DeKalb County is continuing efforts to perform a dubiously legal park land swap deal with Blackhall Studios in Southwest DeKalb. A public forum was held yesterday to further the discussion and weigh input from the community. A number of neighborhood and community members were in attendance, some in favor, but many opposed. Below is a letter to DeKalb County Commissioners outlining key points of opposition to the land swap:
Note: This letter does not necessarily reflect the opinion of all Eastland Heights neighborhood members, but rather that of the webmaster of eastlandheights.org
Hello Commissioners Gannon and Johnson,
I hope this email finds you well. First, let me say thank you for holding the public forum meeting via Zoom yesterday. We need more open and honest discussion from yourselves, experts in the field, and the larger community around this land swap proposal so we can ensure the best possible outcome for our community, our economy, and our environment. I’d like to especially thank Mr. Fox for reaching out to notify me of the public forum, as I would have been unaware otherwise.
I wanted to follow up on a few points from yesterday’s discussion after I had the opportunity to voice my opposition to the proposed land swap, as putting virtual “pen to paper” affords the opportunity to be more poignant and thoughtful than trying to articulate everything in under two minutes via video conference.
A few points and concerns to recap after the forum:
- Data – While a powerpoint presentation helps to provide a high-level overview of the proposal and data, it lacks the necessary breadth and depth to allow for proper analysis. Will the various reports and data be available for review by the public? Specifically, I am interested in seeing Andrew Baker’s economic analysis and figures, particularly his NPV calculations for the proposed gains for the county, weighing tax revenues as well as non-pecuniary benefits. Additionally I and the larger community would be interested in reviewing the tree analysis and study performed by Davis Trees.
- Jobs – It was raised by Mr. Milsap and Mr. Baker that a potential for an additional 3000 jobs will be afforded to the community by this land swap agreement and subsequent construction of additional studio space. My concern, as noted during the forum, is that these 3000 jobs are unlikely to be afforded to our community directly, but rather to already trained industry specialists outside of the Atlanta area. While their moving to the County will certainly provide some economic gain (tax revenues, additional economic actors, etc), I believe it is important to make that distinction as I believe a number of residents may have false or inflated hopes that the 3000 proposed new jobs will all be afforded to the local community. While there is some opportunity to provide additional unskilled jobs to local residents, the lion’s share of positions will likely be trained specialists (e.g. gaffers, grips, cameramen, set designers, etc) sourced from outside our community.
- Environmental impact – While it’s heartening to hear that an analysis has been conducted on the watershed, ecological and wildlife habitat impacts, there is no doubt that this land swap will result in a net reduction of old-growth tree canopy space. One item not noted in the presentation is a false assumption that if the land swap is not performed, Blackhall will build their studios on the existing plots of land they own (and thus reduce the forest canopy in those areas). To the contrary, I believe it more likely for Blackhall to either leave the land undeveloped or sell the land to another private entity, which will likely be unable to develop improvements on the land due to proximity to wetlands and general lack of suitability due to grading, etc. To that end, based on my observation, much of the land to be “swapped” to the county is of lesser value than the current land, due to usability (e.g. wetlands, grading, soil composition, etc)
- Existing Park Utility – One point made by a few speakers in favor of the land swap was that the existing park offers less utility to the public than the proposed new park and I believe that this point is a strawman argument. One community member raised that the park today only affords benefits to model airplane enthusiasts, which is patently incorrect. The park in its current form, with its trails, natural habitat, and limited land improvements affords the community a natural forest “haven” otherwise unavailable in the County or nearby. Even with its proximity to Constitution Lakes just to the South, Entrenchment Creek Park offers a significantly different ecosystem, flora, and fauna that would be lost in the event that the land swap is approved and implemented. Empty green space, built playgrounds and amphitheaters/etc (like Piedmont park) affords a very different use than that of trails through forest and wetlands and that use is not necessarily a net improvement. I also believe it to be naive that the new park will attract events such as concerts, plays, or festivals to the same extent that Piedmont Park does today. The proposed new park simply does not have the population density nor proximity as Piedmont Park. As a frequent user of the trails, both for mountain biking and hiking, that utility would be entirely lost, not to mention the natural benefits of a forest vs a mowed field in terms of watershed and erosion management, wildlife habitat, and air quality improvements.
- Safety – One point made by another speaker citing bullet holes in a path sign was that a new park will afford greater safety than the current park. As noted in my opposition during the forum, it is a false assumption that a new park will afford more safety or security than the existing one – simply adding lights and call boxes will not aid in crime prevention and we can easily address this concern with greater policing by DPD or other law enforcement with the current park.
- Setting a Precedent – Another opposition speaker raised the concern that this land swap has larger implications beyond Entrenchment creek, but rather sets a precedent for the county and the state of swapping public land to private entities. I believe this point was underplayed in the presentation as it could have far-reaching impacts and unintended consequences for other public lands, parks, and spaces. I don’t wish to evoke the “slippery slope” argument, but we need to weigh the long-term impacts this has to County and State law. In future forums, I would like to see a legal analysis of the proposed land swap to ensure it conforms to all existing laws, deeds, and contracts.
- Accountability – I do not wish to point fingers or make biting accusations, however another opposition speaker did raise the valid point that DeKalb county has a checkered history at best in terms of accountability, promises, and following-through on proposed outcomes. A specific example is the tract of land that Blackhall owns on the West side of Bouldercrest, just North of the current Entrenchment Creek park today. My understanding is the sale of that land to a private developer in the first place has dubious legitimacy, as this land was deeded to the county by the Arthur Blank foundation on the condition that it remain for public use. How can we ensure the promised outcomes (park space, water runoff mitigation, preservation of tree canopy, etc) are actually achieved? Who will be held accountable once the land swap is implemented and what legal options do we (the community) have in the event that these outcomes are not met?
I believe we need additional forums for public debate and discussion around this issue. The burden of proof falls on those in favor of the land swap rather than those opposing it, and to date on measure, I do not believe that burden has been met.
Thank you for taking the time to review my email. I am looking forward to continued thoughtful discussion on the topic and truly wish the best for our community, our County, and our environment.