DeKalb residents air concerns about Blackhall Studios park land swap

DeKalb County Commissioner Larry Johnson (right) listens as Gresham Park resident Harold Folds voices opposition to a proposal from Blackhall Studios to take control of a portion of Intrenchment Creek Park in South DeKalb. In return, the county would gain ownership of three nearby parcels of land. Folds spoke during public comment at a community meeting about the land swap proposal on Monday, May 20, 2019, at McNair High School. TIA MITCHELL/TIA.MITCHELL@AJC.COM

Blackhall Studios’ proposal to build a new facility on what is currently protected park land continues to divide residents who live in the area.

Many spoke during a recent town hall to say the deal — which would allow the movie studio to build on a portion of Intrenchment Creek Park in exchange for donating nearby land to the county — will bring jobs and resources to a part of DeKalb County that often feels forgotten.

But there were even louder voices who accused county leaders of ignoring red flags and the concerns of people who live nearby or frequent the park. They said the land swap was backed by the county before it was vetted and without any public input.

Harold Folds uses the trails at Intrenchment Creek Park frequently to help reach his goal of walking 25 miles a week. He said the 48 acres Blackhall wants to develop is more beautiful and ecologically rich than the 55 acres it is offering up in the deal.

“That’s like asking someone to trade a brand-new Mercedes for a ‘59 Plymouth,” he said. “A fair swap is not a swindle.”

Even Monday’s town hall was a point of criticism because it was the first meeting of its kind, even though residents began expressing concerns about the proposal in late 2018.

Zach Williams, DeKalb’s chief operating officer, said the land swap is still under evaluation. During Monday’s meeting, residents heard about various studies that had been completed at the park and the land currently owned by Blackhall that would be part of the deal.

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The benefits of the deal were outlined, such as making the park more accessible to nearby neighborhoods and providing additional amenities. Williams said it took time to review the proposal from Blackhall, which is why no town halls were scheduled earlier.

“We’ve been deliberately silent in the CEO’s office because we’ve been doing evaluation,” he said.

Local business groups said they supported the plan, and so did some residents like Paula Tate. She lives in the Hidden Lakes neighborhood nearby and said the land swap would allow for improvements at the park that make it safer while increasing the tax base for the county by allowing a successful company to expand.

“We are long overdue for us to have some economic development” in the area, she said.

The two county commissioners who represent the area also attended the meeting. Larry Johnson has expressed support for the proposal in the past and said Monday that the county needs to continue working on the proposal to make sure it provides both the financial and environmental benefits that are promised.

Commissioner Kathie Gannon said she remains skeptical, especially after hearing from so many residents who are opposed to the deal.

“A lot of the passion,” she said, “is the kind of passion we always feel when we see trees coming down.”

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