Senoia’s zombie wall may remain for years
by Sarah Fay Campbell
A portion of a Senoia residential development might be a “closed set” for the next several years.
On Monday, representatives from Stalwart Films, producers of “The Walking Dead,” asked the Senoia City Council for permission to extend the permits for road closures, and for a 15-foot wall around the property, through at least November 2016 and possibly until January 2019.
Two weeks ago, the council approved the closure of parts of Morgan Street and Amey Street from Sept. 11 to Nov. 26, and for the wall to be up through that time period.
The wall, which is designed to withstand winds up to 115 mph, sits on private property. It surrounds the majority of the Gin Property development on the south end of downtown.
Mike Riley, location manager of Stalwart Films, told the council that, upon further discussion with producers, they’d like to see if the permission to keep the streets closed could be extended through November 2016, with the option of going into 2019.
“We are fairly certain we will be here at least another year-and-a-half with this current set we are constructing,” Riley said. And there’s a “good possibility” that things will extend beyond that.
“I know that’s a fairly extended period of time,” Riley told the council. “It would be as an option and not a guarantee."
There are 17 houses that will be inside the wall, but only seven are currently occupied, according to Scott Tigchelaar, who is both the owner and developer of the Gin Property and the president of Raleigh Studios Atlanta, where “The Walking Dead” is based. TIgchelaar also lives on site. Some of the homes are currently under construction.
The development was designed to be used as a “living backlot” for film and television productions.
“That has always been written into the covenants of the development,” Tigchelaar said.
The wall will have gates at each road crossing, and there will be 24-hour security to make sure that only authorized people can be inside the wall. In addition to residents, their guests, and film crews, the gates will also be opened for sanitation trucks, emergency vehicles and the like. In addition to Morgan and Amey streets, three other streets will be closed, but they are currently private streets, as they haven’t yet been turned over to the city.
“It’s like a gated community. With a very strange gate,” Riley said.
The building of the wall temporarily postpones the building and selling of new homes in the development, but “we feel that any negative impact associated with postponing that is more than offset by the tourism impact,” Tigchelaar said.
Riley told the council he had entered into contractual agreements with all the property owners inside the wall. And in the contract “we have the ability to stay for a while … it does give us that option."
Because a public hearing was held on the original street closures, a public hearing will be needed to extend them, according to City Attorney Drew Whalen. The council voted to set the hearing for Aug. 18.
Whalen told the council that they couldn’t vote to extend the closures beyond the end of 2015. State law doesn’t allow a city council or county commission to take action that would “bind” a future council. As the terms of two council members end Dec. 31, 2015, the current council can’t go past that time frame, according to Whalen.
Many of the city’s agreements are good for a year, with the option of renewing with 30 days notice, according to City Administrator Richard Ferry. Something similar could likely be drawn for the road closures.
Council Member Jeff Fisher said the filmmakers are making a big investment. “This should be viewed somewhat like a cellular tower contract … they should have that option up to the five-year period,” he said.
Council Member Bobby Graham said that, since only two of the five council members’ terms are up at the end of 2015, making longer term decisions wouldn’t really be binding a future council.
“The way the law is interpreted, yes, you technically are,” Whalen said.
Ferry added that he’d like for Stalwart Films to put up a performance bond to make sure the wall gets taken down.
“We’ll take it with us,” Riley said. The contract with the Gin Property requires them to return the property to its original condition.
Council Member Chuck Eichorst said that the production company has been good neighbors, but “still, when you talk about committing for five years on something that is kind of unknown at this point, what effect, positive or negative it might have on this city … that concerns me.”
“When the wall started going up, it was different than I imagined. But I understand completely,” Eichorst said. “But it’s a lot different when you’re looking at that wall for two years than if you’re looking at it for five years.”
Eichorst said he’d like to get feedback from the citizens “before I go into the third, fourth, or fifth year of this agreement.”
Tigchelaar said that, before his development began, what was on the property looked “worse than the wall."
He added that if the council could approve the closures until December 2016, that would “help them out a great deal.”
Tracy Brady, who moved to the Gin Property in March, was at the meeting. She said Riley “has been so great” and is working on making sure residents lives are disrupted as little as possible. They’ve discussed ways to make things easier, such as stickers for residents’ cars.
Brady moved from Manhattan, so the proposal doesn’t bother her. Entertaining might take some pre-planning, though. She said she thinks she and most of her neighbors see it as an adventure. Not many people get to live on a film set.