Cobb commissioners deny grocery store plan after heated meeting

Cobb County commissioners have sided with passionate residents who for months have rallied against a proposal to replace a community movie theater with a grocery store.

The commissioners on Tuesday voted 4 to 1, with Commissioner Bob Weatherford opposed, to deny the site plan for the store.

Lidl — rhymes with "needle" — wants to open a location where the Park 12 theater is at Shallowford Road and Gordy Parkway. The Germany-based grocery store chain has 10,000 stores in about two dozen countries.

While some residents would be sad to see their close-by movie theater of 25 years go, most residents in opposition said their biggest concern was that Lidl would make traffic unsafe in the area, which is near Lassiter High School.

According to a hand-raise count at the start of the meeting, there were 49 people in attendance opposed to the project and six in favor.

The last time all of the issue’s players were publicly in the same room was a June meeting called by Commissioner JoAnn Birrell, who represents that area, that had 200 mostly furious residents.

Parks Huff, the Marietta attorney representing Lidl locally, started his presentation to commissioners Tuesday by saying, “This quite frankly should be a routine manner.” That turned out to be not the case.

Huff was often booed or laughed at by the crowd when mentioning a traffic study that he said showed the Lidl wouldn’t create more dangerous traffic during the day, neglecting to mention that the study shows the store would increase danger at night.

Laura Hickman, who has organized many of those opposed to the project, said they recieved a copy of the traffic study less than a week before the meeting.

Huff said that the board wasn’t voting on whether or not the store was good for the community, only whether or not to approve the amended site plan. Huff said the company went out of its way to add some features to the property, which is zoned appropriately for something like a Lidl.

But Chairman Mike Boyce seemed confused as to why Lidl would want to move forward with a new store in an area where residents — Lidl’s potential customers — don’t want them.

“There’s really no reason objectively to oppose this, but it goes back to what we are as a country is that we hear the people. In this case here, I find it amazing that a company as successful as Lidl would not take (into account) that there’s so much organized opposition into this,” Boyce said.

Huff responded by saying “Lidl listens to the public concern,” which triggered laughter throughout the crowd.

Boyce said when it comes to a business moving forward on a project despite public opposition, “This one takes the cake.”

"You can ask them how many times I've asked them to withdraw," Birrell said. Petitions — which can found online here and here — against Lidl and getting rid of the movie theater pulled in more than 2,200 sigantures.

Residents have also argued that they don’t need another grocery store with a Publix and Kroger each 1,200 feet away from the site of the current theater, the owners of which have not responded to request for comment regarding the potential sale.

Commissioner Lisa Cupid hadn’t spoken a word until the time to vote neared.

Cupid, who represents South Cobb, said she was conflicted because she felt wronged by Birrell who approved a Lidl in Cupid’s district last year that also drew community opposition from her South Cobb constituents.

“I’m being asked to provide a level of grace … that I was not provided,” Cupid said.

That Lidl was approved 4-1, with Cupid opposing, on Floyd Road in Mableton in September 2016 despite a petition of 168 residents.

“We might not come out in the same number, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have the same passion,” Cupid said.

The crowd appluaded Cupid. And with the vote minutes away, Birrell responded by saying “maybe we should have communicated more, I’m sorry.”

Cupid voted to deny the site plan proposal for the Marietta store.

“I don’t do anything for spite,” she said.

When asked for comment after the vote, Huff said someone other than himself would respond to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which hadn’t happened as of 3:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Boyce told The AJC after that Lidl still has avenues in regards to opening a store there.

“One of their options is to sue the government or come with a new site plan," he said.

Boyce said Lidl opened itself up for this rejection by commissioners because the business wanted to demolish the building and change the layout on the property.

“They could simply go over there, take the building, not change the footprint and come back for a business permit,” he said.

Birrell said Lidl has 30 days to appeal the commission’s decision.

Hickman said she was happy the commissioners listened to the community’s concerns, especially those about safety.

Birrell presented the board with some numbers from Cobb police about accidents within the Gordy loop where Lidl wants to place the grocery store. In 2014, there were 42 crashes reported. By 2016, that number was 82.

“We don’t want any more accidents,” Hickman said. “We want to keep this a safe community.”

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