Ruling may end battle of Bethel, Both parties look to future
Neither side was surprised by the U.S. Court of Appeals decision to deny of Forsyth County’s request to stop development of a lakeside park in northeastern Forsyth.
This week’s decision by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals upholds a federal judge’s December 2009 ruling that denied the county’s motion for preliminary injunction to halt plans for Bethel Park.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has leased the 62-acre site on Lake Lanier to the YMCA of Metropolitan Atlanta, which wants to develop a youth summer camp facility on the site.
“We were confident that our position would prevail,” said Myles Eastwood, an attorney representing YMCA.
“The YMCA is gratified that the Court of Appeals, like the District Court, agreed with our position and the position of the Corps of Engineers that the lease of Bethel Park to the YMCA was in the public interest.”
The proposal upset neighbors, who urged the Forsyth County commission to appeal U.S. District Judge Richard W. Story’s ruling that allowed the lease to move forward.
They and county officials have contended that Story incorrectly interpreted the corps’ statutes.
The Flood Control Act of 1944 gives local government the right to first refusal, which has sparked debate over whether the county received an adequate opportunity to acquire the park.
Beyond an opportunity, corps’ laws allow the land to be leased to whichever entity better serves the public interest.
The recent ruling may spell the end of the county’s involvement.
Commissioner Patrick Bell, whose district includes the park property, said it has “pretty well been laid in front of us that it’s a battle we’re not going to win.”
Bell said he was reluctant to even pursue the appeal, calling the previous commission’s decision a delay tactic and a waste of taxpayer money.
Given the most recent decision, he said, it’s in the best interest of county residents to throw in the towel.
“The way I see it, we’ve been told what’s going to happen and we need to just do the best we can for the taxpayers in the county, make the right decision,” he said. “It’s a hard decision but the right decision to move on.”
Commissioners were slated to discuss the issue during an executive decision Thursday.
The YMCA has worked since 2003 to develop the park, which court documents say will serve inner city youth and “other camping youths.”
The corps expected to lease the site to the nonprofit in 2006. But in response to residents’ concerns, the county also sought to lease the property and submitted a competing plan in 2007.
The move was supported by Friends of Bethel Park, which formed to preserve the park and keep it for public use.
Michael Durkin, group organizer, said he’s disappointed with the appeals decision, but hopes to move on and work closely with the YMCA to build a relationship.
“They’re going to be neighbors within our community,” he said. “Basically, it’s about preserving the lifestyle of the community and trying to keep it close to the natural state it’s in now.
“At this point going forward … we will be reaching out to the representatives of the Y and opening up that dialogue on how we can do this.”
The corps executed the lease with the YMCA in September 2009. Despite the lawsuit, the YMCA has been hard at work readying the site.
“In the past few months, we’ve been developing our master plan and are in the process of completing a land disturbance application that we’ll submit to the county in the next several weeks,” said Dan Pile, vice president of operations for the Metro Atlanta YMCA.
Youth programming could begin as early as this spring or summer, he said. However, the programs would use the existing setting.
The nonprofit has also been working on funding for construction of the facility, which could be at least two years away from breaking ground.
Programming would continue using Bethel Park’s natural surroundings until the project is completed, Pile said.
“We would aim for 2014,” he said, noting the summer programming would be the first using a new facility.
Bell said the YMCA may not be the best use of the property, but has merit.
“The county is not in the position [financially] to really do anything with park properties like that right now,” Bell said. “It’s a great thing for the kids of our community to be able to utilize.
“The YMCA and what they teach is tremendous — leadership and Christian values and social skills and all those great things. I don’t see how that can harm the community.”
Eastwood, the attorney, said he’s optimistic that the court decision will lead to a better future.
“The YMCA has always thought we had a good working relationship with the county,” he said. “It’s just unfortunate that the Bethel Park situation put us in opposition with each other.
“Now that the case is over, we hope we can proceed on and work together.”