A portion of the property near Dearborn Park which, in order to buy, the city may need to seize by eminent domain. This is the trail built by the city in 2013. Bill Banks for the AJC

Decatur commission approves seizing property through eminent domain

Decatur’s commission unanimously approved on Nov. 6 the use of eminent domain to acquire property near Dearborn Park and Shoal Creek in the city’s southeast sector. The city intends to use this strictly for public use as parkland.

But the steps leading to Monday night’s actions are convoluted and confusing, and the episode has drawn significant local interest. For one reason, the move is very unusual in city history. Deputy City Manager Hugh Saxon, a city employee since the mid-1970s, said he believes the last time Decatur exercised eminent domain was in the 1960s, when acquiring the land Renfroe Middle School was built on.

The Dearborn land was purchased in June 2016, by Kudzu Capital, which last month revealed rough drafts for developing 11 out of the 16 lots. But before a large crowd Monday, featuring public comment from 14 speakers opposing Kudzu’s project, the commission approved eminent domain. The city now has to wait 30 days before filing a petition for condemnation.

According to city attorney Bryan Downs, the city’s already had the property appraised. The city’s original Dec. 2015, contract on the tract was for $500,000, but Downs said he wasn’t yet ready to go public with the appraisal figure.

“Our hope,” Downs told the AJC, “is that we can continue to negotiate [with Kudzu] and this never goes to court.”

Meantime Kudzu will come up with its own appraisal. If the case goes before Superior Court, it comes before an arbitrator or “special master,” who can choose between the city’s or the developer’s figure, or come up with their own final sales price.

This property was annexed into Decatur in 1937 and has never been developed or farmed. Today it is mostly steep, hilly woods with a creek at the bottom, along with a trail the city built in 2013. Most observers feel the tract would be very difficult and expensive to build on.

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