DeKalb park supporters hope to stop county land swap

Joe Peery started out biking on the trails at Intrenchment Creek Park, and now he is part of a group of advocates who lead tours and push for conservation of the park as a natural greenspace. He and his dog, Mr. Butters, walk on a nearby parcel of land owned by Blackhall movie studio that is part of a proposed land swap with DeKalb County that would allow the company to build on a portion of the park. TIA MITCHELL/TIA.MITCHELL@AJC.COM

An alliance of environmental groups and community activists have adopted a two-pronged strategy to block a land swap between DeKalb County and a film studio, a deal they say would jeopardize their hopes to create the largest public park inside I-285.

The groups have hired an attorney who specializes in environmental and commercial real estate issues and are mulling a lawsuit. They’ve also hired experts to produce a study of how to create the park.

“We’re doing what we can to stop what is obviously a very bad idea,” said Jackie Echols, president of the South River Watershed Alliance and a member of the Stop the Swap group.

Their vision is ambitious. It would require purchasing about 3,500 acres of contiguous, mostly undeveloped land in southwest DeKalb and protecting it from commercial development. However, smack in the middle, Blackhall Studios operates film soundstages and set-design and special-effects facilities. Blackhall wants to take a portion of DeKalb County’s Intrenchment Creek Park and expand there. It has offered to trade nearby land in exchange. Park proponents worry that if Blackhall expands, other nearby commercial and government interests won’t move out, making it harder to create the supersized park.

DeKalb County obtained ownership of the property for Intrenchment Creek Park in 2002 through a donation from the Arthur M. Blank Foundation, though the nonprofit Trust for Public Land restricts what the county can do with it. The trust supports the land swap if public meetings are held and if it would increase the amount, value and use of public parkland and recreational amenities, and ensure its ecological integrity, George Dusenbury, the nonprofit’s state director, said Friday.

The Trust for Public Land met with DeKalb County representatives Feb. 24 to discuss the swap. The proposal is being vetted by county staff including the chief operating officer, said county spokesman Andrew Cauthen in an emailed statement. After that process is complete, they will make a recommendation to county CEO Michael Thurmond.

The film studio has described the swap as an even trade that would benefit the county by giving it land along Bouldercrest Road adjacent to the Gresham Park Recreation Center. But opponents say that property is nearly worthless.

“We would be getting land that’s been bulldozed and is unusable for hiking trails,” said Joe Peery, an East Atlanta resident who has led opposition efforts.

Blackhall did not respond to a request for comment. In December, Blackhall CEO Ryan Millsap said community concerns are "negative spin from people that are just fundamentally, physically opposed to land exchanges."

An expanded Blackhall film studio would not prevent the creation of the proposed South River Forest Park. However, opponents say it would set a bad precedent. Numerous commercial and government operations are located in the area of the proposed park, including trucking terminals, an active landfill and state prisons. Park supporters said those operations might be persuaded to relocate. But if the film studio expands, the commercial and government operations would likely remain.

Kasey Sturm, an attorney with the Atlanta firm Weissman who’s advising land-swap opponents, said the county probably does not have legal authority to transfer control of Intrenchment Creek Park land to a private developer. The county is bound by a deed restriction to hold the property in perpetuity for the benefit of county residents, she said.

Park supporters also hired designer Ryan Gravel, who created the original proposal for the Beltline, and the Decatur consulting firm Clarification & Mediation to study how to create the 3,500-acre park. The plan, which would take years to complete, would center on the South River and combine acreage from the abandoned Atlanta Prison Farm, existing DeKalb County and City of Atlanta parks, privately owned wetlands and closed landfills.

“This is a long-term project with a big price tag,” said Ayanna Williams, the Healthy Cities program director at the Nature Conservancy, which is paying for the studies.

Some community residents support the land swap because it could lead to job creation. But they also want a new park.

“We want to have a balance between economic development and protecting some of the land,” Patricia Culp, president of the Cedar Grove Neighborhood Association, said Thursday. “We don’t want to see the parkland just destroyed.”

Park advocates should start the conversation now about who gets to decide what happens to the largest remaining undeveloped acreage inside the Perimeter, Gravel said.

“It’s the city’s last chance to do a regional park at this scale that’s this close to downtown,” he said.

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