Preserving Simpsonwood was never a certainty

Ludie Simpson has been dead for nearly 40 years, but her presence is still strongly felt in western Gwinnett County.

In 1973, the Norcross teacher gave 227 acres of riverfront property in Gwinnett to the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church. But Simpson’s gift came with a condition: The land could not be “chopped into smaller parcels or exploited or despoiled.”

That condition was the source of much consternation over the years. But last month, the church finally made a deal to sell the property to Gwinnett County for $14 million, plus an additional $2 million from the city of Peachtree Corners. It's an arrangement that preserves the land as park space, just as Simpson wanted. But reaching the deal was never a simple matter.

As recently as this fall, Simpsonwood, as the property is known, was under contract by a developer who planned to build more than 200 homes.

“Was I confident we would get it as a park? No. I was told, ‘Don’t be disappointed if it doesn’t happen,’” Gwinnett County Commissioner Lynette Howard said.

Since at least 2007, the church had been losing as much as $750,000 a year on a conference center they had built on the land. Church officials needed a find a buyer for the property, and developers were eager to oblige. But residents of Peachtree Corners were vehemently opposed selling, and lawsuits challenged the notion that it could be sold at all.

Sybil Davidson, a spokeswoman for the church, said the goal was always to preserve the land. But with no takers willing to do so, other options were considered over the course of several years as the title and church officials’ ability to sell were litigated. Developers called nearly every day expressing interest, she said.

Conversations with Gwinnett had been ongoing since 2010, Davidson said. An offer was slow to come, but was made immediately before an October 25 meeting of the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church.

At that meeting, FrontDoor Communities CEO Terry Russell presented his plan to develop Simpsonwood. Russell said his proposal kept 60 percent of the land as open space, and would have built about 220 homes worth between $400,000 and $700,000 apiece. It would have kept at least 3.5 miles of trails.

Though he expected a long, difficult process to get the land rezoned, Russell said, he was confident he could convince neighbors that his plan was a good one for their area.

Russell said selling to the county was in the best interest of the area.

“Atlanta is always struggling to have enough open space,” he said.

His loss was, in part, facilitated by Peachtree Corners Mayor Mike Mason. When Gwinnett’s offer came in below the church’s desired sales price, Mason took a call from Matt Reeves, a longtime friend and the church’s attorney. Reeves asked if Peachtree Corners had an extra $2 million that could help make the deal.

“There was no hesitation at all,” Mason said.

Peachtree Corners appraised the land at $20.7 million, and developers' offers were likely more than that. But Mason said in conversations about the property, he reminded church leaders that they were losing money on the land and that there would be strong local opposition to any rezoning. If the city council declined to rezone the land, any litigation would be expensive and slow-moving, he said.

Since the agreement was reached to sell the land, Mason said, residents have come up to him at restaurants and told him, “You guys are doing great.”

The sale is expected to close in mid-January. While a chapel Simpson donated will be preserved across the street, the county will likely tear down the conference center buildings. Full details about Gwinnett’s plans won’t be available until after the closing.