Lawsuit contends stadium bonds unconstitutional, violate Georgia’s environmental policies

By David Pendered

A court challenge has been filed against Atlanta’s plan to sell $278.3 million in bonds to help fund construction of the Falcons’ $1.2 billion stadium.

John Woodham

John Woodham

The motion to intervene portrays a breakdown in legislative and administrative processes all the way from the state Capitol to the Georgia World Congress Center Authority and to Atlanta City Hall.

The motion raises legal issues involving the constitutionality of the hotel motel tax; the demolition of two churches; failure to address state-mandated environmental concerns; and failure to ask the Atlanta Regional Commission to review the project as a development of regional impact.

The motion to intervene contends that the bonds should not be validated for more than a dozen reasons. The lawyers are John Woodham, who opposed the BeltLine tax allocation district, and Thelma Wyatt Cummings Moore, a former chief judge of Fulton County Superior Court first appointed to the bench by then-Mayor Maynard Jackson.

Thelma Wyatt Cummings Moore

Thelma Wyatt Cummings Moore

According to the motion, the errors start with a state law that “purportedly” (a word used frequently in the motion) enables Atlanta to change the hotel motel tax in order to fund the new stadium. The bill was filed by Rep. Mark Burkhalter, a Republican who at the time was in the ranks of the House leadership team.

Atlanta committed legislative errors, as well, the motion contends. The city made a fatal error by voting to extend the tax before the Georgia World Congress Center Authority had submitted a tax certification. In addition, the city erred in December by agreeing to abandon 2.4 acres to the state for the stadium – the abandonment is improper because the land will not benefit Atlanta citizens.

The motion contends the state’s environmental policy has been violated by the planned demolition of Mt. Vernon Baptist Church and Friendship Baptist Church, and by the authority’s failure to make a determination as to whether the new stadium will affect the quality of the environment.

Woodham may be best known in Atlanta for his legal battle to prevent the use of Atlanta school taxes to help fund the BeltLine. That case landed in the Georgia Supreme Court in 2007 and was finally adjudicated in 2013. The court ruled that the use of school taxes for purposes other than education is constitutional.

Moore retired from the bench in 2008 and opened her own legal practice. Shortly before Moore stepped down, she issued a ruling that was praised by environmentalists because it was the first in the nation to link coal-fired power plants with global warming.

The motion in the stadium case was filed Feb. 10. The bond validation hearing is scheduled for Feb. 17 before Fulton County Superior Court Judge Ural Glanville.

A legal challenge has been filed against Atlanta's plan to help fund construction of the Falcons stadium. Credit:

A legal challenge has been filed against Atlanta’s plan to help fund construction of the Falcons stadium. Credit:

A groundbreaking ceremony for the new stadium is to be scheduled the week of March 31, team owner Arthur Blank said in October.

The motion throws a cloud of uncertainty over that plan for a number of reasons:

  • The legal challenge to the city’s planned bond issue probably will not be concluded within the next six weeks;
  • The status of a $200 million loan from the NFL is uncertain, given that the G4 program that’s to provide the loan has a requirement that public funding be part of the overall construction funding;
  • No movement has occurred on the state’s request to Atlanta to abandon six parcels of land for the stadium project, if only because a public hearing slated for Tuesday was cancelled because of the winter weather.

Four intervenors are named in the motion:

  • The Rev. William L. Cottrell, Sr., pastor emeritus of Beulah Baptist Church;
  • “Mother” Mamie Lee Moore,
  • Tracy Y. Bates, executive director of English Avenue Community Development Corp.;
  • John H. Lewis III, a neighborhood advocate.

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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