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County close to deal for lake parks
Settlement stems from Bethel battle
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Forsyth County News

West Forsyth at North Forsyth

By: Jim Dean

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After years of litigation surrounding Bethel Park, Forsyth County is working to finalize a settlement that could give it the right to develop and operate six lakeside park properties.

County spokeswoman Jodi Gardner said the agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could take as long as six weeks to conclude, but "it is a settlement in principle."

The six sites on Lake Lanier cover 371 acres and include Athens and Six Mile Creek parks.

Four undeveloped areas -- Chestatee Bay, Rocky Point, Wildcat Creek and the fourth peninsula of Bethel Park -- are also part of the deal.

The fourth peninsula is the one that would not be developed by the YMCA of Metropolitan Atlanta, which plans a youth summer camp facility at Bethel.

In February, the U.S. Court of Appeals denied the county's request to stop the development of the 62-acre Bethel site.

The decision by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a federal judge's December 2009 ruling that denied the county's motion for preliminary injunction to halt plans.

County Commission Chairman Brian Tam said the recent court ruling "made it pretty clear that we weren't going to win the case on the topic of preference."

The county had argued that the federal judge incorrectly interpreted the corps' statutes.

The Flood Control Act of 1944 gives local government the right to first refusal, which has sparked debate over whether the county received an adequate opportunity to acquire the park.

Beyond an opportunity, corps' laws allow the land to be leased to the entity that better serves the public interest.

Tam said the settlement between the county and corps is a "solution that I think is our best option."

"This is an example of two governments working together to try to find some common ground," he said.

The possibility of acquiring parks has been floated for years between the two sides, Tam said.

Under this agreement, the county will have five years to develop an acceptable master plan for the properties.

If the corps approves it, the county could then enter into long-term leases of the properties.

Similar to the county's current arrangement with the corps at Shady Grove Campground and Charleston and Young Deer parks, the county would pay $1 per year, Tam said.

"Over time, it gives us the possibility of having more property for the citizens to use along Lake Lanier," he said.

The YMCA has worked since 2003 to develop a facility at Bethel that court documents say will serve inner city youth and "other camping youths."

The corps expected to lease the site to the nonprofit in 2006. But in response to residents' concerns, the county also sought to lease the property and submitted a competing plan in 2007.

The move was supported by Friends of Bethel Park, which formed to preserve the park and keep it for public use.

A representative of the organization could not be reached for comment Friday.

Commissioner Patrick Bell said the county will continue to work on developing a relationship with the YMCA.

While Bethel is in his district, Bell said the park issue has been countywide "because the taxpayers were funding a fight for very few people."

The resolution of the matter, he said, will also bring a potential benefit to all county residents.

"As much as the previous board had wanted Bethel Park," Bell said, "I think the 371 acres spread along the coast of Lake Lanier is a tremendous asset to the county."