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Environmental groups sue DeKalb County, Blackhall Studios over land swap

DeKalb County

Environmental groups sue DeKalb County, Blackhall Studios over land swap

A parcel map detailing the landswap provided by BlackHall studios.

DeKalb County, GA — Environmental groups have filed a lawsuit to stop a land swap deal in South DeKalb County.

The closing of the deal was announced on Feb. 5.

Blackhall Studios is swapping 53 acres of its land on Constitution Road for 40 acres of Intrenchment Creek Park, which abuts Constitution Lakes. DeKalb County Commissioners approved the deal in October.

South River Watershed Alliance and the South River Forest Coalition are the lead plaintiffs, along with Margaret Brady, Allen Doyle, Joel Finegold, and Joseph Peery, members of both groups.

The plaintiffs are asking a judge to order that the transfer was outside the county’s legal authority and declare the transfer void.  The lawsuit argues the transfers could not have occurred without a public referendum. The plaintiffs also want a judge to order the county to hold and maintain Intrenchment Creek Park for the public’s use and benefit and issue injunctions prohibiting the land exchange and development of the park.

To read a copy of the complaint, click here.

A message to Blackhall Studios and DeKalb County seeking comment on the lawsuit was not immediately returned.

The land swap has been a contentious issue in DeKalb County.

In the early 2000s the Arthur M. Blank Foundation paid for the purchase of Intrenchment Creek Park and nearby Constitution Lakes. Former DeKalb County commissioner Kathie Gannon, who voted against the land-swap agreement, said DeKalb County never developed the land because of a lack of funds.

In January 2019, Blackhall Studios proposed spending $3.8 million to improve the land as part of the swap. That changed during the 20-month negotiation with DeKalb County, and caused distrust from stakeholders.

Shannon Lee, senior urban conservation manager for The Conservation Fund, and nearby resident of Intrenchment Creek Park, previously said, “The land swap is not only a bad legal precedent that will put parks across Metro Atlanta at risk, but it’s also a terrible deal for the environment. And now at the very last minute, Blackhall is pulling a bait and switch and this deal is going from bad to worse. Blackhall promised $3.8 million for park investments and community benefits. Now they only want to give $1.5 million in ‘in-kind’ services, meaning Blackhall does the work however they like and then they claim success. Residents have no input on the design and taxpayers will inevitably be on the hook for anything not covered, or more likely, the project will be left incomplete.”

County officials who backed the deal disagree.

“DeKalb County is grateful for the public-private agreement with The Trust for Public Land and The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation to exchange 40 acres in Intrenchment Creek Park for a reimagined 53 acres along Bouldercrest for better community use,” DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond said in the press release announcing the closing of the deal. “Residents in the area and all visitors to the park will now have a greenspace that better meets the recreational needs and addresses the environmental concerns and ideals of the community.”

Update: Following the publication of this story, Margaret Brady, one of the plaintiffs, released the following statement about her participation in the lawsuit: 

In 2018 the South River Forest Coalition organized an on-going public effort called Stop the Swap followed by hundreds of residents in SW DeKalb. At bare minimum trading public park land to a private developer should be a transparent public process, yet for over two years open records requests and questions at public meetings have gone wholly unanswered. Elected officials and other decision makers involved have consistently withheld access to information.

Neighborhoods and residents should not be pitted against each other in a false choice between A.) The protection of public land; and B.) Unsubstantiated economic development. Intrenchment Creek Park (ICP) is a public park that belongs to all residents of DeKalb County and this land swap sets a legal precedent that concerns everyone – because it threatens every park in the county. When developers realize they can trade their property for the more valuable public land up the street, it’s over.

Intrenchment Creek Park (ICP) was set aside as public greenspace in part to protect the South River watershed and downstream communities from development and further ecological degradation. Our public park is being traded away for land that is of lower ecological and lower real estate value.

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