However, questions persist due to their locations adjacent to interstate highways and within FEMA high flood risk zones.
[UPDATE: On Monday, May 15th, Ordinance 23-O-1230 was adopted unanimously by consent vote.]
The Atlanta City Council announced on Friday, May 12th that they would consider legislation on Monday, May 15th, to purchase 46 acres of property in Southeast Atlanta to provide additional parkland in the South River Forest area. This comes as dozens of acres of South River Forest are razed to make way for the proposed $90 million Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, which its opponents deride as “Cop City”.
Ordinance 23-O-1230 would authorize the City’s chief procurement officer to negotiate with The Conservation Fund (TCF), a national 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that works with public agencies to purchase and hold properties for conservation, and purchase four pieces of parcels. The City of Atlanta Department of Parks and Recreation is then charged to “retain the land in perpetuity as a public park”.
TCF had purchased the parcels from Habitat for Humanity, Atlanta’s largest nonprofit affordable single-family homebuilder. Atlanta Habitat for Humanity purchases land to build housing and uses the proceeds from selling remaining land unsuitable for construction to build new homes, according to its website. The total purchase price is not to exceed $1,657,178.99, which would come entirely from the City’s development impact fees.
The first three parcels are clustered around an abandoned segment of Pegg Rd SW, with a parcel touching the South River (Site A), while the fourth parcel is located near Mt. Zion Road and surrounded by single-family homes (Site B), Regardless, the four non-contiguous parcels would compensate for only around 54% of the 85 acres of unbroken forest razed to construct “Cop City”, roughly three miles east of Site A and three miles northeast of Site B. Previously, The Xylom reported that the City of Atlanta may have exaggerated the amount of green space preserved in “Cop City” by over 40% in their press release dated January 31st. The Mayor’s Office of Communications has since deleted the press release in question.
There are three main issues surrounding the proposed legislation: First, a map attached through an amendment to the ordinance (Exhibit “A”) remarked that both sites fall within Special Flood Hazard Areas (SFHAs) on Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) flood risk maps. These high-risk areas see at least a 1 in 4 chance of flooding in the next 30 years. Federal, state, and local laws require a permit before construction or development begins on a floodplain, which includes anything from constructing structures like fitness equipment to paving sidewalks and building steps, features commonly found in municipal parks. This is also likely why Habitat for Humanity was unable to construct housing on these parcels.
Creating and maintaining floodplain parks is a costly endeavor: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Wilborn P. Nobles III reported in April that the City of Atlanta is entering into a new 15-million-dollar agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to address flooding affecting the 75-acre Lakewood Park in nearby Southeast Atlanta. Located roughly one mile north of Site A and two miles north of Site B but also within the same South River SFHA, the City has earmarked $2 million in Watershed funds and will request an additional $7 million in future legislation to see a dam removed to make way for stormwater infrastructure and a road culvert stabilized by 2026.
At a projected cost of $200,000 per acre, the project to address flooding in Lakewood is more than five times the budget of the proposed legislation (approximately $36,000 per acre), which only covers the costs of the land parcels. There do not appear to be dedicated funding sources to complete all required permitting and make the acquired land usable for recreational purposes.
Second, Site A is also exposed to more air pollutants than the “Cop City” site because it is bounded to the west by a highway interchange where Interstates 75 and 85 diverge; on an average day, over 250,000 vehicles zip through this part of town. While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency states that “properly designed roadside vegetation” is effective at reducing air pollution, there are limited studies about the long-term health effects on those who frequent highway-adjacent parks. In a written statement to The Xylom, Dr. Jacqueline Echols, the Board President of the South River Watershed Alliance (SRWA), a local environmental justice nonprofit, expressed cautious optimism towards the proposed legislation.
“All greenspace provides some amount of positive environmental and ecological impact and value. The parcels are located in close proximity to where the South River is piped under the I-75/I-85 S interstate corridor and will provide some protection for the river particularly if a significant buffer is established and maintained.” However, she warned that the location and size of the proposed future parkland will likely reduce its ecological impacts and value, also that the degree to which the proposed future parkland can mitigate the ongoing noise and air pollution of the freeway on nearby communities will depend on the number of trees that are preserved.
“The environmental, ecological, and community value of the prison farm site is undisputed. At 300 acres, it is the living breathing heart of the South River Forest. This greenspace is irreplaceable and for that reason alone, it must be preserved.”
Third, the language of the ordinance and the ALTA/NSPS Land Survey attached stated that the parcels involved are “14 0062 LL0833, 14 0069 LL0646, 14 0069 LL0596, and 14 0069 LL0596.” However, instead of having two parcels with the same ID, Parcel 3 in Site A is ID’ed by the Fulton County Property Map Viewer as “14 007000040275”. The City of Atlanta has made similar, uncorrected errors in the past, failing to obtain an accurate Land Disturbance Permit for the construction of “Cop City”, opening the way to a since-rejected lawsuit led by the SRWA.
While SRWA does not have the capacity to manage park greenspace, Dr. Echols expressed her openness to engage with the City on projects that “support improving the health of the river and transforming the river and greenspace into a community asset.” That said, she remains adamantly opposed to the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center project.
“The acquisition of this property in no way alters SRWA's position nor diminish or detract from the organization's efforts to protect the prison farm greenspace. The environmental, ecological, and community value of the prison farm site is undisputed. At 300 acres, it is the living breathing heart of the South River Forest. This greenspace is irreplaceable and for that reason alone, it must be preserved.”
The proposed legislation is sponsored by first-term Councilmembers Antonio Lewis and Jason Winston, whose districts include parts of the South River Forest and are adjacent to the “Cop City” site. They are joined by all three at-large Councilmembers, Michael Julian Bond, Keisha Sean Waites, and Matt Westmoreland. The ordinance was passed unanimously by the Council’s Community Development/Human Services Committee on May 9th, with amendments to attach the site map and to add Councilmembers Byron D. Amos and Jason Dozier as sponsors.
Saporta Report’s John Ruch first noted that Dozier and Lewis ran on platforms opposing “Cop City” in response to the City Council’s 2021 approval of its construction. However, since Lewis unseated four-term incumbent Joyce Sheperd, who introduced the measure to build the Public Safety Training Center, and Dozier defeated seven-term incumbent Cleta Winslow, who voted for the measure, the two have declined multiple opportunities to restate their positions on the record. Liliana Bakhtiari, one of the only vocal opponents of “Cop City” on the City Council, voted in favor of the proposed legislation but was away and did not participate in the discussion.
The Xylom has reached out to Councilmembers Lewis and Winston for comment.
Amber X. Chen contributed reporting to the article.