City Council members Jeanne Aulbach, Alex Wright and Weare Gratwick held a Town Hall meeting Monday night at the Avocet subdivision's clubhouse fielding questions on the possible land deal on the 20+ acres known as the Roberts property located across from The Forum.
Their purpose was to help clear the air on a number of questions swirling around the possible land purchase.
Alex Wright spoke to the group laying the ground rules on what they would be able to discuss. "Any details about the transaction is off limits," explained Wright. "Any thing in a contract is off limits."
The city is in negotiations to pursue purchasing the property but council members are restricted on discussing the specifics including the purchase price or other terms of the contract until a deal is finalized.
It is the restrictions from discussing the land purchase that had many residents uneasy on what was going on behind closed doors. "If I was in your seat, I'd be suspicious too," said Wright addressing the group of about 16-18 homeowners.
"We believe transparency is very important," said Wright who acknowledged the number of executive sessions which were not open to the public caused questions to be raised.
"This whole concept about executive session started when the budget came up," said Weare Gratwick. "I'd be the first to grade us poorly - we were new (as city council members) and not out in front of it."
Gratwick explained that Georgia law requires the council to convene into executive session when discussing litigation, personnel or property purchase matters. "The law is designed to protect the city," he explained.
The City Council learned in October 2012 that the 20+ acres across from The Forum was about to be sold to a developer who planned to build a 250 apartment complex on the property.
The additional apartment units would tip the balance of single family homes to rental property to over the 50/50 percent mark which is considered unhealthy for a suburban city.
City leaders began to pursue other ways for the land to be purchased and developed into something other than apartments. There was no time for a referendum to allow citizens to decide on the purchase - the new landowner planned to break ground in May and have the rental units open by fall.
Purchasing the property "wasn't our first plan A - it was plan last," said Wright. "We would have preferred to have a referendum but November was the earliest and that would be too late. We would have already had 250+ apartments on the property."
Jeanne Aulbach explained that the city is not opposed to apartments but that city leaders felt "there is a higher and better use for the property" and that by rezoning it for commercial use the land would have much greater value.
Wright said city leaders asked the prospective land owner about partnering with the city to build something that would include green space but that was not an option for the Miami, Fla.-based company whose only interest was building apartments.
When attempts to find another buyer for the land failed, the city looked at purchasing the land. "We went to Lennar, (who had closed on the land deal in early February for $7.6 million) and asked 'are you interested in selling the land?' And surprisingly they said yes," said Wright.
If the city is able to purchase the land, it would likely be rezoned for a mixed use development which brings a higher appraised value than multi-family zoning property and eventually be sold.
The city would fund the purchase by issuing revenue bonds. "There are no plans to raise the .85 millage rate," said Gratwick.
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