Despite some resident pushback, the city of Brookhaven approved an Urban Redevelopment Plan for potential redevelopment of designated “blighted” areas of the city.
The Brookhaven City Council began the process leading to this approval in April when it approved a resolution that was a prerequisite for the city to exercise its powers under the state’s Urban Redevelopment Law. It allows cities to redevelop areas that might be underutilized or dilapidated and to create an Urban Redevelopment Agency to help implement that redevelopment.
At a June 14 meeting, the council approved an Urban Redevelopment Plan, created an Urban Redevelopment Agency made up of members of the City Council, and designated areas of the city that could be considered for redevelopment.
Urban Redevelopment Plan and Special Services District
A previous draft map from an April meeting highlighted three possible areas around Buford Highway, Peachtree Road, and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. The new plan approved at the council meeting is extended to areas in all four of the city’s districts and lines up with the city’s Special Services District (SSD). The council approved the SSD, which would have certain business owners pay more in property taxes to help fund infrastructure improvements, in December of 2021.
According to city documents, there are four Urban Redevelopment areas. Those areas are “North Brookhaven,” which includes commercial and residential properties along Ashford Dunwoody Road and Johnson Ferry Road along with the frontage of I-285. The second area is “Peachtree Road,” which includes commercial, warehouse, residential, and institutional properties in the city center. The third area is “Buford Highway,” which includes commercial, multi-family residential, office, and institutional properties along the area of Buford Highway. The fourth area is “LaVista,” which includes commercial, industrial, institutional, and residential properties around Emory University and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.
City Attorney Chris Balch said that staff expanded the Urban Redevelopment area to match up with the SSD so that the city could use future funds from the SSD to make improvements within those Urban Redevelopment areas.
“In order to use Special Services District dollars to make the improvements or to provide the incentives within the Urban Redevelopment Authority area, they have to be the same areas,” Balch said. “We can’t have holes in the plans.”
In a City Council work session earlier in the day, Balch said that Urban Redevelopment Agencies can be used for many projects, but one of their primary uses is for infrastructure improvements to roads and bridges.
“Most of the projects being considered by the administration for SSD funding allocations are transportation projects, or transportation connective projects,” Balch said.
Balch said that the plan is not written in stone and can be changed by the council.
Included with the Urban Redevelopment Plan was a possible list of projects that could be funded by the SSD, which caused some stir among residents. Some residents spoke against the plan in public comment, saying they felt the city had not been transparent enough about the URA process or the SSD possible projects list.
“The SJREC’s number one recommendation was for the city to provide community equity and engagement in the city’s process,” said resident Terrell Carstens, referring to the city’s Social Justice, Race, and Equity Commission, many of whose recommendations related to transparency. “Without it, you undermine the public trust.”
Resident Catherine Bernard echoed concerns about transparency, saying the agenda for the meeting was only posted a few days in advance.
“Y’all have a tremendous agenda tonight, with things about the future of our city that are going to impact people through decades to come, and yet most of us found out about it because the agenda was posted and it got forwarded around just a few days ago,” Bernard said.
The council discussed possible projects for the SSD at its annual retreat in February. City Manager Christian Sigman said that the projects list for the SSD is still a draft list and was included as an administrative step to get the Urban Redevelopment Authority up and running. He said the list will be brought to the public for input before it is finalized.
“The Special Service District project list is still in development,” Sigman said. “We cannot present that until we get an evaluation of the district from the DeKalb County Tax Commissioner. The administration will present that for council consideration to submit to the public for a robust public input process.”
Councilmember Linley Jones said she supported the plan in part because of the ability to use SSD funding for projects in District 1.
“We are hoping for SSD funding for various things that will be decided by the public in the process we are going through,” she said. “Frankly, I’d be derelict as your representative if I didn’t have District 1 participate in this.”
Councilmember John Funny said that the URA has been an ongoing discussion in the city, and brought up a joint town hall meeting he held with Councilmember Madeleine Simmons on the subject.
“We really tried to push forward to the public information about the URA to align them to be intelligently educated to ask us questions,” Funny said. “I don’t want this to come across as we’re pulling something from under the rug, because we’ve really spent ample time with the subject matter.”
But some residents didn’t think the city did enough to give proper notice about the agenda item. Bernard said she believed the city needs to try harder to properly engage people on important issues.
“It should not be a single ‘Mondays with Madeleine’ where we hear about this,” Bernard said. “This needs to be something that you are attempting to engage the busy Brookhaven professionals with so that we can understand what your plans are for our city.”
City Charter Change
The council also drew pushback for approving a charter amendment that would exempt Special Tax Districts or Special Services Districts from the city’s 3.35 millage rate cap. The city held its first millage rate hearing at the meeting, revealing that the proposed millage rate for the Special Services District is 4 mills. The council is expected to vote on that millage rate at its June 28 meeting.
Balch said the change is meant to make sure the charter’s language reflects what the city has been doing for years. There are other Special Tax Districts in the city, one for LaVista Park and one for the area around Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, both of which have had millage rates over the cap in the charter.
“The city has powers under [section 1.03(38)] to levy taxes and collect taxes on things outside of the millage rate,” Balch said. “There’s a conflict between that language and [section 1.03(37a)], which says that there is a millage cap. All we’re trying to do is bring the language to be consistent with the interpretive guidance that our forepersons on this council have provided us in the history of the city.”
Carstens said the city should allow residents to vote on millage rates above 3.35. The original text of this section of the charter stated that the millage rate should not exceed 3.35 “unless a higher limit is recommended by resolution of the city council and approved by a majority of the qualified electors of the City of Brookhaven voting on the issue…” This section of the charter previously excluded general obligation bonds from that millage limit, and the new language would exclude Special Tax Districts and Special Service Districts.
Carstens also took issue with the inclusion of the phrase “including but not limited to” in reference to the city’s ability to levy and collect taxes and fees within Special Tax Districts and Special Services Districts.
“That leaves the door wide open,” Carstens said. “It only includes now a Special Tax District or Special Service District, but by adding those four words, it changes that impression.”
Resident Heather Faire agreed and said she thought the decision to raise the rate above the cap should be left up to voters.
“If you believed that you were doing the right thing and you trusted voters’ judgment, you wouldn’t need to change the charter,” Faire said. “You would put forward a proposal for an increase or a decrease, or whatever it is that you wanted to do with taxes, and you would let the voters decide.”
The Urban Redevelopment Plan and the charter change in full can be viewed on the city’s website.