Developer Hines is taking the city of Sandy Springs to court for rejecting its massive Northpark plan at Ga. 400 and Abernathy Road, according to attorney Doug Dillard.

“We have filed the lawsuit” that Hines had threatened following the city Board of Appeals decision on Dec. 10, Dillard said. The legal appeal was filed Jan. 8, he said.

According to a press release, the developer, going officially by Northpark-Land Associates LLLP, “claims that the BOA had no objective factual basis to deny the administrative appeal, and as such, have destroyed the property owners’ rights without first paying fair, adequate and just compensation for such rights. The suit demands an immediate reversal of the BOA’s decision.”

City attorney Wendell Willard said Hines is technically filing a legal appeal rather than a lawsuit, with Fulton County Superior Court reviewing the Board of Appeals decision for any errors. However, the city similarly has to defend the decision, he said.

“We’ll be supporting and defending the decision of the Board of Appeals,” Willard said, adding that the city expected Hines to take the case to court.

Based on a 1987 zoning plan, Hines wants to build a roughly 25-story office tower and a 600-room hotel up to 8 stories tall, along with a “village” of mixed uses. But city development staff said the zoning plan the project application hinges on is no longer valid and rezoning is required.

That plan includes a possible 50-story office tower—taller than many Atlanta skyscrapers. But John Heagy III, a Dunwoody-based senior managing director for Hines’ southeast region, previously said the 50-story building is not on the current drawing board.

“I wish we had a resolution here,” Heagy said in a previous interview. “Here we are at a golden time in the market. We should be moving forward, but instead here we are sitting on the sideline.”

“If we can’t get some resolution, which it doesn’t appear we can, then this property’s owner will have to do what they have to do…which is filing suit,” he added.

Hines is not the property owner, just its chosen developer. Heagy said Hines has been asked not to identify the owner, which appears in records only as a limited company named for the project. However, Heagy said the owner is a “state agency” from outside Georgia, and noted that it is common for state pension funds to buy investment properties around the nation.

The now 14-acre, wooded Northpark site at the southeast corner of the Ga. 400/Abernathy interchange was part of a larger development site that has been largely built out, including office buildings to the north and nearby shopping centers.

The wooded site has gone through various planning and physical changes over the decades. In 1987, Fulton County rezoned the parcel—then about 19 acres—for the two office towers, the hotel and a large section of commercial space. The rezoning was conditioned on that site plan, city officials said.

Changes since then include Peachtree-Dunwoody Road cutting through it in the 1990s and the sale of a corner near MARTA’s Sandy Springs station to a hotel developer. That hotel project, the Grand Bohemian Atlanta, remains unbuilt. Meanwhile, in 2013, Hines sought a rezoning to add mixed-use residential development to its project, but withdrew that plan last year after community opposition.

The 50-story tower was still on the table at that time, but Hines began talking about reducing its height after community complaints.  Heagy previously said that Hines was sensitive to “public perception about what is appropriate for a quasi-suburban location…Our goal was not to fly in the face of the public or the city of Sandy Springs, though that was the zoning on the site.”

Hines is now back to what it considers the 1987 plan, and earlier this year applied for a city land disturbance permit at an address it calls 6500 Peachtree-Dunwoody. But in an internal administrative decision, city staff rejected the permit and said the site must be rezoned.

The hotel has become a sticking point. The city essentially says that Hines is trying to get two hotels out of a 1987 rezoning that only allows one.

The new hotel would change the site’s approved density, among other issues, city officials say. Rezonings in 2000 and 2006 related to the Grand Bohemian plan also changed the 1987 site plan, rendering it invalid, Willard said at the Dec. 10 Board of Appeals meeting. But Dillard previously argued that such comments are irrelevant and that only the wording of board votes matters. No county or city zoning decision ever explicitly said the entire 1987 master plan was changing, he said.

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.

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