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Bethel battle bumped back
Park lease hearing delayed until '09
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Forsyth County News

Whatever happens next in the battle over Bethel Park won't happen until next year.

A hearing scheduled for Thursday on Forsyth County's request to stop the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from leasing the 62-acre park to the YMCA of Metropolitan Atlanta has been postponed until the new year.

County government attorney Ken Jarrard said the purpose of the hearing was to determine whether the corps could go through with its lease plans despite the pending litigation.

"The practical effect would have been to have precluded the Y and the corps from signing the ground lease," Jarrard said. "If the county would have prevailed, that's what we would have won. If the corps had prevailed, they would have gotten to go ahead and ink the lease."

The corps was expected to sign the lease last week for the park in northeastern Forsyth. Jarrard said the hearing would likely not happen until the end of January at the earliest.

"Everybody is standing down until we have the hearing in January," he said.

Lisa Coghlan, spokeswoman for the corps' district office in Mobile, Ala., confirmed that the corps has delayed plans to sign the lease with the YMCA until the hearing.

The county commission filed a request for declaratory and injunctive relief in U.S. District Court in Gainesville after the corps decided in June to turn over management of the park to the YMCA.

The organization's $20 million plan for a private camp calls for cabins, a marina, sports fields, dining hall, amphitheater, chapel and outdoor pool.

The commission argued that the corps' decision to lease the park to the YMCA violates federal law, including the National Environmental Policy Act.

The park is in outgoing County Commissioner David Richard's district.

"The YMCA is desperate to get into the legal side of it as an interested party," Richard said. "But of course they can't get into the legal side of it as an interested party ... until they sign a lease they can't be one.

"So one begats the other in this case. Until the corps moves forward and signs the lease, the Y can't do anything."
Richard said he thinks the corps would not want to have a court rule on who gets the park, because it would set a precedent.

"The worst thing for any government institution is to have the court tell them what they must do and the corps is no different," Richard said.

"If we win on the preference argument, then that means every time they want to lease out any one of their parks they have to specifically go to the local government entity and offer it to them first and get a specific answer in writing. That's not in their best interest even though it's in the local entity's best interest."

The YMCA has worked since 2003 to seal the deal for the park and the corps and was expected to enter an agreement with the organization in 2006.

But the county also sought to lease the park and submitted plans to the corps in 2007. The plans included running the park as a 75-site campground with a day-use area open to the general public.

County officials argued that, based on the corps' own regulations, the county should have been given the right of first refusal before the contract was offered to the YMCA.