The Path to Progress
“Good things come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustle.”
~Misattributed to Abraham Lincoln, but true nonetheless~
Sometimes we joke with each other on the City Council that by the time we get to the successful end of a really big project or undertaking, we feel like we’re stumbling across the finish line, too tired to even celebrate. Some of the hardest lessons we’ve learned as your Council have to do with how long things take to get done, and the frustrating combination of simultaneous patience and hustle that are required for nearly everything we pursue.
I asked for some additional space in this month’s magazine because it’s hard to understand sometimes just how complex the issues facing our city can be. From crime to roads and transportation, parks and sidewalks, your city staff and elected leaders are working every day to find solutions to the problems we face today, while we also pursue a vision for the future that we all hope for. Unfortunately, none of it happens overnight. For a myriad of reasons, usually a combination of people, money and law, an issue that you and I think should be an easy fix can often take weeks, months, or in the case of the sinkhole on Lawrenceville Highway, years to resolve.
So, let’s talk about that sinkhole as one example.
Back in June of 2017, what we’ve called a sinkhole, but is more properly an erosion problem resulting from a compromised piped stream under Lawrenceville Highway, had developed on the private property where Tucker Tire was located. The City of Tucker did two things immediately: our Code Enforcement Department issued a notice of violation to the property owner, requiring him to repair the problem on his property, and we worked with all the appropriate authorities (GDOT, DeKalb County, the Fire Marshal) to ensure that any risk to Lawrenceville Highway and surrounded properties was properly mitigated. Of course, everyone who receives such a notice of violation has the right to a legal process and that process can take time. As the process played out, we worked with the DeKalb County Fire Marshal to have the property owner install safety fencing around the property. Later that year, the building was declared uninhabitable and the property owner was forced to tear it down.
At that point, we as a city had done about all we could do except to leverage our partnership with DeKalb County and GDOT to ensure the site was secure and not a danger to the public. In the meantime, we waited as the property owner pursued his various legal options in the matter, including suing or threatening to sue everyone from the City to the County to GDOT.
On November 30, 2018, after 17 months of closely following how this issue was playing out in the courts and coming to the conclusion that this problem was up to the owner to address, the City exercised its enforcement powers and again issued a notice of violation to the property owner. The case went back to our Municipal Court, where the judge facilitated a consent order in which the City agreed to forgiveness of fines (which had grown into the hundreds of thousands of dollars) in exchange for the property owner meeting very specific milestones on a guaranteed path to the full remediation of the property. This was a huge triumph for our staff and an example of what we can do as a city.
All that took nearly two years and folks rightly had become frustrated, not only because the problem wasn’t being fixed, but also because they didn’t know why. And all along, of course, we had to be careful not to talk publicly about pending litigation and other legal matters. Since nature abhors a vacuum (in this case a vacuum of information), citizens and the media attempted to fill in the details, with varying degrees of facts and accuracy. Neighbors created a (mostly good-natured) Tucker Crater Facebook page, Channel 46 did a story, and other local media jumped into the fray. For our part, we had to carry on in the face of lots of criticism and questions we couldn’t answer publicly. It’s all now near a happy ending, but not without lots of frustration with the time it has taken.
This isn’t the first problem we’ve tried to solve here in Tucker that has taken much longer than we would have liked. Remember the whole push for cityhood? A group of residents began organizing and advocating for Tucker to become a city way back in 2013. We didn’t actually become a city until 2016. In the three years in between, we got a rude awakening at just how long and complex the legislative process is under the Gold Dome. There were times when we got discouraged and impatient, but we learned that the system doesn’t work fast; if we’re well-prepared, diligent, persistent, and occasionally a little lucky, it produces the desired result.
Here’s another example from 2017: we had been receiving very vocal complaints about the safety of the intersection of Fellowship Road and Lawrenceville Highway. Drivers were cutting across a turn lane to go straight, risking fender benders or head-on collisions, and backing up traffic. I heard a lot of frustration from folks who didn’t think the City was doing enough or that we were just sitting on our hands. In reality, our engineering team was working behind the scenes to push GDOT and DeKalb County to help us reconfigure the intersection. Remember that Lawrenceville Highway is a state route; we as a city are not allowed to make any changes to a state route. There’s a process and it can be a lengthy one. But when we finally lined up all the permissions and participants, budgeted and received the money, it got done pretty quickly, and I dare say not many people even remember how painful that intersection once was. We are currently working with GDOT to get results on several other intersections including Lavista Road at Chamblee Tucker Road and US-78 at Brockett Road. We’ve been working hard, but the permanent solution is still in the future.
One of the big priorities for me as mayor was to address some of our crime challenges. Tucker is a safe place to live, and the numbers certainly bear that out, but any municipality is going to have certain areas where crime is higher. Without identifying the location, we had residents in a nice, quiet Tucker neighborhood who came to me and the City Council looking for help. There was one house on the street where a young man was living and where there was clearly some drug and other illicit activity. This led to concern among the neighbors over safety and they were reaching out to their city leadership to do something.
I think everyone’s first question in that situation was, “What exactly can we as a city can do?” In talking with our Code Enforcement team and our liaison to the DeKalb County Police Department, we realized that there were steps the City could take to help, using a combination of code enforcement, the police, and pressure on the property owner. Long story short, about a year later the young man was out of the house and it was on the market. I’ve since talked with some of those neighbors and I cannot describe to you how grateful they are. They probably wish something could have been done quicker, but ultimately, they understood how hard we were working to achieve the end result.
There are other, more complicated crime hotspots we’re currently working to address that are going to take some time. Our economic development, legal and planning staff are working on it. Our DeKalb County Tucker Precinct officers are working on it. Our business and commercial property owners are working on it. I’m hoping that at some point in the future we will have positive news to share on that front.
As of this writing, that sinkhole on Lawrenceville Highway is still a sinkhole. There’s still speculation and misinformation going around, but because the legal process has played out, I can tell you where we are.
Earlier this year, the City of Tucker worked with GDOT to issue a building permit to the property owner’s contractor. The consent order stipulates that work to fix and fill the sinkhole needed to start on or before February 17. I’m glad to say that, despite the weather, that benchmark was met. There are additional benchmarks coming up later this spring that will have to be met. The end result will be complete remediation of the property. No more sinkhole, no more unattractive fencing, no more safety barriers.
So much of the credit for this goes to our incredible city staff. Our Community and Economic Development team worked tirelessly with our City Attorney to figure out the best way to address the issue with the property owner. Our Superintendent, Land Development Manager and City Engineer worked with consultants to inspect and ensure that when this is finally fixed, it is fixed for good. Our Communications team did a great job fighting all their instincts to get on a bullhorn to correct the record and share the facts. That is their job, after all, but when these kinds of legal matters are at play, we are very limited in what we should say, and I appreciate them being team players.
The progress we hope for as a city has never been easy, and it apparently will never be as fast as it looks like it should be. But the work we do now to create the future we want for ourselves and our children and those who come after us is worth it and will continue to be in the years to come.