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Hollywood or public woods? Southwest DeKalb has a decision to make.



By Maggie Lee

A film and television studio CEO promises to bring some extra sparkle to a sleepy section of the Atlanta subway. But a group of critics say Southwest DeKalbs, a growing part of Hollywood, would cost the neighborhood its woods.

DeKalb County has a leading role as it must decide whether it wants to pursue a land swap. The county would give up about 40 acres of mostly forested parkland along the South River Trail. The land would go to Blackhall Studios, where it could expand from its neighboring locations.

In return, Blackhall would give the county 53 acres which are also in the region, where the counties are talking about giving park patrons a new park with more amenities.

Jacqueline Echols, South River Watershed Alliance Board Chair, speaks at the online meeting during public comment, calling DeKalb for making a pro-exchange presentation.  Nothing is this perfect, there is no balance here, there is no serious public comment.

Jacqueline Echols, South River Watershed Alliance board chair and leader of the Stop the Swap campaign, speaks at the online meeting during the public comment. She called DeKalb for doing a pro-swap presentation. Nothing is perfect, there is no balance here, there is no serious public comment. (Credit: Maggie Lee)

But local tree enthusiasts say the land the public would get in exchange is shabby, and much of it is already scalped.

The last act of a saga that has been going on for more than a year was played out last week.

Scene I, Thursday night, a public meeting online. People from the county government painted a picture of a lovely new park along Bouldercrest Road just below McNair High School.

Land on both sides of Bouldercrest now belongs to Blackhall, but the county would get the land by swapping neighboring woodlands and trails to the south.

The new park would have lighted trails, a playground, and a huge playground. It would also have a cost, although no one mentioned who would spend which dollars.

The president and CEO of the studio, Ryan Millsap, has long sought the profession. He told audiences online that his plans to expand the studio on what is now woodland would triple the number of people employed on productions at Blackhall to around 3,000.

In a conversation with SaportaReport the day before the meeting, Millsap said his studio was so busy he was turning away from business.

We badly need our expansion, and frankly, I have delayed the expansion to help the county because the county thinks that is the best way to go, Millsap said. I delayed the expansion for a year.

Millsap said he believed the protests were misguided and that he was not trying to break into the system.

Ryan Millsap, CEO of Blackhall Studios, says his stages are so busy he turns down business. (File photo by Maria Saporta)

More money will come back to the community through development, he said. The tax base increases with all development. There is smart planning going on.

Stage II opens with a chorus of around 70 critics, gathered at the South River Trails Intrenchment Creek trailhead, and following the meeting via a computer screen and speaker installed under a gazebo. They sing Stop the swap, save our park.

Damon Young arrived from his house on the street dressed in a yellow and black striped shirt and received compliments on the black antenna of the pipe cleaner on his head which made it a bit of a bee costume. Perhaps not surprisingly, he spoke about the health benefits of clean air from living so close to nature.

We don’t want our kids to have health issues, said Young, with a youngster addicted to his height.

The tall trees and their roots help filter stormwater before it can discharge pollutants and dirt into the South River. Such a relatively large and untouched forest is a place where people can immerse themselves in nature near their homes, he said.

It hurts to think about what they want to trade him for, Young said.

This chorus of critics does not trust either side, pointing out that DeKalb County has a dismal record of environmental stewardship on the nearby South River, and saying they have yet to see any binding written agreement on community benefits that Blackhall would sign.

And off camera are the stars of the prequel: The Trust for Public Land and the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation. TPL acquired the land with the support of the Blank Foundation some twenty years ago and made a commitment: it must remain a green space.

Part of the reasons why these nonprofits have targeted the plots they have created are the so-called environmental services lands: the soil and trees help keep the air clean and above all filter the water before it leaves. ‘it does not reach the South River.

The alliance could be relaxed, but TPL did not do for or against the proposed exchange: they established certain conditions it would take to gain their support, one of which is the county’s engagement with the public.

If this was a move to Hollywood, the green space people loved at the Trailhead Reunion would remain intact. The county is reportedly building additions there with all the playgrounds and lights that some residents say they want. And Blackhall would miraculously find another leadership to build and his productions would employ 2,000 locals in new, good union jobs.

But, alas, these Hollywood endings are not real.

The factors here will be more prosaic: pressure, compromises, money, promises, contracts and perhaps the courts.

As of the end of 2018, the county has been evaluating the proposal and at some point staff recommendations are to be made to county CEO Michael Thurmond and the county commission.

Proposed land swap, all boundaries are approximate: Three plots of land owned by Blackhall Studios (in orange) for part of the DeKalb Countys green space near Intrenchment Creek. Gresham Park is shown on this map for context, but it is not part of the exchange.

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