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Stop that train

An Atlanta resident wages a battle against the Beltline

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When it comes to the future of what's been called the most transformative public project in recent city history, there is one man standing in the way.

The project, of course, is the Beltline – the proposed 22-mile, $3.4 billion loop of light rail, trails, parks and development that would circle intown Atlanta.

The man in the project's path, however, is not developer Wayne Mason, who owns nearly a quarter of the Beltline and who walked away from negotiations with the city last year. Though Mason's falling-out with city planners continues to pose a problem for the project, the latest and greatest of the Beltline's hurdles is a Garden Hills resident named John Woodham.

For eight months, Woodham has been waging a legal battle against how the Beltline will be funded, and he's no stranger to single-handedly taking on a big, popular cause that he believes is detrimental to his community. In 1999, Woodham filed a lawsuit in an effort to ease traffic and scale down the size of the massive redevelopment of MARTA's Lindbergh Plaza.

In the end, his efforts paid off, and he says he helped "maintain the quality of life and further neighborhood preservation."

Until Woodham backs down this time around, Beltline planners cannot access any of the funds – an eventual $1.7 billion – that were approved in 2005 by the Fulton County Commission, Atlanta Public Schools and Atlanta City Council.

"To have one individual hold up the process is just extremely frustrating," says George Dusenbury, executive director for nonprofit advocacy group Park Pride.

Woodham's chief complaint against the Beltline is that increases in future property taxes will pay for some of its cost – and he claims using school taxes for noneducational purposes, even with the school board's approval, violates the state Constitution. Woodham says the situation amounts to "diverting needed funds from an underperforming public school system to construct a transit system."

"Whenever I explain the issue to people," he wrote in an e-mail to CL, "they are shocked by this."

Woodham, who lives about a mile north of the Beltline's northernmost tip, filed a lawsuit challenging the project last summer. His case later was combined with a similar one that was brought by the Fulton County Taxpayers Association. In January, a Fulton County judge ruled against both lawsuits.

But Woodham, a real estate attorney who is representing himself, has filed a motion to appeal the case to the state Supreme Court. That means that the city's access to Beltline funding, which has been delayed since July, now will be postponed for six to 10 months, according to City Attorney Beth Chandler. She says the city will "vigorously" fight Woodham's appeal.

John Sherman, president of the Fulton County Taxpayers Association, says he stands behind Woodham's decision to appeal – but his organization couldn't continue its own fight due to the legal costs, which he estimates to be $35,000.

"It's refreshing to see someone so idealistic," Sherman says of Woodham. "He's not getting a penny out of this whole thing."

Others see Woodham's stance not as an act of selfless concern for the community but of misguided interference.

Dusenbury points out that the same funding mechanism for the Beltline (called a tax-allocation district) has been used five times before in Atlanta, including the massive Atlantic Station redevelopment.

"If you're going to challenge TADs," Dusenberry continues, "I'm sure there are other ones that have less public benefit than this one. It's hard to find a project that has more public benefit than what the Beltline can do for the city."

GET INVOLVED: To find out how to make your voice heard as the Beltline is built, go to www.clpoliticalparty.com/2007/03/help_shape_the_.html.

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