In growing backlash to the Georgia Department of Transportation’s no-questions, low-detail meeting Jan. 14 about impacts of new toll lanes on I-285 and Ga. 400, some Sandy Springs citizens have revealed that land-buying is already underway with highly detailed plans, and the Dunwoody Homeowners Association is pushing for more information at its own meeting with GDOT on Feb. 10.

Amanda Cusick, a resident of Sandy Springs’ Montrose Lane, said she was surprised by GDOT’s claims that the toll lane plans are conceptual and that right of way estimates don’t exist yet or could change. She said GDOT has already shown her a detailed toll-lane plan to widen I-285 by 50 feet in her area, and has already offered to buy some of a neighbor’s back yard on a 30-day timeline.

“I really do believe this is being done way too quickly, and they’re not being transparent… like saying they have no plans in place when they obviously do,” Cusick said.

A Georgia Department of Transportation plan showing proposed property acquisition and easements on Sandy Springs’ Montrose Lane for the I-285 toll lanes project, as resident Amanda Cusick said was provided to her as part of an appraisal process.

In a Jan. 15 email to GDOT referencing a Reporter article about the no-questions meeting, DHA president Adrienne Duncan said that format won’t fly in the upcoming presentation to her group.

“DHA public board meetings — which is the agenda you are on — are, by definition, a dialogue,” Duncan wrote. “Citizens come to the DHA board expecting to get sincere answers to sincere questions.”

Tim Matthews, the GDOT project manager who gave the controversial Jan. 14 presentation, replied in an email to Duncan that his DHA appearance would include a “full Q&A session.” However, he referred only to changing the format, not the content, and did not say whether the information will be any more detailed.

GDOT did not immediately respond to questions about the land-buying and the DHA meeting.

It remains to be seen what GDOT will present at a Jan. 16 toll lanes meeting to be held 6:30-8 p.m. at Riverwood International Charter School, 5900 Raider Drive, Sandy Springs. Like the Jan. 14 meeting, it is hosted by Fulton County Schools with the intent of learning more about possible impacts on school properties, some details of which had been shown privately last fall to administrators by GDOT. But that information was not presented in the tightly controlled public meeting, where GDOT only gave a general overview and told residents to wait for future meetings that it says will have some of the desired information, including one in Sandy Springs March 12.

Meanwhile, GDOT has repeatedly refused to fulfill open records requests from the Reporter for proposed property-taking information, citing varying and sometimes contradictory grounds, some of which an attorney on the board of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation has called unlawful.

GDOT’s “express lanes” or “managed lanes” project would add four new toll-only lanes along I-285 and Ga. 400 in the Perimeter Center area over the next decade, with the intent of improving overall traffic flow. The Ga. 400 lanes also would carry a new MARTA bus rapid transit route, which requires other access points and stations.

The early concepts for the toll lanes have already rattled some officials in Dunwoody and Sandy Springs for possible land-taking and the idea of putting the lanes on ramps towering 30 feet or higher over neighborhoods and plugging into new interchanges onto such local streets as Mount Vernon Highway.

DHA pushes for info

That’s why the DHA asked GDOT to speak about the project at a Feb. 10 public board meeting—and why Duncan expressed “some concern” about the recent meeting’s process and content.

“Successful presenters are able to speak honestly with a citizenry that is highly educated and surprisingly diverse. But believe me when I say that they are going to be of one mind on the concepts made public thus far,” Duncan wrote in her email to GDOT.

She said GDOT’s appearance at the DHA should involve up-to-date illustrations and taking “impromptu” questions. GDOT should directly address private property impacts and where the toll lanes might connect to such local streets as Mount Vernon Highway, she said. And she suggested that MARTA be represented at the meeting.

Matthews’ response made no promises of particular information or MARTA’s involvement.

“Our goal is to provide as much information as possible and to customize our meeting approach to be as productive as we can within the limitations of where we are within the project progress,” he wrote in part. “Based on your expressed desires for what you want to achieve in our meeting, we will plan on having a full Q&A session with your membership. We will bring our slide deck to use in reference to answering your questions.”

Sandy Springs land acquisition

The same night GDOT held its controversial meeting, the homeowners association of Sandy Springs’ Montrose Lane, just off Long Island Drive at I-285, was holding an emergency meeting. The subject: GDOT’s proposed land-taking for toll lanes at five of the cul-de-sac’s 12 homes.

Cusick, the Montrose resident and a real estate attorney, said she was surprised to later learn that GDOT was publicly presenting right of way as a vague concept or open question that could be changed pending meetings that, in the case of I-285, will not be held until later this year.

“They have specific plans that they gave to us in the beginning,” Cusick said. That was after a GDOT-hired appraiser showed up about two months ago, talking about possible payments for right of way, easements and damages.

The plan, a copy of which Cusick provided to the Reporter, is highly detailed, showing proposed right of way, construction and easement lines on six properties whose owners are identified by name. It appears to show the toll lanes being added to I-285 by widening the highway roughly 50 feet closer to Montrose Lane homes.

For one neighbor whose house is already particularly close to the road, Cusick said, “Fifty feet is going to be like he’s eating dinner with people driving on 285.” And GDOT reportedly told at least one neighbor that a sound-blocking wall and landscaping would not be built for the toll lane.

Cusick said she had not talked in further detail with GDOT about the pieces of her property it proposes buying, but said one neighbor is already considering a purchase offer.

The plan that Cusick said GDOT gave her is stamped with the word “preliminary” in large red letters. But she questioned how preliminary it is, given the active purchase offer and the fact that public input meetings about the toll lanes design have not yet occurred.

“I don’t know how preliminary something can be that they’re actually offering money [for] at this point,” she said. “If anything, it does not show good faith. It shows bad faith to the people of Sandy Springs.”

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