Intrenchment Creek Park land swap hinges on new law making it easier to sue government
By David Pendered
Environmental advocates have won an early victory in their effort to block a swap in which DeKalb County would trade land in Intrenchment Creek Park for land owned by a movie studio, an entity known as Blackhall Real Estate Phase II, LLC.
The March 19 ruling by DeKalb County Superior Court Judge Stacey Hydrick rejects claims raised by DeKalb County in its effort to thwart the points raised in a lawsuit by the advocates, including the South River Watershed Alliance and South River Forest Coalition.
As a result of the ruling, the advocates’ claims will be heard at some point in DeKalb County Superior Court.
A central issue will be the legal determination of the date on which DeKalb County and Blackhall exchanged the property, according to the ruling. The legality of the swap hinges on a constitutional amendment Georgia voters approved in 2020.
If the legal date is determined to be the date DeKalb County’s Board of Commissioners voted to approve the exchange, the deal could go forward. Such a determination would mean the deal did not fall under the purview of a constitutional amendment that made it easier for Georgians to sue governments.
If the legal date is determined to be the date the land was conveyed between the two parties, the deal will fall under the new constitutional amendment. The conveyance would not have legal force under the new amendment, according to the ruling.
The commission approved the swap on Oct. 13, 2020, according to the ruling.
The legal conveyance was consummated on Jan. 29, 2021, according to the ruing.
In between those dates, 75 percent of Georgia voters approved a ballot measure that stated: “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to waive sovereign immunity and allow the people of Georgia to petition the superior court for relief from governmental acts done outside the scope of lawful authority or which violate the laws of this state, the Constitution of Georgia, or the Constitution of the United States?” The amendment became effective, on Jan. 1, 2021
The plaintiffs contend the amendment should apply to the land swap because the land was conveyed after the amendment became effective. DeKalb County contends the amendment should not apply to the swap because the exchange was approved before the amendment became law.
The ruling observes that the issue is one to be determined at trial: “The Court will permit Plaintiff to go forward with its mandamus claim [to keep the Intrenchment Creek Park parcel as parkland] until at such time it is determined whether the date of the land swap falls under the purview of the new Constitutional Amendment.”
The ruling follows a virtual hearing conducted on Dec. 16, 2021, according to the ruling.
This case is part of the four-year saga of Blackhall trying to secure land for expansion from DeKalb County at its site in southwest DeKalb County.
After considerable controversy over the exchange and its various configurations, DeKalb’s Board of Commissioners approved the deal.
The ruling contains this timeline and description of acres swapped: “On or around January 29, 2021, the County conveyed approximately 40 acres of Intrenchment Creek Park to Defendant Blackhall in exchange for the 52.9 acres of land owned by Blackhall.”