Cobb’s bridge to Braves stadium could be bridge to nowhere

Construction for the multi-use bridge over Interstate 285 leading to the new SunTrust Park stadium is underway, despite a pending legal challenge that could block or delay its completion.

The bridge is designed to span more than 1,000 feet — from The Battery, a mixed-use development next to the stadium owned by the Atlanta Braves, to the parking deck of the Cobb Galleria Centre in the Cumberland neighborhood. The project is budgeted at $10 million, and county officials say it is needed to give pedestrians safe access to the ballfield.

In May, the county successfully filed three condemnation actions seeking right-of-way and aerial easement rights to property owned by Galleria Common Area Associates, a sort of homeowners association for the Galleria. Cobb paid $74,600 for the parcels. Galleria Common Area Associates, along with tenants and other affected entities, responded with a petition to set aside condemnation, which would revoke the county’s rights to the property.

According to court documents, Galleria Common Area Associates allege the county condemned the property for an “improper purpose,” meaning that it was taken for the benefit of a private person or corporation and not for public use.

The filing also argues the property owners were not adequately compensated, and that the county failed to properly identify all the entities that have an interest in the property.

“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 petition reads. “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.”

The petition also seeks attorney’s fees, saying the county “acted in bad faith.”

Judge Reuben Green of the Cobb County Superior Court is scheduled to hear the case on August 25.

Childress Klein owns all the common area in the Galleria and is among those represented in the lawsuit. Connie Engel, a partner there, declined to comment, as did the lawyer for Galleria Common Area Associates, Charles Pursley, who filed the petition.

The Cobb County attorney’s office defended the condemnation, calling it an “appropriate and valid exercise” in a statement.

In the meantime, Cobb Transportation Director Jim Wilgus said the county is moving full speed ahead in order to open the bridge in time for first pitch in April 2017.

“It is an aggressive schedule that the contractor is maintaining,” Wilgus said.

Construction is currently underway, with invoices submitted in the amount of $726,650, or 7.2 percent of the construction budget.

Legal observers say the county is taking a calculated risk by moving ahead with construction.

“The lines get really blurry” when it comes to defining what is and is not a public use, said Jason Wright, a partner at Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith and former chair of the Eminent Domain section of the State Bar of Georgia.

Wright said it was possible the Galleria Common Area Association was using the legal challenge to pressure the county into paying more for property. It’s also possible that millions of dollars could be sunk into the project only to have the judge side with the property owners.

“Then the condemnor [the county] is left holding the bag,” he said. “There’s certainly some risk.”

Devlin Cooper, a Macon attorney and eminent domain expert, said it was “highly unusual” for construction to begin before resolving such a legal challenge.

“Petitions to set aside generally aren’t common, that’s the key,” Cooper said. “I’m not saying there’s not a public purpose behind it. …But I can understand the argument that there’s no public purpose behind it, conceptually, and I don’t think that’s typical of eminent domain projects.”

Cooper said if the judge rules in favor of the property owners, they could regain the title to the property and seek damages.

Attorney Nicholas Papleacos, who is engaged in litigation with Cobb County over two unrelated condemnation cases, said the county has broad discretion in defining public use.

“If it was me, I would be claiming that the purpose is not for the public, it is for the benefit of a private entity, the Braves, and their stadium,” Papleacos said.