Atlanta City Council delays vote on controversial public safety training center, tightens legal languageAn overview illustration of the proposed Atlanta Institute for Social Justice and Public Safety Training at the old Prison Farm site. Credit: Atlanta Police Foundation
By John Ruch
The Atlanta City Council has delayed its vote on a controversial public safety training center at the former Prison Farm for three weeks, responding to pressure from opponents concerned about a lack of public input and impacts on forest and neighborhoods.
The council also voted at the same Aug. 16 meeting to amend the language of a lease agreement for the training center to require more specific public input and far more study of environmental impacts, among other changes.
The narrow, 8-7 vote to table the legislation until the Sept. 7 meeting followed roughly four hours of public comments that seemed to run about 75% against the training center’s location. Some councilmembers said the move will allow more time to convince opponents with an improved plan. But it also buys more time for opponents who advocate for alternative sites or for not building such a large facility at all.
The decisions came with some testy debate among councilmembers about their own input. Councilmember Natalyn Archibong, who is running for City Council president, based her motion to table on a report that a DeKalb County commissioner never got to see the plan. Fellow Councilmember Joyce Sheperd called that claim “disingenuous,” while Councilmember Antonio Brown (also a mayoral candidate) said he had problems getting information as well. “You know, this whole process has been disingenuous,” he said.
Secretly developed by the Atlanta Police Foundation, the Atlanta Fire Rescue Foundation and City administration officials, the training center is proposed for the Prison Farm site, a City-owned property along Key Road within unincorporated DeKalb County. That’s in conflict with another City-approved vision for the Prison Farm: a piece of the South River Forest, a proposed 3,500-acre network of green spaces in southeast Atlanta and southwest DeKalb. (The AFRF, which was on the advisory council tasked with recommending the site, says it played no role in the actual site selection.)
The Georgia chapter of The Nature Conservancy, an environmental nonprofit, is leading the South River Forest planning process and has emerged as an opponent of the plan. Georgia TNC Executive Director Deron Davis said after the council votes, “I am encouraged by the citizens of Atlanta who made their voices heard for green space and appreciate the council’s acknowledgment that more listening is necessary before the final decision is made.”
The APF, which has taken the lead on the planning, has pitched the training center as urgently needed to respond to crime and as a goodwill gesture to police officers in a time of discontent over protests. That line of argument was echoed by supporters in public comments.
In a written statement after the vote, APF President and CEO Dave Wilkinson said, “Tonight’s vote is a blow against public safety, the police and fire/rescue departments and our city’s ability to attract and retain highly motivated law enforcement professionals.
“We remain convinced that the Key Road site is the only viable location to build an affordable and timely Public Safety Training Center that meets Atlanta’s comprehensive law enforcement needs.”
The council’s Finance/Executive Committee on Aug. 11 approved a version of the plan hurriedly chopped down from 150 acres to 85. The deal would lease the property to the APF, a private nonprofit, for $10 a year. The rest of the site would be guaranteed as green space, with at least 170 acres preserved for “strictly public purposes.”
At the Aug. 16 meeting of the full council, Councilmember Matt Westmoreland introduced a series of amendments to that legislation, which passed unanimously. Westmoreland said the amendments were developed over the weekend following input from the South River Forest Coalition, another local group opposing the plan. Those amendments include:
- Clarifying annual operations and maintenance costs will be roughly $1.2 million, which may be partly offset by ending leases for current training facilities and by rental revenue — a reference to other public safety agencies possibly using the site.
- Deleting the “170 acres” language and saying the remaining 265 acres of the Prison Farm site would be used “for a combination of reforestation and public access,” and adding a statement that the City is committed to funding such work.
- Statements confirming the City’s intent to continue acquiring forest land for the South River Forest plan, at a minimum of 85 acres.
- Specifying that a public input must be taken through a new “Community Stakeholders Advisory Committee” that must include members of the South River Forest Coalition.
- A requirement that any contamination on the site must be identified and removed prior to development.
- A requirement that APF provide a “detailed report” about minimizing or eliminating noise from firing ranges and other impacts, and how they will meet federal and state environmental regulations.
- A requirement of proof that a “burn building” to be used for firefighter training meets Federal Aviation Administration guidance.
- A statement that APF will continue to work with the Atlanta Preservation Center and other organizations and government agencies to preserve historic landmarks and artifacts on the site.
(For a full copy of the amendments, provided by Westmoreland, click here.)
With those amendments in place, Archibong moved to table the legislation, specifically saying that DeKalb County Commissioner Larry Johnson had complained he “has not been given an update or given any sort of presentation or overview of what is being proposed here.” She said the delay would give a chance to correct “gaps” in the general public input as well. Johnson could not immediately be reached for comment by SaportaReport.
Sheperd, who chairs the council’s Public Safety Committee and is a champion of the training facility, strongly criticized Archibong’s claims. She said the APF told her that Johnson had refused to speak with them, adding, “I found it disingenuous that this would come up at this point in time.” She said she believes the council did “due diligence” and “everything possible” on community engagement, and claimed some protesters of the plan have “intimidated people.”
Brown criticized the council’s process as reactive and said various environmental organizations told him they have been “disenfranchized” by the lack of input, including in APF “listening sessions” where comment and questions were not allowed. Brown said that he himself attempted to contact APF and Wilkinson, “via text message and email, and received no response.”
The APF denied Archibong and Brown’s claims of non-responsiveness. “Joyce [Sheperd] is right. Antonio [Brown] is wrong,” said spokesperson Rob Baskin.
Councilmembers Westmoreland, Andre Dickens and Amir Farokhi all said they support the facility and its location but believed the tabling would allow time to improve the proposal with public input. (Several councilmembers incorrectly referred to a “two-week” delay rather than three weeks, as they forgot the council takes a relatively unusual three-week break between meetings this month.)
“I think we’re moving in the right direction on this proposed land lease, but it’s clear that we need to engage in a little more public input, especially among affected neighbors” in both the City and DeKalb, said Farokhi.
Dickens, who is also running for mayor, said the delay will give a chance for local advocates to “improve the project without eliminating the project.”
Westmoreland said there are public misunderstandings about the plan, saying “there is an incredible number of folks in our city who think that we were getting ready to bulldoze 400 acres [of forest]… And through those conversations I think we will continue to bring people along.”
Wilkinson, the APF director, echoed those concerns in his post-vote statement, saying, “Our task is to continue the dialogue with Council members and the public to ensure that they correctly separate the facts from misinformation about our plan. When they do, we’re confident they will listen to all of their constituents, choose to put public safety first, and support the Public Safety Training Center on Key Road.”
Councilmembers voting in favor of the tabling were Archibong, Andrea Boone, Brown, Dickens, Farokhi, Jennifer Ide, Carla Smith and Westmoreland. Those voting against were Michael Julian Bond, Dustin Hillis, J.P. Matzigkeit, Marci Collier Overstreet, Sheperd, Howard Shook and Cleta Winslow.
Left undiscussed was the possibility of alternative sites. While some councilmembers referred to poor conditions at former police and Fire Rescue academies, those academies are now in new rented facilities in Southwest Atlanta on multiyear leases. The police academy is at Atlanta Metropolitan State College, which a little-discussed internal document shows was on a short list of sites considered for the full, permanent training facility as well. The college’s president recently indicated in a statement to SaportaReport that he is open to discussing that possibility.
Update: This story has been updated with comments from the Atlanta Police Foundation and the Atlanta Fire Rescue Foundation.