State EPD to investigate DeKalb development

By Megan Matteucci

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The state Environmental Protection Division will investigate allegations that DeKalb County is allowing developers to violate water protection controls.

A DeKalb Superior Court judge ordered the investigation Tuesday but allowed DeKalb to return to issuing permits.

EPD investigators will look to see if the county is following local and state laws, said Larry Hedges, a program manager with the Watershed Protection Division of the EPD. They will inspect several DeKalb properties, along with record-keeping procedures, development plans, the number of county inspectors and the quality of the county’s development staff.

“We will look at how well DeKalb is administrating their erosion and sediment control program,” Hedges told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Wednesday. “Our response to any deficiencies will depend on the severity.”

The maximum punishment could be decertification, which would mean DeKalb could no longer issue permits.

“But that’s the worst-case scenario,” Hedges said. “Right now, we have not found any problems. Usually the problems are addressed before the program is taken away. We want them to do the job correctly.”

Hedges said he anticipates the review will start in the next 60 days.

The investigation is the latest in a monthlong legal battle between the county and its elected Soil and Water Conservation District that has halted seven building projects. Those projects include a church, two businesses, three parks and sewer upgrades, county officials said. All of the projects require land disturbance permits, which are for any project more than an acre or within 200 feet of a waterway.

The conservation district halted the county issuing permits after citing what it said were deficiencies in DeKalb’s environmental standards, including muddy water flowing off construction sites and into streams.

DeKalb sued the conservation district and asked a judge to restore an agreement that allowed the county to issue permits.

In addition to ordering the EPD investigation, Judge Clarence Seeliger denied DeKalb’s request to restore the agreement and ordered the Georgia Soil and Water Commission to review all of DeKalb’s development plans. However, the state must return those plans within three days.

Jonathan Weintraub, DeKalb’s deputy chief operating officer for development, said he is not aware of any problems and anticipates the state will find none either.

“We don’t have a problem with it at all,” Weintraub told the AJC. “We’re confident they will say we have a qualified program and allow us to go back to do our own plan review.”

The county is now in the process of sending the seven pending projects and hopes to issue permits by the end of the week.

Weintraub said he feared changing the permitting process could deter developers. The state water commission initially said it would take 35 days to review plans. However, Weintraub said he hopes that won’t be an issue since the judge’s order calls for a three-day turnaround.