Sandy Springs toughens stance on city center property

Slowly but surely, Sandy Springs is gathering the building blocks for its $100 million downtown project along Roswell Road.

From the $8 million it paid for the old Target site five years ago to a million-dollar deal for the old Color Tile property last month, the young city is clearing a path for its future city center.

City leaders took the added step recently to flex extra muscle, voting 5-1 to employ eminent domain to acquire another site in the area.

The use of eminent domain — a legal means to acquire property when negotiations fail — is a sensitive topic anywhere, but particularly in Sandy Springs, which was founded eight years ago to escape the heavy hand of government.

Plans for the city center call for a municipal complex near Roswell and Johnson Ferry roads, complete with outlying retail and green space. The city has spent roughly $25 million on the plan already and has budgeted another $13.5 million for the coming year.

“I hope this one will come around because we want to be fair, but you cannot acquire a whole block by saying, ‘Pretty please, pretty please,’’ Mayor Eva Galambos said. “So we’re having to get serious.”

Trishia Thompson, zoning director for the Sandy Springs Council of Neighborhoods, raised a red flag during the council discussion, calling it a “very serious act.”

“There are a lot of people here going, ‘eminent domain,’ and that always triggers reaction,” she said.

Public sentiment hit a high note earlier this year when loyal customers of a Sandy Springs Waffle House mounted a letter-writing campaign to save the restaurant that has sat on the proposed city square location for 30 years.

“The restaurant has been there since 1983, so it built up a lot of long-term customers,” Waffle House spokesman Pat Warner said. “Our position all along was, we want to continue operating in Sandy Springs.”

Within the past month, the sides struck a deal allowing the city to buy the current site and permitting the restaurant to relocate to a nearby, as yet undisclosed, location.

Not everyone on the council is on board with using legal action to acquire the downtown property.

Gabriel Sterling, who cast the lone dissent in the recent eminent domain vote, said he can envision using eminent domain as a last resort when it involves an improvement for the wider public good, such as a road, a sidewalk, a school or a park. A government complex, he said, doesn’t rise to that threshold.

Property taken in eminent domain cases must be used for public use, a stipulation that might prohibit the city from allowing retail in certain areas near the government complex.

“I think we can come to a negotiated agreement with people,” Sterling said. “You may pay a little bit more, but at the same time, you get the widest possible range of use.”