A conceptual illustration of tree plantings at the main buildings of the proposed public safety training center. (Image by Atlanta Police Foundation.)

By John Ruch

DeKalb County has approved a land disturbance permit (LDP) for Atlanta’s controversial public safety training center, a major step that the mayor and CEO announced alongside a secretly written agreement on design and environmental points. Skeptics and opponents remain unappeased and some – including a DeKalb commissioner – may appeal the LDP on environmental grounds.

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens and DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond made the announcement at a Jan. 31 press conference, yet did not release the actual LDP application and related documents, nor would their press offices. Instead, they presented a memorandum of understanding (MOU) about the facility they had written and signed with no input from the public or, apparently, from their legislative branches. The document largely restates old design details, commits to environmental review standards, and adds aspirational intentions about sustainable construction and local workforce training that are written as subject to change. The facility’s actual developer, the private Atlanta Police Foundation (APF), is not a party to the document.

Many claims in the MOU and press conference were incorrect, misleading or omitted facts crucial to understanding the planning process so far. Those ranged from an incorrect size of the property to an inaccurate statement that the project’s review committee posts meeting minutes online and a lack of context on that group’s transparency problems.

Dickens, on the other hand, blamed the Defend the Atlanta Forest protest movement for inaccurate information. “The misinformation has gone far enough,” he said in response to a question about the protest movement, which opposes the plan and an adjacent DeKalb County parkland swap to a private developer that also was barely alluded to in the press conference. “This is a fire and police and community training facility. This will be a place where community policing, where collaboration between the community and police, can happen.”

Thurmond said the County’s LDP review is an “apolitical process,” yet also presented the secret, executive-level MOU as a “compromise and a solution” to allow the training center construction to move forward.

The LDP allows preliminary clearing of the site in preparation for construction, though further review and assessment by County officials are necessary. “This is the beginning of a process and not the end,” said Thurmond.

An anonymous press release from an account used by Defend the Atlanta Forest protesters dismissed the MOU as yet another example of secrecy overcoming the public will.

“This is more backroom talk between powerful elites and their dark money contributors, but the ‘Atlanta Way’ is no longer acceptable to the people of Atlanta,” said the press release. It called for an international “Week of Solidarity to Stop Cop City” — the protesters’ nickname for the training center — from Feb. 19 to 26. “We are winning, but we have not won,” it said.

Ted Terry, who represents District 6 on the DeKalb Board of Commissioners, has long pushed for transparency and a strong environmental review of the process. He blasted the MOU for secrecy and for being full of “greenwashing” and toothless “buzzwords.”

Terry said in a phone interview that he was unaware of the MOU until the hastily announced press conference, which he said he was initially barred from entering by Dickens’ press secretary, Michael Smith.

“When you come out to the public saying this has been a transparent, open-ended process where everyone’s feedback was taken in, I can raise my hand and say honestly and truthfully, that’s not what happened,” Terry said.

Terry added he is considering hiring his own lawyer to file an appeal against the LDP, as County code appears to give commissioners standing to do so. The main concern is another point not discussed by Dickens and Thurmond — claims by the local South River Watershed Alliance (SRWA) and its environmental attorney that construction on the site is essentially impossible due to a state limit on sediment runoff in the heavily polluted Intrenchment Creek, which runs through the property.

Journalists from GPB News, Decaturish and Capital B Atlanta complained on Twitter that they also were barred from attending the MOU press conference, which was moved to a small room as protesters arrived. Various TV stations aired the press conference live, but press questions indicated that most reporters were unfamiliar with details of the planning process.

The $90 million training center, which would train police officers and firefighters from Atlanta and outside departments, is planned for roughly 85 acres of the former Atlanta Prison Farm. That property is owned by the City but is located in unincorporated DeKalb along Key and Constitution roads. APD has used the site for decades as a shooting range and for explosives disposal, while residents also have used it as an informal park. But its selection for the massive training center in a secret City and APF process revealed in 2021 surprised neighbors and DeKalb officials, generating huge controversy. Protests have also flared on environmental and police reform or police abolition grounds.

Atlanta’s police and fire chiefs appeared at the press conference and restated their needs for new facilities due to substandard or missing ones today, citing morale, recruitment and efficiency improvements.

Review committee past and present

The Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee (CSAC) was created by the City in 2021 to address public input concerns, though, in both structure and practice, it has had many transparency and politicization issues. Dickens and Thurmond heavily relied on the CSAC’s existence as evidence of community input on the project and said they will continue to consult it as a core feature of the MOU. Thurmond lauded the CSAC as “speaking truth to power” and making changes to the plan that went above and beyond typical County standards.

Both leaders characterized the CSAC as purely a citizen group that voted to approve various design elements. While created by the Atlanta City Council and chaired by one of several citizen members, the CSAC is actually operated by the APF and includes several government officials, including the Atlanta Police chief, the chair of the City Council’s public safety committee, and Dickens’ own appointee, the City’s deputy chief operating officer. The group typically operates by consensus or theme of discussion, not votes, and explicitly decided not to conduct a final vote on the overall project. It did not directly review or approve the final site plan as a whole.

Among many transparency issues are some directly applicable to Dickens and Thurmond’s MOU, which itself was not publicly reviewed by the CSAC. The CSAC agreed not to publicly review the LDP application, either — despite it being a public document — as the APF wanted it to remain secret on grounds of “security” against protests. The construction timeline also remains secret, though it is roughly sketched out in LDP applications as extending into 2025.

The CSAC also made the legally questionable move last year of kicking off one of its own citizen members — who had been nominated by Terry — for publicly criticizing the plan, speaking to the media, and questioning the quality and legality of its environmental study. That member, Lily Ponitz, was never replaced, despite Terry’s attempts at a new nomination.

Asked at the press conference about Ponitz’s removal by journalist George Chidi of The Atlanta Objective, Dickens gave a protracted reply centered on claims the CSAC was citizen-led and could do as it wished. “I didn’t pay attention to any of it because it was a community-led process,” he said, with no acknowledgment that he directly appointed one of the group’s members and has other City officials serving on it.

The CSAC’s virtual meetings are public but are given only the most technical public notice via the Atlanta Municipal Clerk’s website, with no recordings posted publicly afterward. The MOU claims that the meeting minutes are posted on a website — without explaining how to actually attend the live meetings first — but even that is incorrect. The training center website has not posted any minutes since the group’s second meeting, in November 2021, and no materials from any meeting since June 2022. The only content added to the website since August 2022 came this week — links to press releases about the MOU.

Due to its unusual structure, the CSAC was mistakenly exempted from the City’s ethics disclosure process last year and is currently facing an ethics review for Christmas gifts given by the APF to its members. It remains unclear if its January meeting was legal, as it was run by an executive from the Atlanta Police Department (APD), which is not named in the City Council legislation as having such authority with the CSAC.

The CSAC has frequently overlooked or not discussed major elements of the plan, such as a fully functioning fire station, which instead are the subject of private discussions involving APF, the City’s Department of Enterprise Asset Management and other officials. Instead, the CSAC typically reviews public-facing elements of the plan, such as community space design and art exhibit spaces, often with no follow-up on topics or answers to questions from previous meetings.

CSAC chair Alison Clark and several other members have frequently expressed the importance of the committee’s participation in political “narrative,” both its own and that of the APF or APD. That was a driving factor in the removal of Ponitz. More recently, Clark and some other members agreed to support APD 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.

In response to protests, the CSAC last year discussed “controlling the narrative” via a ban on members talking to the media and getting the City press office to help them publicize various design accomplishments, such as reorienting the facility’s entrance and establishing a 100-foot-wide buffer zone for the neighborhood. That document was issued by the CSAC in June 2022, in the only update ever sent to subscribers of its email, and is largely cut-and-pasted into the MOU.

Parkland and trees

Dickens emphasized that the rest of the Prison Farm site will be parkland. That is not a new concept, as it was part of the City Council’s original approval of the training center plan. But he made some of the strongest public statements to date, including that “we are making a commitment not to develop on the other side of the land.” He added, “This essentially is a huge park about the size of Atlanta’s largest [existing] park.”

The MOU refers to the site including active and passive uses, as well as trails. However, it remains unclear who decided that and who would operate such a park, a question lingering since the start of the planning process. City parks officials have not been publicly involved in CSAC discussions, and the group itself began straying into park planning before backing off, as it was not within their authority as granted by the City Council. The MOU refers broadly to coordinating with the Atlanta Regional Commission following a forthcoming report on early planning for the South River Forest, a City-created concept for 3,000 acres of interconnected green space in southeast Atlanta and southwest DeKalb. That concept is one of the generators of controversy about the training center, as it is right in the middle of the area.

The park questions tie into major issues also not fully explained at this point — the size of the overall property and the amount of tree loss. A major concession by 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 for just the new parkland. The SRWA, the local activist group, 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 concept of the “other side of the land” being park-only would amount to roughly 125 acres.

Tree-cutting is another major focus of training center controversy and also lacking in data and clarity. Some protesters have romanticized the Prison Farm site as an ancient forest, when in fact it was largely clear-cut repeatedly and most trees date to 30 years ago or less. The APF and City have downplayed the woods as worthless invasive species and full of paving and old buildings, but in fact community members have informally enjoyed it as a forested park for decades — including by creating trails that the APF now seeks to use in its plan. The training center plan includes a lot of paving as well, including parking lots and a driving course.

No clear statement of the tree loss has been publicly provided. The MOU refers to 100 hardwoods replacing every specimen tree lost and, in ambiguous language, “one specimen tree for any invasive species tree that was removed.” However, it still provides no numbers on the overall tree loss or the total amount of plantings. The MOU credits the CSAC with the hardwood replacement standard, but most of that came from County standards and the planners’ own concepts. A request from the CSAC’s vice chair at a recent meeting for specific tree-loss numbers was never answered in subsequent meetings.

A SaportaReport tally of numbers in a previous LDP application found an estimate of 4,201 trees on the site, with 197 deemed “significant” and 68 of those as “specimens.” The application said 115 of those significant trees – about 58 percent – would be saved, and 494 new trees would be planted, including in such areas as parking lots.

The MOU does not explain that various changes presented as being made via CSAC input are subject to unilateral change, are in flux or were already made unilaterally by planners. For example, publicly accessible green space is a part of the plan, but the APF previously told the CSAC that it might erect a permanent perimeter fence in response to protests and other security concerns. Dickens touted the shifting location of a firing range away from neighbors, but, at least in public meetings, that issue remains unresolved as it was close to a youth detention facility and protests had prevented noise studies crucial to the siting. The complete removal of an explosives range from the site was presented to the group by now APD Chief Darin Schierbaum as a response to community concerns, but with no explanation of where it would go and what the input process, if any, would be for its neighbors.

Environmental pledges and challenges

New in the MOU are statements about creating a cadet program and other youth education, hiring minority and local contractors, using local businesses for supplies and using “sustainable materials” in the construction. However, all of those items are heavily qualified with the terms “whenever possible and feasible” and most only to “encourage,” not mandate, the practice.

Terry, who has pressed for more environmental review, expressed outrage at the vagueness and lack of teeth in those pledges.

“That is the biggest throwaway greenwashing line I’ve ever heard of,” he said of the “sustainable materials” item and its lack of specifics. “… It’s like the press people wrote this and instead of doing due diligence of what could be done to improve the environmental sustainability of the site, they just threw out some buzzwords… Like, that literally just means nothing.”

“It’s like the media narrative is more important than the details,” added Terry, noting that several of those MOU items would require extensive action by the County. He said such items as coordinating with the South River Forest plan should begin immediately with the convening of a group. He previously proposed an intergovernmental Atlanta-DeKalb agency with locally elected members to oversee such green space planning and operations.

Another, minor new item mentioned by Dickens was that the training center would host “community watch” training. That also has not been publicly discussed by the CSAC and its origin was not explained.

Dickens made comments continuing the political narrative that Defend the Atlanta Forest protesters are outsiders, without any explanation of why that would make their points invalid. Many protesters have been drawn from the now national controversy over the training center and are likely to be for a long time to come with the police killing of Manuel “Tortuguita” Teran, who allegedly wounded a state trooper while camping on the site.

However, there is widespread local opposition as well, including from such groups as the SRWA, which has been pressing the claim that state environmental rules bar any site disturbance. The MOU does not directly address that but says it will follow environmental laws and that the plan includes “double erosion control” to protect Intrenchment Creek.

Jon Schwartz, an attorney for SRWA, on Jan. 25 sent a letter to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division seeking a type of higher-level stormwater permit review for the training center under the concern that it cannot comply with a sediment runoff cap for the Creek that is already exceeded. That permit process includes the possibility of a public appeal.

Terry said he has been talking with other residents about the possibility of appealing the LDP on stormwater grounds and may hire his own lawyer to do so. He said the County law department never responded to his request for an opinion on the issue. That’s just one of many aspects of the process about which he expressed frustration, including Thurmond not responding to his requests for meetings before the MOU’s appearance.

“That’s the old saying – if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu. Or you order something dumb,” said Terry. “… Or in this case, order vegetarian.”

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  1. Thanks for careful, detailed, fact-laden reporting on a complicated issue. I greatly respect Mayor Dickens and CEO Thurmond, but it seems that they are being recruited (maybe strong-armed?) to join a “narrative” about this stealth APD project rather than deal with facts and environmental law, especially regarding protection of the South River.

    We absolutely need and want the best-trained police in the country, and to be a place that attracts the best quality of police officer. It’s a shame that this APD project was sprung on Atlanta, DeKalb, and the metro area as a surprise putsch attempt rather than through a deeper, fact-based process that draws upon the best academic talent that Georgia has and that includes the type of transparency so stunningly missing from this highly flawed CSAC process.

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