By John Ruch
The owner of DeKalb County parkland he obtained in a controversial land swap has demolished a park entrance and taken down trees in the wake of arrests of protesters who have long occupied the site.
Plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the swap as illegal are asking the court to grant an emergency injunction against further work.
Contractors for Ryan Millsap on Dec. 21 plowed up a parking lot, a trailhead, a gazebo and other structures at the West Side Place entrance. They also posted “no trespassing” signs. On Dec. 22, they followed up by felling trees, including one containing a protester tree house. Millsap declined to comment, citing a pending lawsuit challenging the 2020 swap.
Plaintiffs in that lawsuit, including the South River Forest Coalition (SRFC) and the South River Watershed Alliance (SWRA), have called previous, similar actions by Millsap to be unlawful under the terms of the swap deal and while the lawsuit is pending. SRWA Executive Director Margaret Spalding repeated that complaint and also alleged the actions violate County code by proceeding without a permit.
“The citizens’ lawsuit over the land swap is in a court of law,” Spalding said in an email. “Defendants DeKalb County and Blackhall should at the very least respect the legal system and protect the green space until the court rules.”
On Dec. 22, the plaintiffs filed a motion seeking an emergency injunction preventing “further destruction and/or construction activities” until the court can get more information or until the lawsuit concludes.
Protesters with the Defend the Atlanta Forest movement, who have dubbed the site the Weelaunee People’s Park in reference to a Native American name for the area, called the demolition illegal and continued with a winter solstice and holiday gathering at the site.
“Ryan Millsap’s illegal seizure of the Weelaunee People’s Park is evidence of the growing public pressure to defend the Weelaunee forest,” they said in a press release. The forest is a reference to protests against his parkland acquisition as well as the City of Atlanta’s plans for a public safety training center on the adjacent former site of the Atlanta Prison Farm.
Spalding said that the parkland demolition actions “are escalating an already tense situation regarding land on the other side of the creek, in [land owned by] a different municipality.”
In the land swap deal, the County gave Millsap — who founded the neighboring Blackhall Studios filmmaking complex — 40 acres of Intrenchment Creek Park at Constitution Road and West Side Place in exchange for 53 acres of other land to create a new park. Part of the new park, named for Michelle Obama, is under construction.
Protesters have carried out a wide variety of activities on the land since then with the aim of preventing its redevelopment. They range from people camping in tree houses, to community potluck dinners and food distribution, to vandalism, arson of a tow truck and blockading of entrances. The park entrance that Millsap demolished is recognized as the Weelaunee People’s Park on Google Maps, which allows user-uploaded site information. The protester park has two five-star Google reviews.
Millsap in May and July conducted other work on the site, apparently in response to protests, that included bulldozing along a trail and barricading an entrance.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit, filed in 2020, claimed that previous work violated an agreement where Millsap is supposed to redevelop parts of the parkland only after replacements are fully constructed elsewhere.
On Dec. 14, the DeKalb County Police Department reportedly arrested six protesters who were camping on the site as part of a multi-agency task force that is investigating the Defend the Atlanta Forest movement. The arrests came the day after a similar raid at the training center site, where the Georgia Bureau of Investigation later announced domestic terrorism charges against five arrestees that have been welcomed by some locals but criticized by protesters and civil rights attorneys as inflated and aimed at chilling speech.
Update: This story has been updated with information about more demolition work on Dec. 22, comment from the SWRA, and the filing of an injunction request.