Above Photo: The public safety training center’s master plan as of November 2022. (Atlanta Police Foundation.)
Atlanta, Georgia – The Atlanta public safety training center’s land disturbance permit (LDP) is being challenged by a member of the project’s own review committee, and another member has resigned in outrage over the police killing of a protester at the site.
Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens and DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond just days ago publicly praised the project’s Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee (CSAC) as ensuring ongoing citizen input into the controversial plan, with Thurmond claiming it was “speaking truth to power.” Neither said that one citizen had already quit and they did not see the other member’s rebuke coming in the form of an appeal.
CSAC member Amy Taylor filed an appeal on Feb. 6 with the DeKalb County Zoning Board of Appeal (ZBA). The appeal claims the County improperly issued the LDP because the project would violate a state limit on sediment runoff and because its lease gives an inaccurately large number for the amount of green space set aside.
Meanwhile, CSAC member Nicole Morado quit on Jan. 18, the day that police killed protester Manuel “Tortuguita” Teran, after the protester allegedly shot and wounded a state trooper during a raid of civil-disobedience campers on the site.
“Really I did not want to be affiliated with a project that is using police violence and taking lives…,” Morado said in a phone interview. “I’m still an interested resident. I just don’t want to be affiliated with that group any longer.”
The CSAC has many transparency issues – including agreeing not to review the LDP application on “security” grounds and never reviewing a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that Dickens and Thurmond signed to ensure the permit’s issuance. Its membership also has been confused and unclear from the start, made worse by the controversial removal of a member last year, and is now even more confusing with Morado’s resignation.
LDP permit appeal
The LDP is needed to begin site-clearing and other construction preparation for the training center project. It’s appeal adds a layer of complication to the process.
Taylor declined to comment on the record, but in the appeal document, Taylor bases her ability to appeal on living within 250 feet of the site, which is located on Key and Constitution roads in unincorporated DeKalb, and her involvement in the South River Watershed Alliance (SRWA), a local environmental organization that has raised the sediment and green space concerns before. Taylor is represented in the appeal by Jon Schwartz, an environmental attorney who also has worked with SRWA.
Schwartz declined to comment on whether Taylor proposed the appeal or was requested by someone to file it.
The SRWA previously argued that the training center project is essentially impossible due to an already-exceeded state limit on sediment runoff in the heavily polluted Intrenchment Creek, which runs through the property. Schwartz last month sent a letter to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division seeking a type of higher-level stormwater permit review for the training center under that concern. That permit process would include the possibility of a public appeal as well.
The SRWA also has publicized questions about the size of the site and the amount of tree loss. A major concession by the facility’s private planner, the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF), to get the City Council to approve a lease of the land for the training center was reducing its footprint to approximately 85 acres, leaving the rest for green space. Dickens and the MOU variously described the overall prison farm site as 385, 381 or 380 acres, echoing similar numbers in the City Council legislation.
But those numbers were criticized by local activists as inaccurate from the start. DeKalb property records and previous LDP applications themselves say the entire property is just over 296 acres — a figure Dickens used last week for just the new parkland. The SRWA also has questioned the training center footprint, which is shown in LDP applications as around 85 acres, but spread over a larger area.
Last year, in a move that was not publicized nor reviewed by the CSAC, the APF got three parcels comprising the Prison Farm site combined and redrawn. The result is that the training center site is now within a 171-acre parcel the APF would largely control. The training center plan includes publicly accessible green spaces and trails, but it makes the parkland math much more complex. It appears the untouched part of the overall site would amount to roughly 125 acres.
At a press conference last week, Dickens and Thurmond announced the LDP issuance by couching it in their secretly written MOU, which relied heavily on presenting the CSAC as a public input device. However, among the CSAC’s many transparency controversies is the question of who is even a member, and who members represent. That controversy includes Taylor.
The Atlanta City Council legislation that created the CSAC was hastily written, misspelling some members’ names and misidentifying others. Taylor was incorrectly identified as a nominee from the DeKalb Board of Commissioners District 6, when in fact she represents the Starlight Heights neighborhood. She was allowed to remain as a nonvoting “alternate” member under unclear legal authority, while the Atlanta Municipal Clerk continues to list her as the District 6 rep.
Meanwhile, the actual District 6 nominee, Lily Ponitz, was not named in the legislation. She ended up getting kicked off by other CSAC members – a move of dubious legality – for publicly criticizing the project’s environmental reviews and speaking to the press. DeKalb District 6 Commissioner Ted Terry nominated Taylor to replace Ponitz, but says that months later, he has never heard back from the City Council.
Member quits over protester killing
Morado happens to be the other, voting-eligible member representing Starlight Heights. Now she is gone as well. In last week’s press conference, Dickens and Thurmond mischaracterized the CSAC as being entirely a citizen group, but that turns out to be even less accurate as two of the citizen seats were vacant.
Morado has repeatedly raised questions about what type of police tactics would be taught at the training center. Those types of concerns led to her resignation.
“I just don’t support that kind of action by cops,” she said. “Deescalation is possible, and a family lost a child because all they wanted to was save a forest, and that doesn’t sit well with me.”
“It was so upsetting [the killing] happened two days after MLK Day,” Morado said. “It was my worst fear. It was in the back of my mind, worrying that a protester was going to get harmed. Once that happened… it doesn’t feel fair in my conscience to be associated with a group that has that kind of activity going on.”
Morado said some of the other CSAC members’ comments about police and protesters made her uneasy prior to the killing. Among other transparency and politicization issues with the CSAC is the agreement of chair Alison Clark and some other members to support Atlanta Police Assistant Chief Carven Tyus’s call for them to spread a “narrative” to the media and other residents that protesters are outsiders and domestic terrorists.
“It was kind of getting uncomfortable about how some of the members were being OK with how the police were treating the protesters over exaggerated concern over safety of the police officers,” she said. “I was like, gimme a break. They can handle this. They’re professionals. … [The protesters are] just a bunch of kids – nonviolent, Earth-loving people.”
Morado praised a previous SaportaReport story about the Dickens/Thurmond press conference for noting many inaccuracies about the CSAC. She said those leaders overemphasized the citizen input and not that many Atlanta officials are on the body and other members with a “vested interest in getting it done.”
She said that she, Taylor and Ponitz were the only members who seemed to have “interested curiosity and not just kind of like nodding our heads and saying, ‘Sure, everything’s fine,’ or asking deeper questions. I think all the [other] members are super bought into it and want to get it moved along, regardless of what changes. I think they’re just sort of like, the police and fire people should get whatever they want, and it’s fine.”