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Monday, July 22, 2013

City officials considering eminent domain to secure land for portion of southwest Atlanta trail

Trail would connect Beltline to nearby neighborhoods, parks
UPDATE, 4:53 p.m. A spokeswoman for Mayor Kasim Reed says that the city on Friday signed an option with Dmitry Gitman for an easement on his property and that the two parties are now in active negotiations. Terms of the city's offer were not disclosed. Since this article was reported, the city has also made progress on making contact with property owners. City officials might only need to condemn four properties.

Dmitry Gitman built a deck in the back of his property at 2049 Rector Drive in Beecher Hills last month. His yard is calm and quiet, overlooking a stretch of trees with a creek running through it.

"One of the reasons I bought this house and one of the reasons people like to rent this house is because it has a nice backyard and it's very peaceful," says Gitman, who currently has a tenant living in the property.

But he fears that serene setting might change as city officials want to carve out part of Gitman's yard using eminent domain, a legal process that allows the government to seize private property for public use. Property owners are compensated.

Nearly 3,500 square feet of Gitman's backyard is in the way of the Southwest Beltline Connector Trail, a multi-use path that would connect parks located along the Atlanta Beltline.

The proposal, which is currently in front of the Atlanta City Council, would also allow the city to take slivers of property from four of Gitman's neighbors. In addition, the city is considering using eminent domain to acquire seven entire parcels located nearly two miles away that would be used to enlarge a separate Beltline park.

The proposals were first introduced in the Community Development committee meeting last month and have since been held for further discussion. While eminent domain remains a fairly common practice across Georgia for transportation projects, this would mark the first time the city has used the tool for the Beltline.

"There's been a lot of conversation, a lot of public outreach in terms of where the design is, what makes the most sense," says George Dusenbury, commissioner of the city's Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs, speaking about the trail project. "While obviously there are some properties we have not been able to obtain for various reasons, overall this is the best way to do it."

According to the ordinances, the city views this move as a last resort after "good faith negotiations" with property owners fell through.

After the city was authorized to begin negotiations to obtain property owners' land back in May of 2012, letters were sent out and meetings were arranged. Lawyers were hired to find property title records and appraisers were sent out to prepare an offer to give to the owners (the city was authorized in some of the cases to pay 10 percent above market rate for the desired patches of property).

Thirteen of the desired parcels for the trail project were purchased by the city after the negotiation process, without having to resort to condemnation.

"We want everyone to be happy at the end of the day, that this Beltline gets built, that the parks are happening," Mayor Kasim Reed spokeswoman Melissa Mullinax says. "We do take the time to sit down and explain the project."

But Gitman was mad. And he was also surprised. He says the last time he talked with the city was last September, when he told an appraiser he did not want him to come to his property. He didn't know the city was actually planning to condemn his property until the actual ordinance came up in City Hall.

"I was very angry because first of all I really didn't know that somebody can just take away from me something that I own and I already paid for and I pay taxes for," Gitman says.

He bought the property in August 2011. At the time, the previous owner warned him the city had offered him around $1,000 for the nearly 3,500 square-foot area in the lot's backyard. Gitman didn't think about the city's offer again until roughly one year later when he ran into some financial difficulties and considered selling the land. He contacted the city and heard back from an appraiser who asked if he could inspect Gitman's land.

At the time, though, Gitman was in the process of evicting a tenant and didn't want anyone to visit the property. So he called the appraiser and told him not to come. That was the last communication he had with the city, Gitman says.

The city's plans to acquire Gitman's property were dragged out and complicated by a series of liens on the property left over from a former owner, which clouded the possibility of a clear transfer of title.

Through the condemnation process, however, the city would gain legal title to the desired parcel and effectively clear the previous web of title disputes, after providing the owner with just compensation.

"In many cases, condemnation is the only practical way to acquire the properties," Dusenbury says.
Many of the properties the city wanted for the greenspace project are similarly buried under liens and other title issues, making a negotiated transfer difficult.

If the city acquires the 12 parcels, it could then complete two significant Beltline undertakings. The Southwest Beltline Connector Trail, which has already broken ground by Beecher Hills Elementary School, will connect the greenway to nearby District 11 neighborhoods and John A. White Park.

The Beltline currently links all the city districts except for the 11th, which includes Beecher Hills and Westwood Terrace, so the trail was imagined as an opportunity to "[make] the Beltline accessible to all residents," says Mr. Dusenbury.

The construction of the trail requires 50-foot easements from the back of several adjacent properties, including Gitman's. Once construction is complete, only 25 feet from the parcel will remain in the ownership of the city as a permanent easement.

The second project embodies equally ambitious goals. With the addition of the seven full properties, the city would transform underdeveloped land around the Enota Place Playlot in the West End into a five-acre greenspace. Enota Park would be the third new park created as part of the Beltline.

Now with condemnation plans becoming public, city officials are being slow and deliberate with their next steps. They are still willing to negotiate with property owners, Dusenbury says, and will give time for community feedback at a public hearing scheduled for mid-August.

Gitman, though, still does not want to sell the sliver of his property and fears construction in the back of his yard could strain privacy and disturb his current tenant. But with the use of eminent domain likely, one final option for the property owner is to negotiate the best deal possible from the city.

Renewed negotiations between Gitman and the city over the past weeks have already sweetened his deal to around $8,000. But it's not enough for him. He fears he could lose his tenant if the property turns into a construction zone. He's speaking with an attorney now to help with the negotiations, but considering legal fees, he thinks the process will likely cost him either way.

"If an attorney is going to charge me $9,000 and I can only get $8,000 for the land then there is no point for me to hire an attorney," Gitman says. "It is a tricky situation. It's just a headache, a trouble. I really hate to go through it."

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