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Model aviators given two years to find new home

POSTED: November 19, 2013 12:30 a.m.
Alyssa LaRenzie/

Mike Pascoe of the Georgia Model Aviators refuels his plane during a recent club event at Eagle’s Beak Park. The group may need to find a new home if the county terminates its lease at the end of 2015.

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After he looked up toward the clear, sunny sky, Rex Briant grabbed the microphone in the Georgia Model Aviators clubhouse.

He had seen just one plane swooping through the blue air, and that wasn’t enough for War Bird Weekend, an annual benefit gathering that features replica models of vintage war planes.

Briant encouraged club members and visitors from across the nation to report to the flying stations and launch their planes. Within minutes, half a dozen models buzzed the airspace above Eagle’s Beak Park.

That sight, which has played out over weekends for about a decade, likely will come to an end in about two years as the result of looming county decision.

The club has been put on notice by Forsyth that its lease at the park off Old Federal Road will be terminated at the end of 2015, amid the threat of a lawsuit by a neighboring property owner.

In August, members of the Garmon Family Trust sent a letter contending that the planes not only constitute a nuisance, but also that the land had been bought as green space, to which the remote control airfield didn’t conform.

The family owns several adjacent large tracts of land, which are undeveloped, according to tax records.

The Sept. 26 letter to the club informed the group of the county’s intent to end the agreement two years before the lease’s final termination in 2017.

On Tuesday, commissioners voted 4-1, with Todd Levent opposed, to approve a settlement with the Garmon family that memorializes the lease termination and prevents future boards from reversing course.

The agreement will become official if it receives final approval at the commission’s regular meeting this week.

Commissioner Cindy Jones Mills, who represents the county’s northern district, saw two reasons to agree with the Garmons.

Mills said the county’s lease with the Georgia Model Aviators states that causing a nuisance gives reason to terminate the contract. Also, the county bought the 225 acres with green space funding from the 2008 voter-approved $100 million bond referendum.

The county would need to repay the green space account with funds for active park land, she said, since the hobby isn’t a qualifying passive recreational use as determined by the park planning consultant and legal review.

The model aviators likely will go the way of a proposed archery field and BMX course at the same site, both of which were pulled from the site plan in August because they weren’t considered passive uses acceptable for green space land.

 

‘What changed?’

 

The club began renting space at the northwestern Forsyth property about 10 years ago, long before it was owned by the county.

Since then, they’ve invested about $200,000 in infrastructure at the site, which features an 860-foot runway, member Rex Briant said.

After the county bought the property in 2009, he said the club eventually signed a lease and continued to pay its annual $12,000 rent — but to a new landlord.

The club received a new rental agreement with a 2017 end, but the county had the ability to terminate it in two-year increments.

When the airfield found its way onto the Eagles Beak master plan, Briant said the aviators felt more confident the club would be able to stay.

In the last few months, however, they’ve been left wondering what’s changed.

“You bought the property knowing we were here,” he said. “You built two master plans with us as the hub … You engaged in a lease with us. What changed? We’re a deer in the headlights.”

One of the obvious differences they’ve seen is the changing of the district’s representative. Mills was elected to the post in January, replacing former Commissioner Patrick Bell.

It seems Mills has had a different vision for the park from the start — one of “total peace and quiet,” Briant said.

He added that Bell seemed thankful the county made money each year on a flood plain, unusable for most purposes.

“It was good for the county,” Mills said, “until you’re master planning and you’re putting things in writing that this is the future of the park. And then you’re realizing, uh oh, that’s nonconforming, we’ve got to pay it back. If we had done it at the first of the bond, when there was money — but now we’re at the end of the bond, so there’s not.”

The Garmon family has always been concerned about the use of the site, both Briant and Mills acknowledged, raising complaints of noise and planes flying over and crashing on their property.

The club undertook independent studies, which Briant said dispute and disprove the claims. He wasn’t sure what triggered the ante litem notice to the county after all this time.

The notice came two days after the commission’s decision to remove archery and BMX from the plans. Yet Mills said she had been hearing those concerns since she took office in January as the county prepared to finalize the construction documents for the park.

“We definitely did not want to get in a lawsuit,” she said, “especially when in that memorandum of understanding [between the county and the club], there’s some verbiage in there about it being a nuisance to adjoining property owners.”

 

Legal liftoff

 

District commissioners typically take the lead on planning for parks within their boundaries, and other members often support those decisions.

When the settlement agreement came up at Tuesday’s work session, however, one commissioner had some differing opinions on how the county should handle the situation.

County Attorney Ken Jarrard briefed the governing body on the terms of the agreement, which had been previously discussed in a closed session as a way to resolve the threat of litigation.

In response to  a question from Levent, Jarrard confirmed that the document “expressly denies this is a nuisance” since no county studies had been done on noise levels or crash landings onto the neighboring properties.

Mills countered that she had seen video evidence of the Garmons claims.

“Is it worth going to court and fighting and paying all these legal fees to be determined that it’s not a conforming use? It is a nuisance, and it’s in the contract,” she said.

Levent also made the point that county has previously bought back land purchased with green space money for active use. He felt the county hadn’t bought it correctly, knowing the aviators were there.

Other commissioners pointed out that the agreement with the club has always had a termination date.

Whether Bell had the plan to convert the land to active use by moving county funds was unclear, but Mills emphasized that’s no longer an option.

The county is at the end of the bond program, and the money simply isn’t there to buy back the 66 acres of airfield — an estimated $1.7 million transfer — from earmarked active use funds.

The total budget for the park’s first phase is $1 million, which will include a canoe launch on the Etowah River, parking and restroom facilities.

 

Park is ‘perfect’

 

The aviators club has begun looking for a new home in addition to trying to persuade the county to reverse course.

There’s no denying that Eagle’s Beak is “perfect,” Briant said.

The aviators need about 60 to 100 acres of flat land and the ability for its 300 members and event visitors to access the property, he said.

Briant said finding a new site will be difficult, as most landowners wouldn’t be comfortable with that number of people on their property.

Group members have approached the chamber of commerce in neighboring Cherokee County about finding space, he said. They highlighted efforts to reinvest in the community and their annual estimated economic impact of $800,000.

A recent university event brought students from as far as India, Uruguay and Brazil to compete in Forsyth, Briant said, and War Bird Weekend drew hobbyists from 11 states.

The organization holds several benefits and community events each year and joins with schools and colleges for tournaments.

The aviators will also have to recreate more than 10 years of investment.

“For us to relocate is going to cost us a tremendous amount of money,” he said.

The club has drawn members and businesses who wanted to be near to their favorite hobby.

Two companies related to model airplanes have opened in Forsyth since the club settled at the field, Briant said. One member even chose to move himself and his business to the county so he could fly more frequently.

Mike Pascoe, who lives just up the road from Eagle’s Beak, said he still hopes the club can reach an “amicable resolution” with the neighbor and county so it can stay.

The organization has many great qualities for the property, spending its own funds on maintenance and keeping up the site, Pascoe said.

He considers the use low impact, and the club provides a community benefit by teaching kids how to fly.

Mills said she’d like to help the group find a new place for their hobby, preferably in the county, but mostly whatever will work for them.

“I hate it for the people. They love it. They really enjoy it,” she said. “But I hope in giving them two years that they’ll be able to find something.”

 

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