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Hearing held to stop construction at Atlanta Police training center pending permit appeal

Opponents of the project allege crews are still working on the land when they shouldn't be.

ATLANTA — A hearing is set for Thursday in a lawsuit seeking a temporary restraining order against the Atlanta Police Foundation. The restraining order is an attempt to halt construction at the site of Atlanta's future public safety training facility. 

Groups opposed to the building of the training facility are asking the courts to block construction until an appeal against its land disturbance permit in DeKalb County is sorted out.

RELATED: Complaint filed to stop construction at Atlanta public safety training center amid permit appeal

In a Fulton County Superior Court filing, three plaintiffs, including Amy Taylor, a community representative on the project's Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee, are asking for emergency injunctive relief.

Taylor also filed the appeal with DeKalb County's Zoning Board of Appeals, arguing that the permit should have never been issued. Edward "Ted" Terry is also listed as a plaintiff, he currently serves as DeKalb County Commissioner for District 6.

In Monday's complaint, individuals said that despite an appeal against its permit, the Atlanta Police Foundation -- who is the main funder of the project -- is still clearing land at the planned site of the future training facility. The site has been the epicenter of a more than yearlong protest movement that refers to the area as "Cop City."

Those who oppose the facility said the appeal should mean that the foundation must stop all construction or clearing of the site until the zoning board reaches a decision -- but the foundation has continued business as usual.

The foundation said county zoning requirements don't apply to them, according to the filing.

"Atlanta Police Foundation, Inc. claimed the site 'is exempt from county zoning requirements altogether' because it is 'being developed for a public facility,'" records read. "Amy Taylor's appeal stayed the land-disturbing activity but Atlanta Police Foundation, Inc. has refused to stop clearing and DeKalb County has not issued a stop work order."

Though government facilities are typically permitted to move forward with plans, according to the complaint, as the site is in unincorporated DeKalb County it must follow local zoning ordinances. This is why the group of plaintiffs is now asking for a restraining order to stop all land disturbances at the DeKalb County site.

Interest in the site sparked an environmental movement to "Defend the Atlanta Forest," with protesters living in tree encampments in the South River Forest adding that building the public safety complex will help destroy the region's largest urban forest. The filing further outlines how the construction could be environmentally harmful due to the sediment discharges caused by clearing and excavating -- citing it could impact waste flowing into Intrenchment Creek and violate state law.

"The Atlanta Police Foundation, Inc. also failed to comply with procedural requirements for obtaining coverage under the general permit," the 17-page complaint alleges.

Ultimately, the group is asking for the court to immediately prevent all land disturbances pending DeKalb's zoning board of appeals' decision on the appeal. A judge will give the Atlanta Police Foundation the opportunity to show why the request for a temporary restraining order should not be granted during a hearing on Thursday at 2:30 p.m.

It was unclear if any further work at the site could continue before a decision was made -- the plaintiffs said this injunction would clear it up.

There is no timeline for when the zoning board will announce its decision on the appeal.

11Alive reached out to the Atlanta Police Foundation for comment, bot those requests went unreturned.

Contention around 'Cop City'

Political interest in the project and the protest movement against the complex, which has involved semi-permanent tree encampments in the South River Forest where it is to be built, have mushroomed since a clearing operation in December resulted in an injured Georgia State Patrol trooper and an activist shot and killed.

The GBI has said the activist, Manuel Esteban Paez Teran, who was also known as Tortuguita, shot the trooper and was killed in return fire. That official version of events has been disputed by the protest movement and Paez Teran's family. In particular, the lack of bodycam video - which GSP troopers do not wear - has become a point of contention in fleshing out what exactly happened during the shootout.

Recently released bodycams by Atlanta Police - whose officers were in the forest but not at the scene of the shooting - has provided something of a window into the shootings, while also raising new questions about what happened.

RELATED: Protesters, officials at odds over what APD body camera from future training site shooting shows

The GBI said a ballistic analysis shows a projectile recovered from the trooper's wound matches a gun tied to Paez Teran through purchase records. Tortuguita's family said the activist was a pacifist whom they don't believe would have shot anyone. They added a private autopsy revealed Paez Teran was shot at least 13 times, claiming law enforcement displayed excessive use of force.

The opposition movement reached a peak with demonstrations through downtown Atlanta that left a police vehicle burned out and several buildings damaged, one of them targeted for housing the Atlanta Police Foundation. 

Six people were arrested after those demonstrations. So far, at least 14 people have been arrested in the forest and are accused of domestic terrorism.

The foundation would build a roughly 85-acre complex on the Old Prison Farm site in south DeKalb County under a land lease agreement with the City of Atlanta. People have questioned is the city could back out of the lease.

As for the protesters, they have opposed the facility on environmental and historical grounds, saying it would decimate one of the largest preserved forest areas in the city and desecrate historically Native American land of the Muscogee Creek people, who once lived in the woods and called it the Weelaunee Forest before being displaced by white settlers in the early 19th century. 

They also oppose it on the grounds that the land was once the site of the Old Prison Farm, a jail complex that was billed during its operation in the mid-20th Century as an "Honor Farm" where prisoners farmed the land as a "dignified means of imprisonment," a practice which has since been scrutinized for its profit generation and exploitation of unpaid labor. 

The law enforcement community has argued the training facility would be a crucial component in stabilizing the police force, aiding in recruitment and retention after low morale and departures following the racial and criminal justice protests of 2020. 

They also said it would improve training and community ties, framing it as an answer to police reform demands stemming from the 2020 protests to eliminate contentious policing practices and reduce tensions. 

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