Homeowners: PATH trail-builders should repay $8M to DeKalb
By MAGGIE LEE
The trail-building PATH Foundation owes more than $17,000 for homeowners’ legal bills after disturbing a DeKalb County forest and stream without necessary permits, a judge ruled recently.
Now, the homeowners say, PATH should pay $8 million more.
Specifically, the homeowners want PATH to reimburse DeKalb County for all payments since 2004 for work on at least 13 projects. That payback, they said, should include at least $599,000 paid to PATH for construction of a paved trail along South Peachtree Creek behind their homes.
A judge nullified PATH’s deal to build the trail in December. PATH was not entitled to taxpayer funds for the project, Superior Court Judge Gregory Adams ruled, because the work was awarded without the competitive bidding that Georgia law requires for any public works contract worth more than $100,000.
By that standard, the homeowners contend in a new lawsuit, all of DeKalb’s payments to PATH since 2004 have been illegal. None were awarded by competitive bidding or approved by county commissioners, say the homeowners, calling themselves the Three Forks Heritage Alliance.
On July 21, Adams ruled that PATH was also liable for $17,044 in legal fees run up by in another lawsuit by the same homeowners seeking to stop construction of the trail. PATH made it necessary for the plaintiffs to run up their legal bills, he said, when it continued work on the trail despite complaints about its legality.
“Despite ample warning that its conduct appeared to be illegal, at no time did PATH ever voluntarily cease or hold off on its illegal conduct to allow the [Zoning Board of Appeals] and Court to adjudicate its rights and responsibilities,” Superior Court Judge Gregory Adams wrote in his ruling.
Founded in 1991, the PATH Foundation has used public and private support to build a network of hiking and cycling paths in the metro area. Its projects include the 60-mile Silver Comet Trail, which extends from Cobb County to the Alabama state line.
The DeKalb controversy boiled over in February 2008, when the County issued PATH permits to build a three-quarter-mile bike and pedestrian trail connecting Medlock and Mason Mill parks near Emory University. The plan showed a path running through relatively mature hardwoods and within South Peachtree Creek’s 75-foot buffer zone for at least 1,500 yards.
Three neighbors challenged the permits, complaining of noise and runoff problems and seeking a less intrusive design, with the DeKalb Zoning Board of Appeals. DeKalb County responded by simply voiding the permits, declaring they were unnecessary and had been issued “erroneously.”
The county’s action allowed PATH and its builder to begin work even as the homeowners took their case to court and the zoning board. In May, the board agreed that the work needed a permit. In August, Adams issued a temporary restraining order to stop work.
Even then, PATH worked at the site for more three days until Adams issued a preliminary injunction against the work.
The court ultimately found that Three Forks was correct — the work required permits, and PATH did not have them.
But by then, the trail was substantially finished. DeKalb County agreed to pay Three Forks $45,000 for legal bills and to set aside $50,000 for revegetation along the trail. Lewallen Construction, PATH’s subcontractor, agreed to pay $7,000 toward Three Forks’ legal bills.
The South Peachtree Creek project was budgeted at $1.6 million, or about $286 per linear foot. The judge noted that an independent engineer testified a road with curbs and gutters could be built for roughly $150 per foot.