Dunwoody residents Edward and Areum Chung were shocked to learn GDOT wants to tear down their home as part of its controversial I-285 top end toll lanes, according to a draft plan that was revealed Jan. 21.
“So now we need to find a new house … and we have a 7-month-old baby,” said Areum Chung. “We upgraded our living room and our bathroom.”
The Chungs live in the Chateau Club Townhomes located just yards from I-285 and are among many along the corridor including property owners in Brookhaven and Sandy Springs who could lose their homes or portions of their property in the concept designs from GDOT.
Dunwoody’s Georgetown community, where the townhomes are, is expected to be heavily impacted. Also included for possible land taking is the Georgetown Recreation Center swimming pool and several buildings in the Dunwoody Village apartment community. Dunwoody Mayor Lynn Deutsch, who is no fan of the project, said she was surprised by some of the proposed land takings.
“I’ve always been realistic, but I still think it’s a big deal and I don’t see how my community benefits,” she said. “Dunwoody in particular, and I think some Brookhaven and Chamblee residents, don’t benefit at all but are taking the full brunt of the project.”
GDOT unveiled conceptual maps of where the toll lanes would be built during a Jan. 21 open house at Chamblee First United Methodist Church attended by roughly 200 people. More meetings are set for Jan. 23 at City Springs in Sandy Springs and Jan. 28 at St. Luke’s Presbyterian Church in Dunwoody.
GDOT officials said the maps are not final and some properties marked for right of way acquisition in the current maps may be removed in future designs following public input. In October, GDOT said it is delaying the construction timeline for the toll lanes by years, with the earliest start date sometime in 2023, to get more competitive bids from contractors. Some free lanes are set to be built sooner.
“Our main concerns are the timeline … and how does [GDOT] purchase property and how they evaluate market value,” Edward Chung said while looking over a large, glossy map.
The couple moved into their townhome last May unaware of any construction planned for I-285. They said they received a letter from GDOT in December about the public information meetings being held in January.
The three buildings of their townhome complex are standing in the path where GDOT plans to build an elevated roadway. The maps were the first real look at the massive project and its impact on property owners. GDOT says the new toll lanes are needed to alleviate I-285’s notorious commuter traffic.
GDOT spokesperson Scott Higley said GDOT follows federal law when it comes to property acquisition to ensure the rights of property owners. For the I-285 top end toll lanes project, GDOT has held individual meetings with property owners who live or own property in an area with a high concentration of potential impacts, such as the Chateau Club Townhomes. One such meeting was held before the Jan. 21 public town hall, he said.
“Letters were sent to property owners inviting them to a smaller open house where right of way agents were available to answer questions in a more intimate environment. The Chungs … were among the property owners invited by letter; however, they did not attend,” Higley said.
“This early outreach is not mandated by law, but we at GDOT understand this can be a difficult and complex process for property owners and want to give them every possible consideration,” he said.
Following outreach, independent appraisers contact property owners to schedule inspections, Higley said. An offer package is developed based on the appraiser’s report. Following negotiations with property owners, a settlement is reached and the Special Assistant Attorney General handles the closing at no cost to the property owner, he said. The property owner has a minimum of 60 days to vacate and any displaced property owner is offered relocation assistance services.
The 50-year-old Georgetown Recreation Center in Dunwoody just west of the Chateau Club Townhomes is also marked for right of way acquisition – in one map, the swimming pool appears to be taken, in another version the swimming pool is safe.
Matt Brown, the new president of the GRC, said he and the nearly 200 families that are members of the recreation center, have not heard anything from GDOT. The residents do not own the land; it is owned by the family of Jim Cowart, a renowned developer who built the neighborhood surrounding the swimming pool and tennis courts.
“We’re going to continue swimming and playing tennis until they tell us we can’t,” he said. “GDOT has not filled us on anything going on. It’s all hearsay at this point, but I’d love GRC to be a community pool for many years to come and hope they do not impede on us.”
Deutsch was not surprised the Chateau Club Townhomes were marked by GDOT for land-taking. She said she was surprised to see three or four buildings in the Dunwoody Village apartments on North Peachtree Road marked for possible teardown.
“This is the most specific map we’ve seen … GDOT has [taken] more residential than I thought,” she said. “It surprises me they are intruding that much.”
Deutsch blasted the project last year as a City Council member and said she still does not like the project.
But realistically, the project is expected to move forward and the city’s goal now is to lessen the impact on local property owners, she said.
“It still comes down to, what are we going to do to mitigate the impact on Dunwoody?” she said. Mitigation could include requesting construction of sound barrier walls along the interstate near residential areas to muffle the noise of speeding cars, for instance.
The City Council included $50,000 in its 2020 budget to pay for professional services it may need to mitigate the impact on property owners along the path of the planned I-285 top end toll lanes.
GDOT is recommending that Cotillion Drive be converted into a one-way road going westbound and Savoy Drive become a one-way road going eastbound. Both roads run along I-285. That could seriously impact businesses in the area, Deutsch said, as well as add another nuisance to the people who live near I-285.
Deutsch said the animated video GDOT also released on Jan. 21 showing what the expansive project would look like, with elevated lanes being built over existing ramps and the crisscross of some sections, was eye-opening.
“It was pretty profound and shows you the scale of the project,” she said. “But I still think we are at the beginning in a lot of ways and we’re all trying to figure out what it all means. Now we have the ability to have conversations about specific concerns with GDOT we didn’t have a month ago.”
This story has been updated with information from GDOT spokesperson Scott Higley on the right of way acquisition process.