The road project is part of the city’s goal of making Roswell Street four lanes between Cobb Parkway and the Square, along with installing a median and sidewalks. The city has already four-laned the stretch of Roswell from the Square to Fairground Street at a cost of about $40 million over the last 15 years, city manager Bill Bruton said.
Ultimately, the city can simply condemn the property and take it if the sides fail to reach an agreement, although Marietta Mayor Steve Tumlin has made it clear that would be a last resort.
The Council authorized city attorney Doug Haynie and church attorney Fred Bentley Jr. to select a mediator within the next 10 days.
The Council also appointed a committee composed of Tumlin and council members Anthony Coleman, Jim King and Philip Goldstein to meet with the mediator. Tumlin said the proposal is for the city and church to split the cost of the mediator.
“The mediator will drive it then,” Tumlin said. “The mediator will sit at the head of the table and we will be on one side and they (church leaders) will be on the other.”
The mayor said he hopes the first meeting will be in January.
Sheriff Neil Warren, who is a member of the church, said after the meeting he was encouraged.
“It looks like the Mayor and Council are wanting to get involved a little bit more and hopefully work all this out, because I think everybody wants to do what’s right, and I have all the confidence in the world that the City Council will work it out favorably for the church,” Warren said. “I’m very encouraged. I appreciate the respect they showed tonight.”
Bentley said he liked the idea of a mediator.
“It’s great to see a 7-0 vote that they’re finally abandoning the condemnation and finally sitting down to try to work this out, and I believe they will hopefully now work in earnest, but only time will tell. That hasn’t been the case over the last 10 years,” Bentley said.
Wearing stickers that read “Treat us Fairly!” and “I support my city and my church,” church members packed the council chamber in support of senior pastor Dr. Ernest Easley, who made a plea to the council.
Councilman Coleman helped ease the tension by asking Easley to begin the meeting by delivering the invocation, which Easley agreed to do.
In his address to the council, Easley said for nearly 70 years the church, which has 2,500 active members, has been a good neighbor to the city, from hosting high school graduation ceremonies to serving as the staging area for the city’s annual July 4 parade.
Easley said the church decided about 10 years ago to help restore downtown. Since then it has invested over $14 million on campus upgrades, purchasing a shopping center strip across the street that it fixed up and the old Anderson Chevrolet dealership, which it turned into a staff building.
In addition, the church has paid more than $200,000 in property taxes over the last five years to the city, he said.
“With all we have done over all these years trying to be a good neighbor and to make a contribution to the downtown area to be more attractive I have to tell you I am left puzzled and confused at how the city of Marietta staff has dealt with us as a church for the last 10 years regarding the streetscape project,” he said.
Easley said the city has made five changes to the right-of-way plans affecting church property. And every time the city changed its plans, the church was required to provide it with a new appraisal, appraisals that cost over $20,000 plus attorney fees, he said.
“And you know what’s irritating to me is that’s $20,000 of tithes and offerings that our people have given in order to do missions and evangelism and not to have to pay for plan changes from the city,” he said.
In 2000, the church was told about the streetscape project. Fast forward to 2005, and the city sent a new plan affecting 133 parking spots.
“We offered the appraised amount of $1.6 million dollars,” he said.
The city suggested offering property swaps to lower the cash settlement and offered the cash amount of $500,000 plus some land exchanges.
In 2006, the city claimed that the federal funds were cut so it suspended the offer. In 2008, the city then said it had federal funds and resumed negotiations, Easley said.
This year the church offered $565,000 plus property swaps to get close to the $1.6 million dollars where it started.
The city countered with $365,000 and the church set a date for another meeting to continue negotiations.
“Our administrator called (city public works director) Dan Conn who said that the deal involves only money with no consideration of any land swaps, land swaps that we have been discussing for five to six years, to reduce the amount of cash that the city would pay,” Easley said. “When I understood that that had happened I cancelled the meeting. I told the Mayor that because of the change of all of a sudden a plan that we had been talking about for years, a cash settlement plus concessions, was taken off the table there was no reason to move.”
The next day, the church received a letter from city attorney Doug Haynie declaring that the city would move forward to condemn the property, Easley said.
“Now to show the city staff’s discriminatory actions: The city offered and settled with others who invested in downtown for $15,000 per parking spot,” Easley said, referencing the now shuttered Emerson Coffee Shop as well as the Corona Properties’ lot at the corner of Atlanta Street and Waverly Way.
“The current city plans will take 68 to 90 of our parking spots. That alone, at that value is well over $1 million dollars,” Easley said. “What I am doing tonight on behalf of our church, I am appealing to you as councilmen of this city on behalf of our membership for help. I’m asking for the city to treat us fairly. I have met privately many times with the mayor and shared our concerns, and I know that he is ready to have this settled. The indecisiveness of the city has cost us time, money and it even cost us the sale of the Anderson building several years ago. We started with $1.6 million dollars. We have received offers of $77,000 to $500,000 plus land swaps and agreements. And now we’re at $365,000 with no land swaps or agreements. So what we’re doing is we’re asking you tonight to step in and to investigate and also to challenge the discriminatory actions by those in charge and hold them accountable. I’m asking you on behalf of our church to instruct the city staff to move forward and give us a reasonable and fair offer that is consistent with our past communications, and to also stop the condemnation of the property.”
Tumlin noted after the meeting how well-mannered the attendees were.
“They weren’t whooping and hollering and throwing stuff at us. The crowd was courteous,” he said.
Yet Tumlin said he does not believe the city has engaged in discrimination.
“I’ve never heard discrimination used in that particular way,” he said. “To me, discrimination usually refers to race, religion and color. He talked about a 12-year run, he’s very disappointed, used some emotionally charged words, but the only thing I know to do is just suck it up and move forward.”
Tumlin also said the church cherry-picked two properties where the city paid higher prices than normal.
“Not to get in a big rebuttal because I do want to get a positive start, but they only cited two cases where you had the extraordinary high amount. They didn’t cite 10 or 15 or 20,” he said. “We have a duty to be consistent. They don’t think we were consistent. And I’m going to do my best to find out why is this parking space worth more in this place than in another, and I bet you if you looked at 100 we’re consistent on 95 of them. That’s negotiation. You find the things that help you the most. I don’t think we did anything immoral, I don’t think we discriminated, I think they just cited two cases that make us squirm,” he said.