Neighbors say councilman’s development plan takes advantage of rule meant to save green space

Neighbors say councilman's development plan takes advantage of rule meant to save green space

CHAMBLEE, Ga. — Channel 2 Action News has investigated complaints of a local City Council member not being transparent about his role in a controversial Chamblee development.

The complaints centered around 1723 Harts Mill Road, a 1.04-acre lot in DeKalb County, and developers’ plans to build five homes on the narrow lot.

Chamblee Councilman Darron Kusman’s name appeared on a 2018 sewer capacity request obtained by Channel 2 Action News, suggesting that he worked with developers on the project.

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The city of Chamblee’s development department accepted developer Falcon REI’s application to zone the property as a conservation subdivision in 2018.

The conservation subdivision ordinance allows developers to build on smaller lot sizes if they preserve at least 30 percent of the entire lot as greenspace. At the time, there was no minimum lot size requirement.

“It was a balance between allowing a property owner to be able to develop at the density that should normally have been done, but at the same time preserve some type of a natural feature,” said Chamblee Mayor Eric Clarkson.

Residents said that did not happen at the Harts Mill property.

“The whole point of conservation subdivisions is so that you can have smaller lots, and more greenspace,” said Brian Burns, who lives on a neighboring lot in Brookhaven. “In this case, he’s using it so he can have smaller lots to pack in more houses.”

“You can imagine putting five homes on just over an acre and finding 30 percent greenspace, you gotta be really creative,” said Bruce Brittain, whose Chamblee home sits behind 1723 Harts Mill Rd.

Bruce said that his initial concern was stormwater runoff, but that his concern shifted when he asked Kusman to clarify his affiliation with the project.

“I said, ‘Well let me ask you this, Darron. What’s your financial stake?’” recalled Brittain. “[Kusman] said, ‘Well I’m not gonna address that.’”

“I said, ‘Well it's a pretty simple question,’ and then [Kusman] hung up on me. What became troubling to me at that point was less the stormwater runoff, than why all the secrecy?”

In a statement from developer Falcon REI, Kusman confirmed but did not provide further detail on his affiliation:

“I am aware of the concerns surrounding my association with the development at 1723 Harts Mill Rd and confirm this affiliation. As the record reflects, the project and my personal involvement fully comply with state and local ordinance including the Chamblee ethics ordinance. I have promptly responded to all direct inquiries about this and held numerous meetings. Other Chamblee elected officials were not consulted on this matter because such consultation would deviate from Chamblee’s existing permitting and zoning practices. I’ve coordinated with the city clerk to ensure all public records can be made available in a timely manner.”

Falcon REI added that the project “fully complies with the requirements of Chamblee’s conservation subdivision ordinance” and “is consistent with the surrounding urban form and development patterns in the Harts Mill Road corridor.”

Neighbors disagree and may sue, according to two demand letters from attorneys sent to the city of Chamblee late last year.

“It seemed like he was getting things pushed through because they were city employees,” said Burns. “Now it’s about finding out what the councilman's financial interest is in this property.”

“You just can’t be a city councilperson and use your position to enrich yourself in a different way than any other developer would,” added Brittain.

Channel 2’s Sophia Choi wanted to know too, so she asked Kusman at a Chamblee City Council hearing in January.

“Can you respond to the residents who say that you were secretive?” asked Choi.

“Yes ma’am; we issued a statement to you, so you should have that in writing,” replied Kusman.

“No, but you didn’t tell me what your financial gain was in this,” pressed Choi.

Kusman did not answer any further questions.

Construction on the property stopped due to a single tree sitting on the border between 1723 Harts Mill Rd and Burns’ Brookhaven home.

Burns alerted the Chamblee arborist that he never gave his permission for the tree’s removal.

In a Dec. 20 zoning code compliance review, the arborist and land development manager noted several other action items for developers to address before continuing with the project.

“To date, plans have not been resubmitted to address these requested revisions,” the city of Chamblee confirmed in a statement.

After neighbors complained, the city established new rules requiring at least five acres and City Council approval for a conservation subdivision.

City officials told Channel 2 Action News that as long as the project remains active, developers will be able to continue working on 1723 Harts Mill Rd under the previous conservation subdivision rules.

The current project proposal will expire in June 2020.