On Aug. 11, a Brookhaven Development Authority “Virtual Special Called Meeting” agenda gave notice about incentives for a $43 million “Project X” to be considered the very next day. What could it be, to be so secret — another bid at Amazon, maybe Tesla’s HQ? Not by a long shot.
Instead without discussion, a board appointed by the City Council approved $13 million in tax abatement on — wait for it — an apartment/retail project on Dresden Drive!
Why the rush? The project was no secret, except for the cost of school system and county taxes that Brookhaven is diverting to the developer and itself to complete local improvements it doesn’t want to pay for.
Dresden Village is about a sure a thing as there is in real estate, and the developer has had the property locked up for years. Zoning was approved in 2017. The area has gotten hotter ever since. If anybody stretched to advance the city’s vision for the site, it was DeKalb County, who negotiated an essential no-cash swap of the tax commissioner’s Dresden Drive office for a new building nearby on Clairmont Road. The county stipulated no tax abatement on its property, but that didn’t stop the city’s or the developer’s wily attorneys, who are each earning over $100,000 on the deal. Instead, they’re extinguishing taxes for 30 years on the rest of the assemblage by making the county’s property a hole in a tax abatement doughnut.
The city says it’s getting nothing from the deal, but the site plan reveals that developer J.R. Connolly will build a new street and nearby plaza costing millions “at their own expense” and deed it back to the city for nothing. Nice trick, but at what expense to other services funded with tax dollars, like schools and county fire protection and for, that matter, city services? This project rides free.
This isn’t the first time Brookhaven has looted school and county coffers. In 2015, they gave the Atlanta Hawks a 15-year, 100% tax abatement on a $36 million training facility moved up I-85 from State Farm Arena. The city split the spoils with the Hawks, 50-50, and the city now receives almost 10 times as much as it would if the project were fully taxable. They use it to generate more such deals at the BDA.
They tried a similar raid for $30 million in apartments on Bramblewood Drive off Buford Highway, but the developer objected to the city’s demand for an “equity position” in the deal and scuttled it, but not before accusing the city of intending revenge on the school system for the location of the now dormant Cross Keys High School replacement. The city denies the charge.
There are more “deals” in the offing. Brookhaven is in arbitration with the county over annexation of the northeast quadrant of Briarcliff Road at North Druid Hills Road, where the Related Companies proposes…apartments and a hotel! Related broke off zoning talks with the county when tax abatements were refused, but we expect that they are back in play as an incentive to annex.
Mayor Ernst has twice told me that such transactions are bad policy, but that he intends to continue until they’re prohibited. I’m trying to achieve that, but frankly, lawmakers are astounded at Brookhaven’s brass, and they can’t believe it would happen to them. Sadly, as with incorporation and annexation they will learn the temptations are irresistible to some interests, and are highly contagious.
The tax abatement requires “validation” at a Superior Court hearing before finalization. Only citizens of Brookhaven are entitled to object, and the process is arcane. But they should object. Sooner or later the chickens will come home to roost with higher taxes or less for schools and services. Citizens will find themselves holding the bag filled with what chickens leave behind.