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Public safety training center committee pushes for details on trees and trails

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

The advisory committee for Atlanta’s public safety training center at a Nov. 29 meeting pushed for details on tree loss and trail accessibility in the plan.

A backdrop is that such topics have not been publicly presented to or by the Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee (CSAC), and it remains unclear what agency would be in charge of the facility’s public green spaces.

The training center is planned for City-owned land within unincorporated DeKalb County and is led by a private nonprofit, the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF). Questioned by CSAC member Amy Taylor about who would maintain trails, APF Chief Operating Officer Marshall Freeman called that a “consideration” and a “thought” that has been discussed regularly with the City’s Department of Enterprise Asset Management, which oversees City real estate. When Taylor asked directly if the green space within the site would be an Atlanta or DeKalb park, she got no response.

Ownership also may be a factor in accessibility requirements for trails, among other issues that concerned the CSAC.

APF is still seeking a land disturbance permit (LDP) from the County that would allow it to begin site clearing in advance of construction. The detail-filled LDP application still has not been publicly presented to the CSAC, with the APF citing security reasons related to ongoing protests related to police reform and environmentalism, even though it is a public document already widely published. Instead, the CSAC is given updates on a variety of individual elements often lacking the LDP application’s details.

Tree-planting and tree-cutting

A core controversy of the training center plan is the City’s secretly chosen site in a heavily wooded area that would require the loss of many trees. At the Nov. 29 meeting, planners with the design firm HGOR presented tree-planting concepts that essentially downplayed the existing forest as young and full of invasive species and framed the APF plan as ecosystem restoration.

HGOR’s Steve Sanchez showed aerial photos of the site from 22 years ago showing it was “essentially denuded of all tree canopy” except for some older trees within a ravine. Showing conceptual illustrations of various planting sites, he said the planners’ goals are to remove all invasive species and to create more diversity with a “native palette” of trees.

He said they intend to use irrigation systems only to get the trees started and do have many “bio detention” areas for stormwater so that they are “really working with nature, not working against it… It really is restoring an ecosystem, not just restoring a landscape.”

However, CSAC member Sharon Williams pressed the planners for the number of trees that would be cut down and replaced. Sanchez and HGOR’s Lauren Standish said they did not have that information available, even though some numbers are contained in the LDP application. Standish said the plan meets the County’s tree replacement numbers, but Williams pressed on exceeding the minimum, saying that is a concern for many residents.

Those LDP application numbers are not as simple as cut-versus-replanted. They involve formulas peculiar to County planning codes that are apparently based on a mix of field counting and sampling estimates. However, some conclusions can be drawn from the application’s math.

Tallying a report of existing trees by diameter and species finds an estimate of 4,201 trees on the site today. Of those, 197 are estimated to be over 18 inches in diameter, a threshold the application deems “significant.” And within that count, 68 are “specimen” trees, meaning 30 or more inches in diameter.

The application says 115 of those significant trees – about 58 percent – would be saved. Different tables in the application give different information about the removal of specimen trees; all but one remain in one table, while another says four would be removed and two others “impacted.” There is no tally of how many non-“significant” trees would be removed or retained.

A total of 494 new trees would be planted, in part as compensation for cutting significant trees and in part simply as landscaping.

Perimeter trail options

A standard County requirement to install a 10-foot-wide multiuse trail on the perimeter of the entire property should be changed up to better serve the area and avoid impacts on a few of those specimen trees, planners and several CSAC members agreed. However, the APF is avoiding doing that now because it could stall the LDP – clearly a priority in part to head off the ongoing protests.

An illustration of trails proposed and required for the training center as shown by planners at a Nov. 29 meeting of the Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee.

An earlier version of the plan had the trail extending along Key Road farther east than the training center’s footprint, an arrangement that CSAC chair Alison Clark, who lives in that area, said could be a benefit for sidewalk connectivity. APF planner Alan Williams said the County questioned the ability to build outside the parcel, though he did not mention that APF recently redrew all the parcels on the larger property – yet another issue never publicly presented to the CSAC.

Meanwhile, planners and CSAC members questioned the trail requirement on the southern side of the site, where an uneven property line would produce disconnected path sections. District 9 Atlanta City Councilmember Dustin Hillis, a CSAC member, said that City government typically would allow swapping the location of such trails in the permit process. Williams said the County would require a variance that would be better done after the LDP is obtained.

“I guess it’s unfortunate they’re not as flexible as the City of Atlanta is,” Hillis said.

“I don’t want to disturb the land disturbance permit. I hear you,” said Sharon Williams, the CSAC member, while pushing for the change to happen eventually. “When we do things that don’t make sense it sort of angers our constituents,” she said.

Trail accessibility

Part of the training center plan is to formalize some existing footpaths and other trails within its footprint as public green space. A preliminary discussion of making those “soft paths” covered with wood mulch drew CSAC debate focused on accessibility.

Clark pressed the accessibility issue, noting the trails are meant to connect to other trail systems and the nearby Michelle Obama Park, which is designed with full accessibility in mind, particularly for children.

CSAC member said mulch raised accessibility concerns. “And for disabled veterans and everybody’s who’s disabled, we’re not going to be able to utilize this multiuse path,” he said. “Why not pave it, save more money and make it accessible? …Why don’t we spend the money and do what’s right?”

Freeman and Standish said the mulch was not so much about money as about environmental concerns and divided feedback from CSAC members, which Clark confirmed. However, it is unclear how that feedback was given in the first place. The CSAC previously circulated an online neighborhood survey about various green space amenities, including trails, that was posted on local Facebook groups. But the conclusions were not presented in CSAC meetings, and the APF said, in response to an Open Records request, that Clark has not sent any emails regarding trails.

Regardless, the discussion was presented as a difference of opinion without addressing legal requirements or expert advice.

Two experts later told SaportaReport that accessibility in public facilities is a priority, but legal requirements for trails depending on the purpose, location and funding.

Under the federal Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), “whatever entity manages the trails has an obligation under the law to ensure their facilities, programs and services are accessible by people with disabilities,” said Brandi Horton, spokesperson for the Rails-To-Trails Conservancy, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates the conversion of railways to trails.

However, that does not mean the ADA or related federal laws apply to trails. Local park trails are broadly exempt from federal standards unless they receive certain types of federal funds, according to Phil Bratta of the U.S. Access Board, a federal agency that advises on accessibility standards.

But the type of trail can matter in the ADA’s big picture, said Bratta: “If a local park is building a newly constructed trail or altering an existing ‘trail,’ which is actually a shared-use path use or a pedestrian route that connects elements, spaces, or facilities on a site (i.e., an accessible route), then the ‘trail’ would need to comply with federal accessibility standards under the ADA…”

Bratta also said the choices are not necessarily just mulch versus paving. “From a technical perspective, surfaces covered in wood chips typically are not accessible unless compacted,” he said. “Engineered wood fiber (EWF), which is a type of wood chip, can be accessible if installed correctly and maintained regularly. Typically, loose-fill trail surface products are not as accessible as concrete, asphalt or boards.”


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