A strip of trees that were cut down last year along Ga. 400 is causing tension between the Forsyth County government and a pair of area businesses.
At a recent Forsyth County Board of Commissioners work session, County Attorney Ken Jarrard gave a presentation regarding a large swath of trees that were cut down late last year along Ga. 400’s southbound lane between exits 13 and 14.
On the property, which is owned by Agnes Slack LP of Roswell, sits three billboards owned by Southern Displays LLLP of Conyers, who was granted a vegetation management permit by Georgia Department of Transportation, or GDOT, to clear trees to better see the signs.
While both the businesses and the county agree that trees were cut down on GDOT right of way in late 2014, there is disagreement on whether cutting occurred on the property owner’s side, which would encroach on a required county tree buffer.
In December, the county issued a notice of violation to officials with Agnes Slack requiring that a plan be submitted to replant trees in the buffer according to county standards and to have them replanted February of this year, which didn’t happen.
“There is in fact, a notice of violation from December of 2014 asking for the buffer to be restored pursuant to the county’s [Unified Development Code] which requires that there be at least 40 foot undisturbed buffer along Ga. 400,” Jarrard said. “Of course, you have the right to take down trees in the Georgia Department of Transportation right of way, but that doesn’t mean you can take trees in a private property buffer under our unified development code.”
Kevin Weinz, Managing Partner of Southern Displays, said later in a phone interview that taking the trees down was supervised and approved of by GDOT.
“There is a specific policy and procedure pursuant to the Georgia DOT for cutting the trees. We purchased the trees under that policy and the cutting was applied for, approved, supervised and the permit closed with no sanctions and no issues with DOT,” Weinz said.
“So as far as DOT was concerned, which was carefully scrutinized to do the complexity of that job - it was considered a high profile job for many reasons - and we had no issues at all. We were in compliance at all times.”
Weinz said that there were no trees on the Agnes Slack Land, and that all those cut down had been property of GDOT, which he said is backed up by a survey that was recently completed on the project.
“We submitted a survey showing that everything they claimed was not factual. We have proven that it’s not factual because the surveyors went out and surveyed it and certified and the signs are within that buffer,” he said. “We also submitted a photograph to them showing that three years ago when our service guy went out to put ads on the signs that the area behind that was grass and there was no trees.”
Weinz said that he believes a local group informed officials about the cutting, and that the county is responding to political pressure. Weinz also said that he believes the county has held permits for other billboards due to the ongoing issue.
“I applied for a digital assignment for my sign in the middle and they have held it for six months, even though we have documentation stating that the permit was legal at the time we applied for it and was approved,” Weinz said.
“Because of the vegetation issue, they’re leveraging that permit from us and at this point we’re losing about $1,400 a day in revenue.”
Furthermore, Weinz said that Southern Displays has yet to be charged and that the notice sent to the property owner was only to discuss the issue.
“I’m being made to defend a situation that I haven’t been charged. It’s a matter of like I’m guilty and having to prove my innocence,” he said. “I’m being forced to respond to something that I believe that I had a clear issue and did everything legally.”
Jarrard said that the he was “not in a position to rebut whether the work was done with GDOT oversight,” but that according to the survey provided by Southern Displays, that cutting occurred on the Slack property.
“We have delayed taking action waiting for the survey to come in,” Jarrard said. “I think it shows, candidly, what we’ve suspected all along, and that is that there was tree cutting, obviously on GDOT right of way, but there was a lot of cutting along the interior of the property.”
Jarrard said that in a letter to the county, the attorney representing the two businesses had made a request for money to mitigate the loss of revenue from the signs, and that the county would need to decide what course of action to take.
“It makes a demand of several hundred thousand dollars based upon some permits that the billboard owner believes have been improperly delayed,” he said. “I think the positions of the county and particularly the sign company are going apart, not getting closer.”
“The county has some fairly difficult decisions to make with respect to what we’re going to do on this.”