The Optimist Park neighborhood plan, approved by the city last year, called for mixed-use development including retail, residential and office space. However, the city failed to change the zoning for Optimist Park -- which is largely industrial -- to accommodate these ambitious new plans designed to transform the area.
Despite the neighborhood's negative sentiment, Chris Ferebee, president of the Ferebee Corporation, moved ahead with his plans to build the plant, pointing out that it meets all zoning as well as state and federal environmental requirements. After several weeks of no activity, workers resumed work at the site last week. (Ferebee did not return calls for this story). But Ferebee also continued negotiations with the city, and Friday, City Councilman James Mitchell, whose district includes Optimist Park, announced that an alternate site had been found in which to build the plant. The new site is a 10-acre lot off the I-85 Service Rd. near Statesville Avenue.
"The deal meets all the criteria for the Ferebee Corporation," Mitchell said. "The new location has easy access to the interstate, it's not near a neighborhood, and the compensation package meets his satisfaction. It's a win-win for Ferebee, the neighborhood and the taxpayers."
Mitchell says that because it's only been discussed during closed city council sessions, he can't divulge the exact compensation costs, but that it's between $500,000 and $1 million. This figure is designed to reimburse Ferebee for the costs he incurred during site preparations at the Optimist Park location, including landscaping, acquiring air quality permits, and various environmental studies.
"Initially the cost was in the ballpark of $1.2 million, so I feel pretty good about the way things turned out," Mitchell said.
Some city council members, however, have their doubts about the deal, and say the bottom line of the compensation package may be too big a price to pay.
"I definitely have some concerns," said Councilman John Tabor. "We certainly want to help the neighborhood as well as the entire area, which is vital to the future of uptown development, but we're talking about a lot of money. During these economic times, that's a tough thing to deal with. And honestly, we're not sure where the money would come from.
"This kind of thing also sets a precedent," Tabor continued. "What's to stop the next guy with land neighboring an industrial area from raising his hand and saying "Hey, I want to build an asphalt plant, too.' We want to help the neighborhood, but I'm worried about this happening a number of other times. If you do it once, logic says you would have to do it again."
Other councilmembers privately voiced concern over the price, but Mitchell says he doesn't see the proposed deal as setting a precedent. "City Council needs to always think first about our neighborhood's public safety," he said. "We need to make sure they reach their potential. If any other industrial use comes into a neighborhood where we have already approved an opposing plan, we need to act on that situation and correct it. This isn't setting a precedent, this is just saying we believe in Optimist Park."
Meanwhile, the Optimist Park Community Association is still moving forward with their plans to contest the zoning permit issued to Ferebee. Anna Daly, an attorney representing Optimist Park, said zoning administrator Robert Brandon denied their initial appeal because he claimed it was not filed in time. Daly said they have since filed an appeal of that decision.
"We certainly hope that the negotiations prove successful and that they (city and Ferebee) reach a mutually acceptable agreement to move the plant," Daly said. "But we're moving forward with our various appeals just in case the negotiations fail. A lawsuit would be our next step, but we hope we can avoid that."
There will be a public meeting about the proposed new asphalt plant site at Druid Hills Elementary School on Thursday, May 22 at 5:30pm. Specifics of the plant design will be discussed, and a bus will take attendees to the proposed new site.
The city staff is scheduled to complete and submit Ferebee's compensation package May 23. It will appear on the City Council agenda May 27.