Lawsuit over DeKalb land swap still working way through courts

Blackhall attorney unsuccessfully fights extension by referencing activities of ‘forest defenders’
Signs are seen at the entrance to the South River Trail at Intrenchment Creek Park in DeKalb County on Monday, August 29, 2022. (Arvin Temkar /



Signs are seen at the entrance to the South River Trail at Intrenchment Creek Park in DeKalb County on Monday, August 29, 2022. (Arvin Temkar /

The lawsuit over DeKalb County’s controversial land swap with the founder of a movie studio is still winding its way through the court system.

The suit is now about 18 months old and seems unlikely to be resolved anytime soon — despite one attorney’s claims that “people might get hurt” if things drag out much longer.

During a Tuesday morning hearing in DeKalb County Superior Court, Senior Judge Alan Harvey granted an extension of the discovery period in the case, giving all parties until Nov. 30 to submit potential evidence and conduct depositions.

The previous deadline was Sept. 15, but attorneys for both the county and plaintiffs like the South River Watershed Alliance — who believe the land swap amounted to “an unlawful transfer of public land” — had asked for more time. There are thousands of emails and other documents to sift through, they said, and interviewing witnesses and other involved parties will take a while.

Even the longer timeframe is aggressive, they said.

At the same time, an attorney representing Blackhall Real Estate Phase II and Ryan Millsap — who obtained 40 acres of DeKalb’s existing Intrenchment Creek Park in the land swap that was consummated in early 2021 — tried to push back on the extension.

Sean Kirwin suggested that the legality of the swap could be determined simply by looking at existing documents and said that any further delay could exacerbate an already dicey situation.

Activists calling themselves “forest defenders” have set up camp on the Millsap property for months, using sometimes violent tactics to protest the land’s development and drive away construction crews and authorities. They’re part of the same loosely organized group protesting the construction of a new Atlanta public safety training center on a nearby piece of forested property.

Millsap gave 53 nearby acres to the county in exchange for the existing parkland while he still owned Blackhall Studios, whose main campus is just down the road.

He’s since sold the film studio and, should the swap hold up, his intentions for the park property are unclear. But “stop cop city” protesters have targeted Millsap in an attempt to prevent him from building a “Hollywood dystopia.”

Kirwin on Tuesday called the situation “completely out of control and unhinged.” He said Millsap’s home had also been vandalized multiple times and attacks had been “ratcheting up since May.”

Casey Sturm, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, made it clear in court that neither she nor her clients are affiliated with the more extreme activists. But she blamed Millsap and Blackhall for inflaming things.

It was May when Millsap attempted to close off the land swap property to the public, triggering a series of direct clashes with activists. In one incident, a tow truck belonging to Millsap was stripped for parts and set on fire.

Attorneys for Blackhall and DeKalb County have both denied the existence of any formal pact, but Sturm said there was an agreement that Millsap wouldn’t do anything with the property until the lawsuit was resolved.

“The only time there was an incident out there,” Sturm said, “it was instigated by Blackhall.”

Sturm raised the possibility of seeking a restraining order to prevent Blackhall from doing any more work on the property. And the extension in the discovery period for the existing lawsuit, she said, was largely required because of Blackhall attorneys’ own lackluster cooperation thus far.

“The only thing they want to do,” she said, “is not let the public know why this land swap happened.”

About the Author