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Battle over access
Lively crowd split on issue
Bethel Park 10 4 es
A sign noting the YMCA’s work is under construction. - photo by Emily Saunders

Fred Baumann enjoys walking his dog at Bethel Park.

He doesn’t want people to look back years from now and wonder why Forsyth County didn’t preserve access to the beautiful site on Lake Lanier.

An advocate for greenspace, Baumann said the county should acquire the park in northeastern Forsyth or negotiate with the YMCA of Metropolitan Atlanta, which wants to lease the site, for as much public access as possible.

Baumann was one of the few in an emotional crowd of 150 people at Monday night’s town hall meeting who didn’t pick sides in the divisive issue.

Baumann favors at least some public access to the park, while others seek total public access and another group wants to abandon the years-long legal battle over the site.

County Commissioner Patrick Bell, who organized the session, felt the large turnout could help shape the county’s next move.

“I hope that the commission will see that there’s passion on both sides — and valid passion,” Bell said after the meeting.

U.S. District Judge Richard W. Story recently denied the county’s request to stop the YMCA from developing a youth camp on two of the park’s three peninsulas.

Bell, whose district includes the park, said the commission has three options: appeal Story’s decision; don’t appeal and continue with its lawsuit; or drop both fights and negotiate with the YMCA.

“We’re on the losing side right now, but we have not lost,” said Bell, who wants to stop spending money on the legal fight and negotiate with the YMCA before bargaining power is lost.

Commissioners are divided on the issue, Bell said, but they must make a decision before the Jan. 23 deadline to appeal.

The YMCA has worked since 2003 to lease the site from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The corps expected to do so in 2006. But in response to residents’ complaints, the county also sought to lease the property and submitted its plans in 2007.

The corps granted a lease to the YMCA instead of the county last year, citing the law of preference given to whichever better serves the public interest.

The county has argued that the local government should have been given the right to first refusal.

Monday night, Jeff Anderson spoke on behalf of those who believe the YMCA should be welcomed.

A member of the YMCA, Anderson said the camp would be there for county children who are currently “outsourced” to far away resident camps.

He saw the legal fight as a losing proposition.

“Legal costs are a waste of Forsyth County resources,” he said, adding that Story’s ruling is “pretty clear and pretty strong.”

He asked those fighting the decision to use their own money to pay for it. A vocal contingent in the crowd assured him they would.

The Friends of Bethel Park group wants to keep the site public.

Michael Durkin, founder, said Monday that he wants the county to acquire “as much green space as possible.”

“I think it’s a pretty good investment considering we have the opportunity to acquire 62 acres of lakefront property,” said Durkin, who lives near the park.

He asked others how they would feel if the county wouldn’t stand up for their rights.

The family of fellow Friends member Harry Foster has lived on nearby Swiss Air Road since the 1960s. An attorney, Foster felt the county’s recent legal setback could be overturned in Appeals Court.

“We all get things wrong from time to time,” he said of the judge, “and this is one.”

Other attendees worried about how taxpayer money was being spent.

According to Bell, more than $50,000 has gone toward the legal costs of Bethel Park so far. An appeal could cost another $10,000 to $15,000.

To Kim Pruitt, the appeal would be worth it. She said many county parks are federally owned and she doesn’t want a precedent for leasing them to outside groups.

“We are going to have to fight it now or we are going to have to fight it later, and we’re already halfway there,” she said.

In addition to the mounting legal fees, many expressed concerns about the costs of the county acquiring and operating the park.

The county’s plan for Bethel calls for a camping and RV park, which resident William Byers compared to Shady Grove Park, also on the lake.

Byers said county figures show that Shady Grove loses about $384,000 each year.

“The YMCA may not be a big moneymaker for the county,” he said. “But if the county owns [Bethel Park], it’s going to be a big money loser.”

Those who live near the park cited concerns about safety and increased traffic through the area.

Michael McMahon worries that the YMCA may not be able to handle the large number of children who could attend the summer camp.

Lawyer and resident Rusty Hodges is “totally torn” on the issue.

But since the county is currently losing its legal battle, he said, “now would be the time to compromise [with the YMCA].”

Commissioner Jim Harrell and Chairman Charles Laughinghouse attended the meeting, but said they were there only to listen.