transportation purposes.”
In the meantime, the county has been pursuing an aggressive construction schedule to have the bridge open by the first pitch in April.
A proposed mediation agreement hammered out this week would put off outstanding legal issues until after the project is completed.
The exact terms of the proposal and what assurances Galleria businesses may get in return for dropping their motion have not been made public. Connie Engel, a partner at Childress Klein, which is represented in the lawsuit, declined to comment, as did Galleria Common Area Associates’ attorney, Charles Pursley.
“[The parties] agreed to defer all the issues in the condemnation suit to a later date for resolution, allowing construction to continue on schedule,” county spokeswoman Sheri Kell wrote in an email. “All deferred issues would be considered part of on-going litigation.”
Kell said the terms of the agreement would be brought before the Board of Commissioners in executive session Monday. Any final settlement would have to be brought before the board for a public vote.
Commission Chairman Tim Lee issued an optimistic statement Thursday.
“Condemnation and all related discussions are moving forward,” Lee said. “Bridge construction is moving forward. It is anticipated that on Monday the BOC will officially confirm the withdrawal of the petition to the motion to stay. This is all very good news.”
Commissioner Bob Ott said if the agreement is approved, the case would proceed as most condemnation cases do, with impact and compensation to be ruled on by a court after the completion of the project.
“Ultimately [the county] is going to have to pay for any right-of-way, any access or easements that they take permanently or that we use during construction,” Ott said. “Generally speaking, with condemnation, if you end up in court, it’s really not about whether it’s an issue, it’s about how much” to pay.
Several questions regarding the bridge’s funding and functionality remain unclear.
Kell, the county spokeswoman, cited “pending litigation” in declining to address the lack of direct public access to the bridge alleged in the legal challenge, or whether the Galleria parking deck would require additional reinforcement not included in the budget.
These questions notwithstanding, it appears Cobb will get its bridge. The total cost is already higher than earlier announcements of $10 million, and it may end up costing even more.
Construction of the bridge is being funded by the Cumberland Community Improvement District, The Federal Transit Authority, The Braves, the Cumberland Special Service District and funds from the county’s special one percent sales tax. Critics have taken issue with the use of SPLOST money because the bridge was not included on the voter-approved list of projects.
• $354,321 - 2011 SPLOST (Federal/State local match)
• $600,000 - Federal Transit Administration current and prior year
Construction costs: $10,085,408
• $4,545,988 – FTA current and prior year with local match (Transit Capital Fund)
• $5,000,000 – Cumberland Community Improvement District
• $380,000 – Atlanta Braves
• $159,420 – Cumberland Special Service District
Right of Way & Utilities costs: $490,530
• $434,000 - 2011 SPLOST (Federal/State local match)
• $56,530 – 2016 SPLOST (Federal/State local match)
Source: Cobb County