A Sandy Springs city councilmember apologized for the city’s “poor job” of communicating a controversial Mount Vernon Highway widening concept, and pledged a “task force” for input, at a seething two-hour community meeting Oct. 24.

“We need, as a city, to better communicate,” Councilmember Chris Burnett told more than 80 members of local homeowners associations packed into a back room of Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church. “And we need to do a better job as a city of listening to you … and not dismissing your concern.”

City Councilmember Chris Burnett addresses the crowd of homeowners association members at the Oct. 24 meeting at Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church. An HOA presentation beside him outlines eminent domain fears. (John Ruch)

Burnett still could not rule out the main concern – the taking of some houses shown in an early conceptual drawing for possible widening, which would make way for multi-use paths and transit lanes. But he earned respect from much of the crowd for taking the heat and saying the use of eminent domain is “just not in my DNA … My goal would be to find a resolution that has the least amount of impact in all respects, including eminent domain.”

Some other officials who did not attend the meeting, on the other hand, stoked the HOA members’ fury with recent social media comments. One was Mayor Rusty Paul, whose Facebook post that day alleging “someone is spreading false information” about the project was printed out enlarged into a poster by organizers and displayed for ridicule.

The Mount Vernon lanes concept has been on paper for months and is a combo of items on the transportation special local option sales tax, or TSPLOST, project list approved by voters a year ago. But conceptual drawings showing possible house-takings were not widely known until recent weeks, when surveyors began appearing in local yards and city-hired consultants held a meeting to discuss transit preferences. HOA leaders say their concerns about property impacts were brushed aside as premature by city officials and consultants, and they fear losing meaningful input, along with their homes.

City officials strongly imply that any widening would shift away from houses, but that opens up other cans of worms, including impacts on a cemetery and the Mount Vernon Presbyterian School. The school has no comment yet, said spokesperson Allison Toller, adding she personally was impressed by the thorough questions the consultants asked about transit options.

Burnett indicated that the City Council itself was not aware of the surveying or details of the consultants’ presentation.

“The council has not been informed to a measurable degree about this,” he said, adding later that he was “really pressing hard with folks from the city” for more information to share at the meeting.

Officials bashed

While city officials say house-taking talk is premature, some of them weighed in on the subject on social media, quickly drawing HOA ire.

Resident Brian Eufinger, left, criticizes a Facebook post, enlarged to poster size and held by another resident, made by Mayor Rusty Paul alleging the spread of “false information” about the Mount Vernon project. (John Ruch)

“Please don’t call me a liar, Mr. Mayor. We’re just trying to save our houses,” said Brian Eufinger, one of the meeting organizers, who believed Paul’s Facebook comment was directed at him. Paul’s comment said the widening would not involve “additional vehicular lanes,” but Eufinger argued that’s what the concept shows in the form of shuttles or other transit vehicles.

Another official wading into the debate was Gabriel Sterling, a city councilmember and Fulton County chair candidate. His comments on the Sandy Springs Zoning Coalition Facebook group — which Eufinger runs — initially called house-taking “something that simply ain’t happenin’ in real life” and “unnecessary drama,” and described media coverage as “borderline fake news” and “fear-mongering.” He soon softened his stance, saying he understands local concerns and cannot ensure any future plan, but was trying to say house-taking is highly improbable financially and politically.

Linda Hanks, head of the Glenview HOA, criticized the “condescending attitude” of city officials. She called Sterling’s comments “belittling” and singled out city spokesperson Sharon Kraun’s previous statement to the Reporter that talking about eminent domain is “so way ahead” of the process.

“I don’t know about you, but when someone starts to talk about disrupting my community in any way … the time to start talking about it is when you hear it,” Hanks said. The city, she said, should not dictate “when we should speak, how we should speak, what we should say. Do not be bullied.”

Burnett apologized for the other officials’ comments, though it was not clear that he knew who had said what.

“No one [in city government], I don’t care who, …. should talk to you in a way that makes you feel belittled,” he said. “That is unacceptable.”

Further goading the HOA organizers was the city’s formal announcement, that very day, of its first community meeting about the Mount Vernon concept, to be held Nov. 14. While the meeting was already in the works, Hanks and Eufinger viewed the announcement’s timing as a tactic to neutralize their rabble-rousing.

“So the folks who had been telling us, ‘Oh, it’s too early; oh, it’s months away’ are suddenly ready to talk,” Hanks said, adding it only shows their pressure is working, and they look forward to attending.

The audience of HOA members gathers to hear and voice concerns about the Mount Vernon Highway project and concepts. (John Ruch)

Input concerns

The input the residents want to provide was wide-ranging and reflected many of the city’s simmering political tensions: an urge to change and fix traffic, and a desire to protect single-family neighborhoods from projects serving commuters or downtown apartment-dwellers.

But there were some clear requests: Immediate community notice when a street goes on the development agenda; quick clarity on the house-taking issue so property values aren’t in doubt for years; and a consensus to leave Mount Vernon at its current width, barring transparent data proving its multi-modal parts would work. Some just wanted regular sidewalks, crosswalks and improved traffic-light timing.

Trust was a problem, starting with the unannounced surveyors, and followed by a Sept. 18 HOA meeting with consultant Gresham, Smith and Partners. At that meeting, Hanks said, consultants pushed the widest  design concept – which Burnett called “a little disappointing” – and only asked about transit use, avoiding any questions about land acquisition. Hanks said city planners attending that meeting remarked “we would never do that” about house-taking, but no commitment or further details on how else the widening could happen were given. She said she believes the widening is inevitable and that residents might be presented only with a narrow, preconceived design option.

When city officials say the project is “just discussions” right now, Hanks asked, “Why weren’t we part of them? Why didn’t we know about this?”

Burnett noted that citizen review committees have been essential to such major city projects as the City Springs civic center and the “Next Ten” land-use plan and zoning code. “There is no reason that shouldn’t be the cornerstone of this project as well,” he said, saying he will propose to the city manager a “task force” of HOA members to review the project and perhaps join in presentations early next year.

Linda Hanks, head of the Glenview Homeowners Association, criticizes the process so far for the Mount Vernon widening idea. (John Ruch)

Asked what better overall communications about city projects might mean in practice, Burnett said perhaps the city should not issue purely conceptual designs so early, but then said that could lead to even worse “under-communication.” Then he said the city could just do more informal, face-to-face outreach when it first considers a concept.

The city does a lot of “technical communication” via email and social media, Burnett said. But as that night’s meeting showed, he said, “There is no substitute for good, old-fashioned talking to people.”

Nov. 14 city meeting

The city’s own meeting about the Mount Vernon multi-use/multi-modal concept will be held Tues., Nov. 14, in an open house format from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., with a presentation at 6 p.m., at Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church, Fellowship Hall, 471 Mount Vernon Highway.