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DeKalb commissioner renews request for deeper review of Atlanta training center plan

DeKalb County District 6 Commissioner Ted Terry.

By John Ruch

DeKalb County District 6 Commissioner Ted Terry is taking a second shot at calling for a deeper review of Atlanta’s controversial public safety training center plan.

This time, it’s a nonbinding resolution asking the Atlanta City Council to reduce the “intensity” of the development and to conduct a wider environmental review. Terry is also asking for a new DeKalb Bicentennial Historic Commission to consider how to memorialize the site’s history as the infamous Atlanta Prison Farm.

In July, Terry introduced an earlier version that sought to give the County and the Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee (CSAC), a City-created group reviewing the plan, more legal teeth. The resolution did not make it out of the County Board of Commissioners (BOC) and created friction with the CSAC, which saw the proposal as undoing its work. There are other friction points with the CSAC as well. Earlier this year, the group removed one of its members, who was nominated by Terry, for publicly criticizing the plan regarding the same environmental issues he continues to press.

Now Terry is working more collaboratively with the CSAC and meeting with some of its members, including Chair Alison Clark, about the resolution’s contents. Changes include removing a call for the CSAC to conduct more review work itself and adding an explicit condemnation of “violent and destructive” elements within the massive protest movement that opposes the training center on environmental and police reform grounds.

The $90 million training center facility, which would train police officers and firefighters from Atlanta and outside departments, is planned for 85 acres of the former Prison Farm, a piece of property that is owned by the City of Atlanta but sits outside city limits on Key Road in unincorporated DeKalb. The Atlanta Police Foundation (APF), a private nonprofit, is leading the planning and supervising the CSAC.

Terry is among DeKalb officials who have expressed frustration with the lack of information from APF and the CSAC, starting with a surprise announcement of the plan and site last year that triggered large-scale resistance. A recent sticking point is a land disturbance permit (LDP) application that is crucial to the start of pre-construction work. Earlier this year Terry obtained and released the LDP application after APF told the CSAC it would remain secret due to security concerns related to the protests. The LDP remains in process, with APF Chief Operating Officer Marshall Freeman telling the CSAC at a Sept. 27 meeting that discussions with the County continue on such issues as landscaping.

The gist of Terry’s concerns is that the project is widely different from the site’s residential zoning and that there is a lack of County review because governments are generally exempt from such processes. He told SaportaReport that offices and classrooms might be appropriate for the site, but such facilities as a firing range and driving course “to me is not the best use for the area.”

To that point, his draft resolution asks the City Council’s Public Safety and Legal Administration Committee “to review and approve a modified site master plan that considers the aspects of the land use plan outlined in the 2050 DeKalb Unified Development Plan, and amends it appropriately to address the intensity of use concerns.”

On the environmental review controversy, the resolution asks the council to require a “full-site” review that addresses such items as groundwater and soil pollution from hydrocarbons and pesticides. The draft provided to SaportaReport by Terry deleted another clause asking for APF to “consider another site location” if it can’t be “adequately amended” to meet County environmental protection standards.

The resolution also asked County CEO Michael Thurmond to create a working group within his newly proposed historic commission to address the Prison Farm and ways to memorialize it. The resolution notes the Prison Farm’s status as “part of the ‘slave labor’ prison system” and that it “fed white supremacist ideology.”

APF planners have proposed a memorial within the facility that would include an artificial prison wall, an idea that drew resistance from some CSAC members as insensitive.

Regarding protests, the draft resolution notes that DeKalb was home to many Civil Rights movement leaders who pioneered nonviolent resistance, and declares the County “rejects any protest actions that are violent and destructive that go beyond the bounds of established civil disobedience norms.”

Terry emphasized that the thrust of his efforts is the lack of information about and public input into the training center plan.

“I will continue to point out that I found out about this when the public found out about it,” he said. “And others in DeKalb County government knew what was going on and didn’t think, ‘Maybe we should ask the commissioners what they think’… That’s water under the bridge. I just want it to be cleaner water.”

The County has no authority over City processes and Terry’s resolution would be a nonbinding request if it passes. He said he expects to introduce it early next week in one of two scheduled meetings of the BOC’s Planning, Economic Development & Community Services Committee. Terry said he also intends to speak with District 9 City Councilmember Dustin Hillis, who chairs the council’s public safety committee and is a CSAC member.

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