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Meeting on plan for golf course Feb. 25
Issue continues to fracture board
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Forsyth County News

Even if Forsyth County officials could agree on whether to buy Lanier Golf Course, it's not clear where they would find the money to do so.

And the issue has become so divisive, county commissioners clashed Tuesday over where to hold a town hall meeting to discuss the topic.

As it stands, the meeting about the golf course on Buford Dam Road is set for 6:30 p.m. Feb. 25 at Mashburn Elementary School.

During Tuesday's work session, Commissioners Patrick Bell and Brian Tam suggested using the county administration building for the town hall session.

Their colleagues Jim Boff and Jim Harrell countered that the meeting should be held at the school, which like the course is in Boff’s district.

Tam and Bell said taxpayers countywide would be paying for the course, if the county were to acquire it, and the meeting should be held in a more centralized location.

Harrell and Boff argued that the residents of District 5 would be most affected by the decision.

Regardless, Harrell said further details of a proposal to buy the golf course with Affiniti Golf Partners in Alpharetta will be revealed at the meeting.

Early details of the plan, which surfaced last month, call for the county to pay about $9 million and the company about $3 million to buy the 172-acre site from owners Jack Manton and George Bagley Jr. Affiniti would then lease the property from the county for about 99 years and operate it as a golf course.

“We’re not looking to buy a golf course, we’re looking to save 172 acres of property,” said Harrell, who with Boff has spearheaded the negotiations with Affiniti.

By buying the course and making the deal, Harrell said, the county would have no responsibility for maintenance, save jobs and generate sales tax revenue.

“We get money back from a percentage of the gross every year,” he said. “There’s a lot of stuff that isn’t known, that’s what the town hall meeting’s for.”

What became known Tuesday is that the county likely will not have enough money to buy the site with the voter-approved 2008 bond referendum for parks, recreation and greenspace.

Bell suggested during the work session that the proposal be put before voters, letting them decide want the county should do.

Boff and Harrell disagreed, with the latter saying Bell could float his suggestion at the town hall meeting.

Boff maintained that his district, which includes Cumming and much of eastern Forsyth, has not received any green space as part of the bond referendum.

However, the county in December spent $250,000 to acquire 31 acres of green space next to Windermere Park, which is in Boff’s district.

Boff also said the county isn’t looking to buy the golf site with greenspace bond money.

According to numbers presented during the work session by Chief Financial Officer Bill Thomas, the county has spent about $33 million of the original $36 million set aside in the $100 million bond to acquire green space.

Rather than use bond money to buy the course, Harrell said the county could use “unencumbered funds,” citing $5 million reportedly left over from the purchase of the Fowler Park site.

Harrell also suggested postponing construction at Bethel Park, for which the county is fighting the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the YMCA of Metropolitan Atlanta in court.

The corps in September leased the 62-acre site on Lake Lanier in northeastern Forsyth to the YMCA, which wants to develop a youth summer camp facility there. The county responded with a renewed request to stop the plan.

In December, a judge ruled against the county. The commission agreed last month to appeal that decision.

“You just authorized the county attorney to file an appeal, commissioner,” Bell said. “You want to appeal the Bethel Park ruling, but yet you want to take the funds perhaps that would build the park if indeed we were successful and buy a golf course?”

Depending on how certain funds are examined, Harrell said, the money for the golf course site could be found.

The discussion grew more heated when Bell asked Boff if he had looked at any other potential greenspace properties in his district. Boff maintained that he had, but wouldn’t say which ones.

“I don’t have to talk about which ones if I don’t want to,” Boff said. “I want this one.”

Chairman Charles Laughinghouse reminded the commission of another proposal, which would be to buy the site, shut it down and then let voters decide if it should continue as a golf course.

“If they do, you issue a bond, you repay the green space or whatever funds were used to purchase it, you do whatever you want to with it,” Laughinghouse said. “If not, you’ve got 172 acres of green space.”

Bell was warm to that idea, though Harrell said it could be more expensive if handled that way.

Tam noted that the green space properties the county has paid for so far were bought at or below the appraised price.

The county has spent about $24,000 to have the golf course appraised at least five times.

The amounts of the appraisals, the most recent of which the commission said is from early 2009, have not been made public.

The board agreed 3-2 to postpone any further discussion of the proposal until after the town hall meeting. Tam and Bell voted against the measure.

In the meantime, the legal battle over the course is not over.

Manton and Bagley sued the commission after it denied their request to rezone the site from agricultural to a master planned district.

Wellstone LLC wanted to buy the site, contingent upon its rezoning, and build a 772-unit residential development with a 300-unit continuing care retirement community on the property.

The company joined Manton and Bagley in the suit, but dropped out early in 2009 after moving its headquarters to Texas.

The most recent development in the case is Appalachian Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge Roger E. Bradley’s late December decision against the county’s request to dismiss it.

The owners have since released a statement saying the local government failed to uphold their Constitutional rights and that they expect a trial early this year.

Included in the golf course owners' suit against the county are arguments that the commission's denial of the rezoning was unconstitutional and was "in order for Forsyth County to purchase the property at less than its fair market value."