The unannounced felling of 14 trees in Brookhaven park starting the week of Christmas has rekindled neighborhood outrage over long-planned improvements that residents say are now unwanted and poorly communicated.

The city says that the work at Murphey Candler Park on West Nancy Creek Drive is just carrying out a program approved by citywide voters in a 2018 bond referendum.

“At this point, it appears the city is acting in a way to piecemeal the project to avoid scrutiny under some certain amount of secrecy,” said Juliet Cohen, a resident of Candler Lake East who lamented the permanent loss of trees for projects she believes neighbors might still stop or change. She complained about eight of the trees — at least one over 100 feet tall and 3 feet around, she said — coming down Dec. 23 in the holiday period; another six were felled Jan. 5, the day of the attention-getting U.S. Senate runoff election.

Lee Croy, the city parks bond program manager, said in written comments through a city spokesperson that the tree-cutting is part of a “community green” project that has always been on the project list. Contractors actually intended that the trees come down sooner, he said.

“The recent storms over the last several months that affected our area greatly affected the availability of tree removal contractors and their schedules,” Croy said. “The days chosen for tree removal were not determined to avoid public attention.”

A city map of the improvements planned for Murphey Candler Park as part of the parks bond.

The $40 million parks bond came with a long list of improvements for all city parks. That includes $8.9 million in Murphey Candler projects, ranging from trail upgrades to a new community center. Work began last summer on some projects on the park’s east side, along Candler Park East, that included reopening a long-gated loop road, adding parking spaces and starting work on a playground. Surprised residents concerned about tree loss and traffic mobilized to attempt to stop the work, so far unsuccessfully.

The latest tree-cutting is for an adjacent project described on plans as a “community green” and “open space.” Unhappy residents are calling it an “amphitheater,” which Croy says is not accurate, though the project does include a “small stage area” with electrical outlets but no lighting, he said. The area was called a “natural amphitheater” in the original parks master planning process several years ago by consultants who suggested its use for small concerts.

“There is no amphitheater planned for Murphey Candler Park,” said Croy. “An amphitheater is not in the master plan anywhere despite some residents’ attempts to characterize the community green as such. The green is not intended for large crowds and concerts. It is intended for small groups such as home-schoolers, neighborhood groups or family gatherings.”

No further tree-cutting is planned related to the projects in that area of the park, according to city spokesperson Burke Brennan.

Underlying the Murphey Candler debate is a classic public-works tension between a government focused on a current list of projects to build and residents who say they were unaware of those projects when they were developed years ago and that communication about them today is poor. Some details of projects remain in flux until construction is done. Further complicating the issue are transparency problems with the original parks master planning process and the parks bond project.

As city officials have pointed out, Murphey Candler and others parks received master plans developed through a public process that wrapped up in late 2015. The Murphey Candler plan was revealed in a public meeting that year, where about 30 attendees applauded, though some raised concerns about the loop road. However, the consultants who developed the master plans said at the time that they likely would not post the plans online, where the many more residents who did not attend the meeting could view them, until the end of the public meeting process and maybe not all. The Reporter published all of the plans after obtaining them through an open records request.

Specific improvement projects later became part of the parks bond that voters approved in 2018. Officials now say that publicly approved list will not be altered by the city and cannot be changed by the Park Bond Citizen Oversight Committee, a citizen group that monitors all of the projects for adherence to the plan. One important exception is some projects — including the Murphey Candler community center — that were slated to get further, specific public review before any construction.

And in practice, officials and the committee previously changed a major park plan. In 2018, Mayor John Ernst and City Councilmember Linley Jones worked privately with the consultants to add a large water feature to the Lynwood Park master plan without general public input in a move that was not widely known until after the City Council approved it as part of the official list of bond projects. Amid controversy, that feature was changed by the committee at the city administration’s request.

Cohen and other Murphey Candler neighborhood residents say they want that same kind of review and ability to change other significant projects in the park.

“The master plan was conceptual. There was a series of drawings,” said Cohen. “…They’re picking and choosing what they want to accept public input about.”

She noted in a Dec. 27 letter to Ernst and the City Council that, while the project list is presented as unchanging, the specific project designs do, and budgets for them are sometimes not yet approved. The construction timelines change, too. Playground construction that was part of last summer’s controversy, for example, has stalled and missed a previous November completion date. Croy said the playground delay was because the plan was “revised to fit the playground better within the trees on site” and that completion is now expected this month if weather allows.

“The city failed to inform the neighbors of the change in timeline, and rushed to make irreversible changes to the park,” Cohen said of the playground delay. “All of this smacks of irreverence for public participation and transparency, and fails to show adherence to city rules and policy and the park bond terms.”

Murphey Candler residents are also concerned about a lack of meetings, and public input during them, from the Oversight Committee. The committee did not meet most of last year, which the city attributed to the pandemic, though other government bodies met virtually and park construction continued. Cohen said that residents have been denied the ability to speak at the committee meetings and have not received an answer to a letter about the Murphey Candler concerns sent to the committee.

Croy described the purpose of the committee meetings as simply being informative to its members.

“Residents have access to the city and Parks [and Recreation Department] through phone and email,” he said. “Questions received during or after the meetings are responded to. To be clear, the Park Bond Citizen Oversight Committee is not charged with garnering public input, as the park master plans and subsequent Park Bond projects have already been through the public input process. The committee is to ensure the implementation is true to the master plans.”

In her letter to the city leaders, Cohen said there is no reason that officials can’t notify residents about the status of park project work before they are “woken by tree-cutting.”

“The city has several methods to communicate with residents, many of which are low-cost and quickly accessible, including social media, neighborhood group pages like Nextdoor, city e-blast and notices to neighborhood association leadership,” she wrote. “Providing notice to neighbors is professional and shows respect to constituents and taxpayers.”

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