Public safety training center appears to meet permit requirements, but documents show official questions – SaportaReport
By John Ruch
Persistent complaints of unauthorized site work for Atlanta Public Safety Training Center appear to be groundless — but are also how DeKalb County planning officials learned about work on the secret project, according to documents obtained by SaportaReport.
Belief in the illegality of felling trees at the former city-owned Atlanta Jail site on DeKalb’s Key Road is one of the drivers of protests against the facility, some of them involving breaches of the law that planners now cite as reason for even more planning secrecy. However, documents from DeKalb’s Department of Planning and Sustainability show that no permits were required for preparatory work so far. And the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF), the facility’s lead planner, earlier this month applied for a ground disturbance permit, which is required for large-scale prep work.
With such limited information, the situation has been confusing, including for at least one member of the city’s Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee (CSAC) reviewing the project. Nicole Morado, who last year was also among the first to file tree-cutting complaints, says she thought no permit was needed for the installation and was unaware that the APF – which manages the CSAC – had requested one.
Transparency has been an ongoing point of contention for the facility since its secretly chosen location on land owned by the unincorporated town of DeKalb was announced last year. Access to county records on the authorization of complaints also posed transparency issues. The county delayed a response to SaportaReportThe request for open records older than six weeks, in part by a communications official ordering that the documents be turned over to him instead, and only providing them after being warned to do so by the Attorney General’s office in Georgia.
Besides general public controversy, the training center site has been targeted by a variety of protesters apparently loosely affiliated as Defend the Atlanta Forest. Many protesters were law-abiding or focused on social media, while others entered the site and vandalized the headquarters of the APF and its construction contractor, Reeves Young. The APF and the Atlanta Police Department are stepping up to characterize the protesters as a major threat to the facility worthy of an FBI investigation and withholding of construction details. Some protesters claimed they were successful in forcing Reeves Young out of the project, while the APF claims the company’s preparatory work contract has simply expired and new construction tenders will begin soon. Reeves Young declined to comment.
On-site protests have often been accompanied by allegations that the APF itself is breaking the law with illegal work. On Jan. 28, according to DeKalb County Police Department (DCPD) records, 30 to 40 people gathered at the site for a “protest against police and forest defenders.” Four people were arrested and charged with criminal trespass and another charged with criminal obstruction, records show. On the same day, someone using the name Defend the Atlanta Forest issued a press release which referred to the protest and claimed that the preparatory work could break the law due to a lack of permits.
Such protests and complaints from the general public prompted DeKalb planning officials to investigate and that’s how they learned of the initial work on the project, according to county documents.
The removal of trees in April 2021 sparked complaints that initially confused the project with another nearby controversial site, the Blackhall Studios cinema complex, as the plan for the training center was still a mysterious surprise. Internal emails and inspection reports show that at least some county planning officials were unaware that the city owned the land, that any type of work was going on and that it had something to do with the center of training, which an inspector deduced after reading a newspaper. narrative.
Even Andrew Baker, the county’s director of planning and sustainability, wasn’t sure what that meant at first. “If the City of Atlanta is planning a police training center and the site is at unincorporated DeKalb, are permits required from DeKalb for preliminary geotechnics? [geotechnical] work?” he asked in an April 2021 email to his staff. “For the PLD [land disturbance permit]? For the construction of buildings? As a government, are there any exemptions to certain rules and regulations? »
The county ultimately concluded that the project would need a land disturbance permit to begin major work. Meanwhile, an inspection report from April 22, 2021 found that the preliminary tree removal, supposed to be carried out for soil analysis, was correct. The report states that the work “has been carried out in a manner which has taken into account the minimization of any environmental impact at this stage of development and the work carried out has not been [in] DeKalb County code violation. From the perspective of best practices and common procedures, the work done was typical and prudent for any large-scale development.
Minimal impact was described as the removal of many small trees in areas estimated to be less than 1 acre combined. Three larger trees – 10 to 12 inches in diameter – had been felled, but the inspector found evidence of vehicles driving around other large trees to avoid damaging them.
A challenge cited by inspectors was how to distinguish recent work from other activities, new and old, including evidence of all-terrain vehicles traversing the forest. County documents included old permits showing the 2021 Disney film “Jungle Cruise” – identified by its filming codename “Elixir” – was partly filmed at the site and cleared part of the area.
Documents show complaints and protests repeatedly led to questions from county officials and inspections by the planning department, saying they were unaware of the work and its schedule . One example came on Jan. 18, when DCPD informed officials that Defend the Atlanta Forest’s social media had posted complaints about tree removals and urged people to visit the site, “presumably to try to disrupt people who work”. It sparked a chain of emails in which county chief operating officer Zach Williams asked if the project had tree-cutting permits. An inspector visited again.
Morado, now a CSAC member, was among the first to file the complaint. On April 20, 2021, she sent county officials an email complaining about the “shattering destruction” at the site seen from her Starlight Heights quarters. She said it was “crazy” for Atlanta police to use a DeKalb site and worried about the “overly aggressive police training tactics” being taught there.
Morado said this week that her thoughts on the facility haven’t changed since she joined CSAC last fall, although today “I would say the development team has done some good efforts to minimize destruction…” But six months into CSAC’s review, Morado was exempt from permitting the project and was unaware of the land disturbance permit application. “I felt like the APF didn’t have to go through a standard licensing or development process,” she said.
APF Director of Operations Marshall Freeman told CSAC at its April 26 meeting that exact construction timelines and dates would be kept secret from the committee due to concerns about protesters.