South DeKalb public land swap might – or might not – be a good deal.

By Maggie Lee

Plenty of people get their exercise and fresh air walking the South River Trail at the Intrenchment Creek trailhead —  it’s got big trees, wildlife; it’s peaceful. They said so at a public meeting where DeKalb produced slides saying it would be better to trade away that land for some other nearby.

Entrance to South Entrance to South River Trail Intrenchment Creek Trailhead. Credit: Maggie Lee Trail Intrenchment Creek Trailhead

Entrance to South River Trail Intrenchment Creek Trailhead. Credit: Maggie Lee

Right now, there’s about 125 acres of public green space between the creek and Bouldercrest Road.  To the north and east are about 55.65 acres of vacant land owned by Blackhall Studios. To the southwest across Constitution Road is other studio land that’s already built up.

What’s on the table is a swap: DeKalb would give 48.104 acres of the existing green space at Constitution and Bouldercrest to Blackhall Studios. That includes some of the hiking area as well as the field used by folks flying radio-controlled model airplanes and helicopters.

In return, the county would get Blackhall’s land on the north and northeast sides of the park.

The studio wants to expand, and would end up with plots a bit closer together under this deal.

DeKalb County, as its staff presented the deal, would get a net gain of about 7.5 acres and could develop the new assemblage into a regional park with better connectivity to Gresham Park and amenities for more kinds of users, beyond mainly walkers and RC pilots.

But some say it’s a bad trade and that the county’s presentation was one-sided.

More than a dozen people spoke against the swap at a public meeting on May 20.

Jacqueline Echols said every tree that’s at the trailhead park is critical stormwater infrastructure. In plain English: from the leaves that intercept raindrops to the roots that soak up water, those trees help prevent erosion and slow down surges of stormwater runoff.

Stormwater can wash pollutants, debris and sediment into creeks, cutting the water quality there and eventually in the river she’s trying to restore and protect, as board president of the South River Watershed Alliance.

“Stormwater runoff is made worse by development because it routinely covers the surface of the earth with hard surfaces,” Echols said.

A new development, with impervious surfaces like roofs and parking lots where there are now trees would cause an enormous amount of runoff, she said.

The Intrenchment Creek Trailhead is mainly wooded and quiet — some would rather see a park with more amenities, if the county will pay for them. Credit: Maggie Lee

The trail now is mainly wooded and quiet — some would rather see a park with more amenities, if the county would actually install and fund those amenities. Credit: Maggie Lee

Joe Peery gives guided tours of the green space and is also a longtime advocate for turning the adjacent old Atlanta Prison Farm into a park. Peery pointed on the map to the rectangle that the county would trade away.

“You go and hike this land with us and hike this land around it, it’s a beautiful park, it’s beautiful woods,” Peery said.

Then he pointed further north, to the land the county would get in exchange.

“Everybody knows what’s up here: it’s just a giant field that was mowed for a development and then it bottomed out,” Peery said. The other side of Bouldercrest has got impassible swampy areas, he said.

A handful of people spoke up for the deal, most associated with business organizations.

Beverly Dabney is on the board of the Metro South Community Improvement District Board and has lived and worked in the community some 40 years.

“We in south DeKalb have worked long and tirelessly for economic development — this is an opportunity that doesn’t exist in many places,” Dabney said.

She also said she’s felt unsafe in the park as it is — and this is a chance to design something for the future that people from throughout the region would want to come visit.

Blackhall Studios Chairman and CEO Ryan Millsap said in an interview that he supports the swap — though he’s quick to say he didn’t come up with it.

Millsap said he thinks the professionals who the county hired to study the deal have offered wise counsel — and that the swap would result in better traffic flow and better park land in the park system.

“Nobody’s trying to do anything that’s bad to anyone else,” Millsap said.

But land swap or no, he does intend to expand his studio.

“I didn’t buy the land that I own to not build on it,” he said.

A silt fence keeps some of the dirt out of Intrenchment Creek. But the fight against pollution is ongoing in south DeKalb's waterways. Credit: Jacqueline Echols

A silt fence keeps some of the dirt out of a portion of Intrenchment Creek. But the fight against pollution is ongoing in south DeKalb’s waterways. Credit: Jacqueline Echols

But there are more parties to this. DeKalb County has this green space in part because of philanthropists — who stepped up on the condition that it has to remain public space.

The Trust for Public Land acquired the land with the support of the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation nearly 20 years ago.

The green space covenant could be relaxed. But as for right now, TPL is listening to the conversation with an ear toward the needs and wants of the community.

“There needs to be a robust public conversation about the best use of the public land,” said TPL’s state director for Georgia and Alabama, George Dusenbury. “And so far as there is a net increase in public lands, and the net increase reflects an increase in public value, then we are comfortable with that conversation happening.”

And that conversation is what’s happening now: county staff are set to take the public comment into account and submit a draft report to county CEO Michael Thurmond. He may ask for more information, or he may pass the report to the county commission, which could authorize negotiations for the swap, or not.

Proposed land swap: Three parcels of land owned by Blackhall Studios (in orange) for part of DeKalb County’s green space near Intrenchment Creek. Gresham Park is shown on this map for context, but it is not part of the swap.

Documents:

05-20-19 Intrenchment Creek Land Exchange Presentation by DeKalb County

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008.

9 replies
  1. Avatar
    Jacqueline Echols says:

    Is this a new TPL rule for swapping public park land for development? . . . ."net increase in public lands and the net increase reflects an increase in public value . . ."? If so, many important unanswered questions come to mind, here are two to start the conversation. Does this rule apply to all parks and park land or just Intrenchment Creek Park? Who gets to determine the public value of our public land?Report

    Reply
  2. Avatar
    Joe Peery says:

    Why do the DeKalb Commissioners want to agree to a swap plan that doesn't even work? The plan they are proposing has several key faults: 20 acres of the land that Blackhall is offering is in floodplain and would be un-useable for trails (and cannot be built on by Blackhall- surprise!). The largest parcel they are offering up for our beautiful forest and excellent RC airfield has been previously bulldozed for a failed development. That's where they say the RC airfield and new PATH are going- the problem is that those two things cannot legally exist side by side. Yet, our County Commissioners are still going full steam ahead with a plan that cannot work. Who will pick up the tab for this failure once Blackhall's bulldozers plow down and pave over 45 acres of our existing forest? Certainly not DeKalb, who can't even regularly empty a few trash cans in our current Intrenchment Creek park. How well do you think they will maintain a "new" park? Come out to our picnic on June 15 at Intrenchment Creek Trailhead and see for yourself what is at stake. And talk to some folks who know the value of a real park!Report

    Reply
  3. Avatar
    Jordan Ososki says:

    This whole proposal is highly questionable at very best. The reality is that no one at Blackhall Studios or DeKalb County initiated this public conversation – that was left to us, the concerned citizens. While we're grateful for some semblance of transparency, we had to speak loudly just to get it. That's your first clue it wasn't really ever about benefiting the public.

    The value of the properties isn't anywhere close to comparable. It's no contest. An established ecosystem is of much greater ecological and recreational value than a clear-cut, degraded, littered land.

    Yet, that isn't the absolute worst part. It's the awful, horrible precedent it would set: Any DeKalb public greenspace would be available to the highest bidder! Bear in mind that this is *publicly owned* property that was *supposed* to be protected by a Land Trust. Nothing is sacred and laws don't matter when there's money to be made, apparently.

    In no way is this proposal good for DeKalb or Atlanta residents. It's not a deal – it's a scam.

    Will your local park be next to get destroyed? Don't let it happen. Write to your county commissioners and tell them: #StopTheSwap #ProtectOurParkReport

    Reply
  4. Avatar
    Peter Peteet says:

    I think the decision to consider only trees over 30"DBH sums up the "impartiality"of this assessment.Less than 20 trees in a healthy 40+ acre forest can thus be lumped into "pine canopy".The "viewing platforms"along Entrenchment Creek ,decorated with the output of combined sewage after the first hard rain,will be useless .
    What the county has is forested high ground,to pretend that flood plain which gets covered in partially treated sewage every large rain event is of equal value is not truthful.
    Do you have a park near your house,would you like a swap of this sort to happen there?Report

    Reply
  5. Avatar
    Joel Finegold says:

    Some more old school math
    You'd think that with all the STEM tools it had available to look at the microscopic life in a Intrenchment Creek Park, the neutral third party would have checked out whether a Blackhall had the economic mojo to carry out its economic stewardship. Did the CEO s staff have the foresight to require the third party to get certified income data from a Blackhall or even research the county title info at the county court house to see what Blackhall land was mortgaged. No. They forgot about that.
    With all the STEM this and the STEM that that the county staff and this third party have been trying to link up with this swap, I wonder if they would notice the flood water in their shoes one day when they inspected the county's newly acquired land in the wake of having given away 50 or so forested acres in return so it could become a concrete slab. With all the talk of the projected economic development that this swap would create, I wonder whether those who are promoting it could tell the difference between cash and mud. You have to hand it to those Blackhall guys: At least they know which way the water flowsReport

    Reply
  6. Avatar
    Joe says:

    How do we find out more information about public meetings that will supposedly inform this decision? I want to participate and advocate for the preservation of the existing trail that I use often.Report

    Reply
  7. Avatar
    Margaret S Brady says:

    Save our public forest from turning into concrete jungle. The idea of giving our parkland up for development in exchange for largely clear cut land is unthinkable and the precedent is dangerous. Blackhall Studio can expand on private land.

    Protect YOUR park.

    Sign the petition to #STOPTHESWAP today.
    http://chng.it/pTSrVRYBY2Report

    Reply

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