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In recent years, most political and business leaders in the city of Atlanta have hailed the Atlanta Beltline project as a marvel of modern development.
The vision: safe, vibrant neighborhoods with more parks and trails along a 22-mile loop of mostly abandoned rail lines that will be connected to existing MARTA and future transit systems. It’s expected to be several years before the Beltline is fully developed.
"The Atlanta Beltline is the most comprehensive economic development effort ever undertaken in the city of Atlanta and among the largest, most wide-ranging urban redevelopment projects currently under way in the United States," Atlanta Beltline Inc., the operational arm of the effort, says on its website.
Some government watchdogs are not so impressed. They see the Beltline as a project fraught with overspending. One group recently put out a newsletter with what it says is an inexcusable example of government waste. A PolitiFact reader asked us to check it out.
The Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation’s September newsletter, titled "The Atlanta Beltline: Is It Feasible?," contained a claim that Beltline officials wildly overspent on the purchase of a small piece of land in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward.
"Several parcels were purchased by Georgia Power from the city of Atlanta and then sold back to the Atlanta Beltline Inc. for seemly huge profits," the group’s president, John Sherman, wrote in the newsletter. "O Dallas Street, .1756 acre, was sold to Georgia Power on Nov. 30, 2002, by the city of Atlanta for $350,000 and resold to the Atlanta Beltline Inc. on Dec. 21, 2007, for $3,485,000."
In an e-mail, the foundation called it "the highest price ever paid for land."
Did the Beltline really pay nearly $3.5 million for less than a quarter-acre?
Beltline spokesman Ethan Davidson said Sherman was way off track on that point and several other claims in his newsletter, such as how many people are on the Beltline payroll. He presented us a settlement statement that shows it was slightly more than 2 acres purchased.
Sherman countered with Fulton County tax records of his own to claim he’s correct.
So who’s right here?
For much of the past decade, Sherman has been one of the most vocal critics of spending practices at City Hall. He’s argued that Atlanta should more frequently consider "managed competition," the idea of allowing private companies to bid for government contracts if they can do the work as well as the city and for less money. The foundation says its newsletters go out to tens of thousands of readers. The newsletter was mentioned in an Atlanta Progressive News article.
Stan Anderson, a former manager at the Fulton County tax assessor’s office, noticed the Beltline was buying land for more than what he believed it is worth. Anderson, who helps people appeal their property assessments for the foundation, alerted Sherman to some of these purchases.
The land in question lies near a portion of the Beltline located close to the old City Hall East site, the massive brick building that was once the headquarters for Atlanta’s police and fire departments. After years of effort, the city finally sold the property this summer to developers who plan to convert it into a mix of residential and office space.
Georgia Power did indeed sell land for nearly $3.5 million in late 2007 to the Atlanta Beltline Inc. That was before the Great Recession and when Atlanta’s intown real estate market was considered a great investment. It’s been converted into trails and green space and now called the Historic Fourth Ward Park.
The big question: Was the land less than a quarter of an acre, as Sherman wrote in the newsletter? Or was it 2.1 acres, as Beltline officials told us?
Georgia Power spokeswoman Konswello Monroe said the sale included several parcels that totaled more than 2 acres. Sherman connected us with Anderson, who said the Beltline and Georgia Power were correct. Anderson believes Sherman may not have added all six parcels before hitting the send button on his newsletter.
"I don’t think Mr. Sherman had any intention of misleading anybody," Anderson said. "He was upset about the amount [the Beltline was] paying per acre."
Sherman stressed those concerns in some of his conversations with us after learning of the error.
"Even if you took their figures, the cost of the land is more than $1.5 million an acre," he said. "This is absolutely crazy."
Sherman also wonders why the Beltline paid nearly 10 times what Georgia Power bought the land for five years earlier. Did the Beltline overpay for the land?
"No, because that was fair market value in 2007," Davidson, the Beltline spokesman, said.
Davidson also argues the project has saved the city money. The city initially wanted to use the property as part of a tunnel to manage sewer overflow that Atlanta Watershed Management officials wrote in one document would have cost $40 million. The creation of a stormwater retention pond at the park cost less than $30 million, city officials say.
The bottom line here is Sherman’s newsletter correctly stated how much the Beltline purchased the property for, but was wrong about the size of the property, creating a false impression for anyone who read it.
We rate his claim False.
Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation newsletter, September 2011, "The Atlanta Beltline: Is It Feasible?"
Atlanta Watershed Management Department, Clear Creek Combined Sewer Capacity Relief Project fact sheet
Atlanta City Council ordinance 07-O-1530
Emails and telephone interviews with Atlanta Beltline spokesman Ethan Davidson, Sept. 15 and 21, 2011
Interview with Stan Anderson, former manager at Fulton County tax assessor’s office, Sept. 20, 2011
Telephone interviews with Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation President John Sherman, Sept. 15, 16 and 20, 2011
Telephone interview with Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation secretary Barbara Payne, Sept. 15, 2011
Telephone interviews with Georgia Power spokeswoman Konswello Monroe, Sept. 16 and 21, 2011
Telephone interview with Rob Whitmire, partner/senior vice president of Bull Realty, Sept. 19, 2011
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