Trailhead that was part of DeKalb land swap closed; activists cry foul

The founder of a local film studio has installed concrete barricades at the southwest DeKalb parkland he acquired in a controversial property swap with the county.

The move by Ryan Millsap and Blackhall Real Estate Phase II, LLC effectively closes a portion of Intrenchment Creek Park to the public, even as a 2021 lawsuit challenging the legality of the land swap plays out in court — and as aggressive protests at the nearby site of Atlanta’s planned public safety training center continue to spill over into the area.

Mark Trigg, a Blackhall attorney, confirmed the group worked with DeKalb County law enforcement to install the barricades, which he called “a matter of public safety and liability management.” He also blamed the same activists decrying the closure for forcing the decision.

The barriers placed near the South River Trailhead earlier this week have since been spray-painted with phrases like “no Hollywood dystopia” and “war on Blackhall.”

“There have been numerous recent instances of trespassers committing acts of vandalism and threatening violence to others on the property, including an incident where contractors on site and the law enforcement officers escorting them were confronted by the trespassers, who damaged the contractor’s equipment and appeared to deploy incendiary devices,” Trigg wrote in an email.

In a Friday afternoon email, a DeKalb government spokesman said that the county had “been informed” that the trailhead on West Side Place was “no longer available to the public.” He said residents can still access the PATH trail system nearly two miles to the east, via the Michelle Obama Trail at Gresham Park Recreation Center.

In late 2020, after years of debate and legal wrangling, a deal between the county and Millsap was approved by a split vote of the Board of Commissioners. In exchange for sending 40 acres of the existing Intrenchment Creek Park to Millsap and Blackhall, the county received a nearby 53-acre plot that it said would be converted into a greenspace with more connectivity and better amenities.

The transfer was finalized in January 2021.

Less than two months later, a handful of DeKalb residents and the advocacy groups South River Watershed Alliance and South River Forest Coalition filed a lawsuit asking a judge to nix the deal, calling it “an unlawful conversion of public park land to private uses and a waste of taxpayer money.”

Millsap no longer owns Blackhall Studios. The company, whose original campus is around the corner from the land swap property, was sold to a private equity firm that later rebranded it as Shadowbox Studios and still has plans to move forward with a dramatic expansion on yet another piece of nearby land.

But Millsap and the previously mentioned corporation, Blackhall Real Estate Phase II, still have ownership of the parcel acquired in the county land swap. And they have been fighting the lawsuit as it slowly makes its way through the court system.

In March, DeKalb Superior Court Judge Stacey K. Hydrick denied a county request to dismiss the suit. She has not, however, ruled on the case itself.

Jacqueline Echols is president of the South River Watershed Alliance, which shares a cause but is not directly affiliated with the more extreme activist groups.

In a Wednesday afternoon press conference livestreamed by the Atlanta Community Press Collective — a self-described group of local writers and researchers focused on the “radical education and empowerment of autonomous movements” — she suggested that there had been “an agreement of the attorneys” that the land given to Millsap would remain open to the public until the litigation was settled.

Trigg, the Blackhall attorney, said there has never been such an agreement, formal or informal. And Hydrick has not issued any sort of injunction that would prevent Millsap from asserting control of the property in question.

DeKalb County declined to comment on the pending litigation.

During her press conference, Echols said nothing had happened on the site for “months and months and months.”

“I don’t know what suddenly spurred [Millsap] to do what he’s done,” she said.

In emails to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Trigg made that part pretty clear.

He said the same group of “forest defenders” trying to stop the Atlanta Police Foundation from building a new training center along nearby Key Road — building treehouses, destroying property and having plenty of run-ins with police along the way — seem to have targeted the Blackhall land as well.

“In short,” Trigg wrote, “many of these ‘activists’ have demonstrated their propensity for violence and vandalism, and Blackhall Real Estate Phase II will continue to work with law enforcement officials to protect its property rights and the physical safety of those who are on the property with proper authorization.”