Local business owners are taking note of Sandy Springs City Council’s willingness to buy property using eminent domain.

The latest person to raise the issue owns a funeral home located at the former Sentell Baptist Church on Roswell Road.  Community Funeral Service President D. Brooks Cowles has a 20-year lease with property owner Paul Brown.

Sandy Springs Planning Commission recently approved zoning for a controversial mixed-use development near the intersection of Roswell and Wieuca roads, a project that will also affect Atlanta’s Buckhead Community. Sandy Springs will realign the Windsor Parkway and Roswell Road intersection in order to accommodate the expected traffic from the development.

Under two of the proposed options, the old church would be razed to make way for the project.

Cowles emailed Sandy Springs Councilman Gabriel Sterling to encourage him to oppose using eminent domain to acquire the church property. Sterling recently was the only “no” vote on using eminent domain to buy property at the intersection of Roswell Road and Johnson Ferry for the Sandy Springs city center project.

Cowles said in his email that condemning the church property would benefit the gateway project’s developer, JLB Partners. He also mentioned he has retained an attorney who specializes in eminent domain cases.

“I know you oppose the use of eminent domain by Sandy Springs,” Cowles wrote to Sterling. “I hope that would be especially true when the taking would allow a private developer make millions on a project that is just too big.”

Here is Cowles’ full email to Sterling:

Mr. Sterling,

I thought you and the Council may be interested that Core is already aggressively marketing leases in the proposed project.

My main purpose in writing, however, is to discuss eminent domain issues.  As you know, I have a 20+ year lease for the former Sentell Church location now zoned for a funeral home.  A trust controlled by Paul Brown owns the property and is the landlord.  I accompanied Paul to a meeting with some Sandy Springs City Planning officials several weeks ago.  The gist of the meeting was how much of Paul’s property they would need for the proposed Windsor Parkway relocation and whether Paul had any special requests.  Paul noted several times that his property was very valuable, but there was no response as to what Sandy Springs may offer.  They said no research had been done on what the property was worth.  This was interesting, since they also noted that the so-called “Popeye’s Chicken option” next door was “too expensive.”

I pointed out that my leasehold interest is also a property interest that would have to be compensated.  “A leasehold interest in premises for a definite term is property, within the meaning of that word as it is employed in paragraph 1, § 3, art. 1, of the constitution of this state, in which provision is made against the taking or damaging of private property for public purposes without just and adequate compensation being first paid.”  The Sandy Springs officials told me they ‘never’ negotiated with tenants and I had no rights or claims.  This is categorically incorrect and may arise from the fact that most leases require the tenant to transfer all rights in condemnation proceedings to the landlord.  My lease reserves those rights to the tenant.  I have retained an attorney specializing in eminent domain who concurs.

Just one of the measures of the value of a leasehold interest is the amount by which the lease may be below market.  Since my lease is considerably less than the Popeye’s lease, the value of my interest is probably actually considerably higher than theirs.

I know you oppose the use of eminent domain by Sandy Springs.  I hope that would be especially true when the taking would allow a private developer make millions on a project that is just too big.  The officials we met with were very clear that the Windsor relocation was only going forward if the Gateway Project is built.   In the event that Sandy Springs wants to use taxpayer money to acquire property to move the road, I will do anything I can to help you urge your fellow council members to at least start with an accurate evaluation of the cost of just this one of many infrastructure improvements required by GRTA for Gateway.  In addition to Paul and myself, I believe you would also have to compensate the Walgreens and perhaps condo owners to the rear of the Church.  I do not believe $3-4 Million is even close.

I would like to discuss this issue further with you by phone or in person at your convenience.  Thanks.

D. Brooks Cowles, Jr., Esq., President

Community Funeral Service, LLC

Dan Whisenhunt wrote for Reporter Newspapers from 2011 - 2014. He is the founder and editor of Decaturish.com