North Fulton park becomes a north-south battleground

Now, Providence Park is a battleground.

A battleground that one of north Fulton County’s newest cities wants to take over for just more than $4,000, but could earn the county government millions if it refuses the deal with Milton and sells the land on the open market.

The 42 acres of rugged woodland, with a lodge, hiking trails, a rock-climbing cliff and a lake it shares with a subdivision, has been closed to the public since 2004, when tests found lead, chromium, petroleum byproducts and other toxic chemicals in soil near a walking path. The cleanup should be finished by the end of next year.

After that, Milton hopes to make Providence a crown jewel in its burgeoning parks inventory for a price of just $100 per acre. Those plans are in jeopardy, though, with the property ensnared in the latest fracas between north and south Fulton leaders over the siphoning of tax dollars from one end of the county to another.

If a south Fulton commissioner gets his way, not only could Milton lose dibs on a massive tract of prime real estate, but Milton and Johns Creek could lose about $100,000 apiece in taxes that the county government has sat on for years, thanks to a gap in a 2008 state law that forced the county to return unspent taxes collected when the northern cities were still in unincorporated Fulton.

Underlying the dispute are lingering tensions between the northern cities that stepped out from under direct county governance, citing lackluster services, and the southern part of the county they left behind.

“All of us who were here at the time of the annexation, and me included, I’m here to tell you that you got bamboozled,” Commissioner Bill Edwards said at last week’s meeting.

A month ago, Edwards confronted county manager Zachary Williams when he discovered that $12,500 in south Fulton’s tax dollars had been spent over a five-year period cutting grass and maintaining grounds at the shuttered park within Fulton’s northernmost city.

Under contracts with the cities, money raised for the unincorporated area can’t be spent elsewhere.

It was an oversight, interim parks director Lisa Carter said. Providence used to be a county park, and since it hasn’t been sold to Milton yet, maintenance crews assumed it was still their responsibility.

The problem, though, is that the Parks Department is funded by the county’s Special Services District, which through a tacked-on property tax provides city-type services such as police and fire protection to unincorporated residents. With Johns Creek, Milton and Sandy Springs out of the mix, only south Fulton residents pay into the fund.

Edwards sees a conundrum whose only solution is to reclassify Providence Park as surplus county property. Doing so could deprive Milton of a $100-per-acre sale, the deal given to all newly formed cities for park space since the mid-2000s.

The property’s fair market value: $6.2 million, according to the county tax assessor’s office.

“Unfortunately, [Edwards] seems to be out to get north Fulton,” said Commissioner Liz Hausmann, who represents Milton. “For the commissioner, at the 11th hour, to try to change the status of the land, to try to take something away from a north Fulton city, is shameful.”

Edwards points out that Providence stopped being a public park two years before Milton formed, when the county discovered pollutants seeping from 55-gallon drums stashed on the grounds. The Parks Department can’t touch it, he said, and maintenance can’t be funded by Public Works or through the $4,200 per month the county earns off a cellphone tower on the property.

Those are countywide general fund dollars, and there are no parks in the general fund, Edwards said.

“If it’s a park, then it must be in the [Special Services District], but it ain’t,” he said. “My whole deal is, call it what it is, then we’ll deal with it.”

Whether Edwards can muster the needed four votes to change the land’s classification is uncertain.

Last month, his motion to do so didn’t get a second, though Commissioner Joan Garner said later that she would have given him one had she understood his argument.

County spokeswoman Ericka Davis said in an email that the Public Works Department will handle maintenance now. There’s not much to do, she said, with the lodge sealed with plywood and the public kept away.

When work vehicles aren’t coming or going, the main gate stays locked, but joggers and walkers often slip past it. Milton resident Patti Silva has toured the park with friends and said she shudders at the thought of the city losing it.

“I would be very disappointed to hear there would be any problem with that because it was a big issue when Milton became a city — that we would have a certain amount of open space,” she said.

City Manager Chris Lagerbloom said the city offered to acquire the noncontaminated portion of the park in 2008, which would have solved the maintenance problem. The county never made a counteroffer.

“We feel that the park at some point will be owned by Milton,” he said. “We have heard nothing other than Commissioner Edwards’ comments that indicate the intent of the Fulton County Board of Commissioners has changed. When the park is clean, we fully anticipate moving forward with the transfer of ownership.”

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