The five candidates vying for the Sandy Springs City Council District 3 seat staked out some key differences at a May 4 forum hosted by Reporter Newspapers.

Candidates Chris Burnett, Brian Eufinger, Joe Houseman, Suzi Voyles and Larry Young also offered up a few big ideas, including a Hammond Drive tunnel and an apartment-construction moratorium.

Sandy Springs City Council District 3 candidates (from left) Chris Burnett, Brian Eufinger, Joe Houseman, Suzi Voyles and Larry Young at the May 4 forum at Heritage Hall on Blue Stone Road. (Photo Phil Mosier)
Sandy Springs City Council District 3 candidates (from left) Chris Burnett, Brian Eufinger, Joe Houseman, Suzi Voyles and Larry Young at the May 4 forum at Heritage Hall on Blue Stone Road. (Photo Phil Mosier)

More than 50 people—including current council members Andy Bauman and Tibby DeJulio—attended the forum at Heritage Hall on Blue Stone Road. The candidates answered questions from the audience and from moderator Joe Earle, the managing editor at the Reporter.

The five candidates are running for a May 24 special election to fill the District 3 seat left vacant in March when Graham McDonald resigned to run for state representative.

Why they’re running

Each candidate had a different approach to the council job.

Eufinger, who founded the Sandy Springs Zoning Coalition group on Facebook, presented himself as a moderator and meditator of debates on high-density developments. He said there’s “nothing wrong with growth, but [it should be] smart growth” and said he would bring a “measure twice, cut once” approach to development issues.

Burnett and Young both campaigned on long community experience and both took shots at Eufinger, with Burnett saying he’s been a local banker longer than Eufinger has been alive. But Young looked back to his status as “one of the founders of the community,” while Burnett said he’s the only candidate serving on the advisory committee for the city’s “Next Ten” long-range planning process.

“Sandy Springs is a very large and complex city,” said Burnett. “It is not a job someone with inexperience can do very well.”

Young said he is “uniquely qualified” by his experience as an attorney, a former city judge and a former president of the Sandy Springs Council of Neighborhoods. He also touted his “independence” from the city administration and local developments.

Houseman, an airline pilot and lifelong local resident, positioned himself as a voice for the old-school suburban, lower-density, tree-filled Sandy Springs. “Sandy Springs is in my DNA,” he repeatedly said.

Voyles described a more “tweaking” approach to a city doing many things well. The current executive director of the Fulton County Republican Party, Voyles said she has a “national network of legislators” she can use for advice and help on issues.

How dense is too dense?

The city has many dense, mixed-use projects and skyscrapers underway or under review. The candidates’ positions on denser development ranged from cautious support to outright opposition.

Young said the city’s own City Springs mixed-use downtown project is a good idea, and its needs dense redevelopment around it to be successful. “So [denser] redevelopment is appropriate in the right place.”

Burnett, however, said he’s concerned about over-building of apartments and a possible market crash. “I would support a district-wide moratorium right now on multi-family development,” he said.

“I do not promote future high-density growth,” said Houseman. “Right now, the growth and development is impacting negatively the citizens of Sandy Springs.”

Voyles expressed concern about tall buildings fronting on the street, such as the One City Walk underway at Roswell Road and Hammond Drive. “I’m not so sure that’s the identity I want for the community,” she said, describing it as more Buckhead-like.

Eufinger called for “middle-ground solutions” and noted he has helped with community advocacy that reduced the unit count on a number of large projects. However, he also said the city must still stick to its own planning. “The thing with the city’s current policy is, it seems pretty dense,” he said, repeating a joke he said a resident told him. “I think rules are made to be followed…Why have rules if you’re going to approve 300 percent, 400 percent over the quota?”

Traffic and transit

District 3 covers much of western and central Sandy Springs, including several major commuter routes. Traffic and transportation improvements are major local issues.

Burnett said he would call for a District 3 traffic study. He said he already has the “big, hairy, audacious goal” of building a new road between Johnson Ferry Road and Powers Ferry/Windy Hill roads in Cobb County to divert commuter traffic.

“The only long-term solution is [public] transit,” Young said.“To just add more lanes and more pavement does not solve the problem.”

Voyles said she wants more car capacity on I-75, but also called for a local tram service. Houseman agreed with trams, but also said, “Bike lanes are paramount to me,” noting how well they work in Europe.

Eufinger agreed with the need for a traffic study and noted he started a website called “Keep Moving Sandy Springs” that promotes commuting alternatives.

Hammond Drive and term limits

All of the candidates were skeptical of a controversial proposal to widen the two-lane section of Hammond Drive. Young suggested that “one interesting approach…is a tunnel” beneath the road’s hill instead of widening at the surface.

Asked about instituting term limits for council members, Burnett and Voyles leaned against them and Eufinger, Houseman and Young were in favor or open to them. Young noted the 2011 city charter commission, which he served on, recommended term limits, but the state Legislature did not allow them.

On ways to keep younger people in the city, Eufinger suggested a business incubator or collaborative workspace like Buckhead’s Atlanta Tech Village, while Burnett—who plays drums in a local group called the Yuppie Scum Band—needs more “entertainment clubs” and music venues.

Most candidates agreed that the current mayor and City Council are good financial stewards and work well together, and cited the police and fire rescue departments as the city’s best functions. On the critical side, most said the city needs more transparency and consistency on development issues.

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