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County dealt legal setback
Judge sides with YMCA at Bethel
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Forsyth County News

A federal judge has denied Forsyth County’s request to stop development at Bethel Park.

The local government renewed its motion for preliminary injunction in November after the YMCA of Metropolitan Atlanta began putting up a sign at the 62-acre lakeside site in northeastern Forsyth.

County Attorney Ken Jarrard said U.S. District Judge Richard W. Story's Dec. 23 ruling was disappointing.

“This is a process that will take place over many months,” Jarrard said. “It’s just one step.”

Jarrard said the county commission is contemplating whether to move forward with the case.

The park is in Commissioner Patrick Bell’s district, which covers most of north Forsyth. Bell questioned whether the county should pursue the matter in light of its ongoing budget woes.

“When we’re laying people off and cutting salaries and cutting contributions to 401Ks and cutting the sheriff’s office budget and all these kinds of things, you’ve got to reprioritize,” he said.

Bell said the commission could direct Jarrard to appeal the ruling, continue with the case or step back and try to mediate with the YMCA.

“We’ve not made any decisions,” he said.

Bell said the issue will be the sole topic of a town hall meeting scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Jan. 11 at the county administration building.

He also noted that winning the case would only prevent the YMCA from making an $18 million investment in the community.

“Even if we pursued this to the U.S. Supreme Court, even if we were to win, that still does not give Forsyth County the outgrant to the park,” he said. “It just means the Y can’t go there.”

Dan Pile, the YMCA's senior vice president, said the ruling wasn’t a surprise.

“We would never have pursued to this level with this much vigor had we not always known we were on the side of right,” he said.

“Why would we waste nonprofit, charitable dollars if we weren’t overly confident of being right on the law.”

Pile said Story’s ruling indicates it is unlikely the county would win a lawsuit.

“With that in mind, we plan to continue our work,” he said.

The YMCA’s work includes plans for a summer camp and parking lot on two of the park’s three peninsulas by Lake Lanier.

Though the third peninsula was offered to the county, Bell said residents weren’t interested.

The camp, according to court documents, will serve inner city youth and “other camping youths.”

Plans also include a family retreat center. Facilities would be available for families and community meetings throughout the year.

Court documents show that on Sept. 22 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers executed a lease with the YMCA for the northeastern Forsyth park.

The county, however, wasn’t notified of the contract until Sept. 23.

The YMCA has worked to develop the park since 2003.

The corps expected to lease the site to the nonprofit in 2006. But in response to residents' complaints, the county also sought to lease the property and submitted its plans in 2007.

The county filed its original injunction against the corps in June 2008, shortly after the corps announced plans to lease the site to the YMCA.

The request was ultimately dismissed because of negotiations between the county and the corps.

On Dec. 11, Story granted the YMCA’s request to join the corps’ defense in the case.

The county has maintained that, according to the Flood Control Act of 1944, the corps is required to give the local government the right to first refusal to the site before leasing it to another entity.

The county has also argued that the corps violated its own policies and regulations regarding public access to areas by leasing the park to the

YMCA and failed to prepare a proper environmental impact statement before inking a contract.

In his order, Story noted that the corps evaluated proposals from the county and YMCA on seven criteria and factored preferential treatment into its analysis.

“It is within the Secretary of the Army’s discretion to determine which organization is most aligned with the needs of the community and public interest overall,” the order shows.

“In the corps’ analysis of the out grant of Bethel Park ... the corps found that despite the county’s advantage, YMCA’s use of the park better served the public interest.”

The document goes on to say that while the YMCA does plan to restrict general use of the park, the court "finds that such restrictions are reasonable and do not create exclusive private use of the land.”

As for the county’s environmental concerns, the document asserts that the corps found no significant impact in plans proposed by either the YMCA or the county.

“While the county contends that the corps did not take a ‘hard look’ at the environmental impact of the YMCA’s proposal prior to issuing the FONSI (finding of no significant impact), the court finds no evidence that the corps’ decision was uninformed or ignorant.”