DeKalb judge allows lawsuit over film studio land swap to proceed

A sign outside the existing trailhead for the South River Trail at Intrenchment Creek Park, near Bouldercrest Road in southwest DeKalb County. TYLER ESTEP / TYLER.ESTEP@AJC.COM

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A sign outside the existing trailhead for the South River Trail at Intrenchment Creek Park, near Bouldercrest Road in southwest DeKalb County. TYLER ESTEP / TYLER.ESTEP@AJC.COM

A judge has denied DeKalb County’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit challenging its controversial land swap with a local film studio.

The order issued over the weekend by Superior Court Judge Stacey K. Hydrick allows the civil suit led by the South River Watershed Alliance and South River Forest Coalition to proceed.

The environmental advocacy groups filed the lawsuit in Feb. 2021, a few months after the county commission approved the deal that sent 40 acres of south DeKalb’s existing Intrenchment Creek Park to Blackhall Studios. In exchange, the film studio gave the county a nearby 53-acre plot that officials say will be converted into a new park.

As part of the deal, Blackhall committed to making monetary and in-kind donations toward the new park’s creation.

(Since the swap, Blackhall Studios has been sold to another firm. Original Blackhall owner Ryan Millsap still controls the land involved in the swap.)

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A parcel map showing the property involved in DeKalb County's land swap with Blackhall Studios. The county receives the blue parcels from Blackhall, which receives the orange tract. The green is existing greenspace, including Intrenchment Creek Park. SPECIAL PHOTO

A parcel map showing the property involved in DeKalb County's land swap with Blackhall Studios. The county receives the blue parcels from Blackhall, which receives the orange tract. The green is existing greenspace, including Intrenchment Creek Park. SPECIAL PHOTO

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A parcel map showing the property involved in DeKalb County's land swap with Blackhall Studios. The county receives the blue parcels from Blackhall, which receives the orange tract. The green is existing greenspace, including Intrenchment Creek Park. SPECIAL PHOTO

The lawsuit, meanwhile, claims the county lacked the authority to complete the swap. An attorney for the environmental groups has called it “an unlawful conversion of public park land to private uses and a waste of taxpayer money.”

The suit asks a Judge Hydrick to void the deal, which was finalized in late January 2021, and issue an injunction to prevent further construction on the parkland.

Hydrick has not ruled on those issues. Her latest order simply allows the lawsuit to move forward.

“The Court is satisfied that Plaintiffs have raised sufficient questions regarding the legitimacy and legal effect of the land conveyance, that if adjudged to be true, would permit the Court to grant an injunction,” she wrote.