Officials question price of DeKalb city’s first land purchase

Stonecrest Mayor Jason Lary (right) and Councilman George Turner visit the site of the proposed gas station and convenience store earlier this year.

Stonecrest Mayor Jason Lary (right) and Councilman George Turner visit the site of the proposed gas station and convenience store earlier this year.

A land deal in a DeKalb County city was universally praised earlier this year, but elected officials are now raising questions after the city bought it for more than double what the property owner paid for it just months earlier.

Stonecrest Mayor Jason Lary announced in March the city would purchase the land on a busy corner, which was slated to become a gas station and convenience store. It was heralded by residents and fellow officials as a smart solution to stopping an unwanted development.

But tax and assessment documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found the city may have coughed up more taxpayer dollars for the vacant land than it is worth. Now, some City Council members are calling for a change in the way Stonecrest purchases land.

» PREVIOUS COVERAGE: After uproar over gas station plan, mayor vows to buy land, build park

The deal for the 8.8-acre plot at the corner of Salem and Evans Mills roads marked the first time Stonecrest bought land. The owner, Shawn Ali, bought the land for $129,277 in January and planned to build a gas station and convenience store at the corner, which is near quiet residential neighborhoods.

A building permit for the gas station was quietly approved by the city's Community Development Department in late January, documents show.

That prompted backlash from residents, so Lary announced the city would buy the land, build a park and fix what he described as a “death trap” intersection. The city said in a statement in May it bought the land for “its appraised value of $350,000.”

Stonecrest Mayor Jason Lary. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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But the city’s appraisal — conducted after the City Council allocated $350,000 for the purchase — valued the land at $200,000, according to a copy obtained by the AJC.

An assessment prepared for Ali, however, valued it at $550,000. Lary said the city took the average of the two assessments to come up with the $350,000 price.

The 2019 property tax assessment from DeKalb County values the land at $115,000.

The release of the appraisal documents to the City Council in recent weeks has prompted some criticism of the purchasewhich was paid for using SPLOST funds, a one-cent sales tax.

“It is simply, to me, a waste of taxpayer dollars to pay a premium on land where we haven’t even put the shovel in the ground,” said Councilwoman Diane Adoma, who has sparred with Lary in the past and is eyeing a run for mayor this fall.

This snapshot of the intersection of Evans Mill and Salem road from 2017 shows the wooded area that would have become a gas station.

Credit: Screenshot via Google Maps

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Credit: Screenshot via Google Maps

Lary, however, said the city got a “great deal” on the land, especially compared to similar real estate sales in the area. He said at a recent City Council meeting that the city had to act “expediently” to acquire the land, before the gas station development began.

“We didn’t underpay for it, we didn’t overpay for it,” the mayor said in an interview. “We just paid what the market would pay for it.”

Councilman George Turner, whose district includes the property, said the deal over the land “struck me,” and that the city’s actions may have been “hasty.” He and Adoma both said the City Council should have seen the appraisal documents before the property changed hands.

“It was something I was not ready for,” he said. “We need to take another look to make sure nothing was out of order.”

The city could create a roundabout at the intersection to make the corner safer.

Credit: City of Stonecrest

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Credit: City of Stonecrest

Turner brought up the issue at the City Council meeting last week; Lary said he would be open to adding more steps in the process before the city buys other land.

Ali, who lives in Grayson, said he did not have any specific comment on the details of the sale, but said it was a “simple transaction.”

Lary said the city could turn the land into a community park, and use SPLOST funds to make the intersection safer, possibly installing a roundabout or traffic lights. He said residents were “ecstatic” to learn the land would not become a gas station.

Renee Cail, who lives less than a quarter of a mile from the corner, was one of those residents. While she still agrees that a gas station was not the right fit for her community, she said there has been discussion among residents over the price the city paid.

“Some of the residents thought that the amount of money paid was very high,” Cail said. “I think any time you purchase land, you should research … how much the land is worth.”

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