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Fight over Bethel Park may be resolved soon

Some Forsyth residents don’t want YMCA to take over park

POSTED: February 5, 2008 5:03 a.m.
Tom Reed/The Times

Signs about the future use of Bethel Park are seen along the road leading to the park in Forsyth County.

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The long-simmering debate over who should take over management of a Lake Lanier park could reach a resolution this spring.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has released a draft environmental assessment for 62-acre Bethel Park in Forsyth County and is accepting public comments until Feb. 19.

The document describes proposals submitted by two competing entities: the YMCA of Metropolitan Atlanta and Forsyth County government.

The YMCA has been trying since 2003 to get permission to build a residential camp on the property. Its plan includes athletic fields, gymnasium, amphitheaters, marina, dining hall, at least 12 cabins, pavilion, ropes course, outdoor pool and a sewage treatment plant.

Forsyth County wants to operate Bethel much like one of the corps-run parks, with 75 campsites, a day-use area and the existing boat ramp.

The boat launch, now closed because of the drought, is currently the only amenity at Bethel. The park is used mainly by people living in nearby neighborhoods, who enjoy walking or running on the empty roads.

Struggling with tight budgets, the corps has been trying to lease out as many of its Lanier parks as possible. Last year, Forsyth County took over operation of Shady Grove campground and two day-use parks, Charleston and Young Deer.

But the corps originally intended to grant the lease for Bethel to the YMCA. For several years, the organization had been working with corps officials on its development plan, and in May 2006 a draft environmental assessment was released.

According to corps records, that proposal received about 13,000 favorable comments, mostly from YMCA members, and about 1,300 negative responses, mostly from people who lived near the park.

But some Forsyth residents started a "Save Bethel Park" movement, fearing that they would be shut out of the park if it were taken over by the YMCA. They approached the Forsyth County Commission, which discovered that the corps had failed to follow its own rules by giving local government the right of first refusal to lease the park.

Under threat of legal action, the corps met with representatives from both the YMCA and Forsyth. The county agreed to submit its own development plan in early 2007, and the corps would ultimately decide which proposal was most suitable for the property.

Corps spokeswoman Lisa Coghlan said after the public comments are reviewed, the decision will be made within a few months by Col. Byron Jorns, chief engineer of the corps’ Mobile district, which has jurisdiction over Lake Lanier.

"If there is a Finding of No Significant Impact (on the environment), Jorns will chose one or the other (proposal), or neither," she said. "If there is not ..., then an environmental impact statement would have to be prepared, and that process could take anywhere from 18 months to several years."

The "no action" alternative would leave the park as it is. But it seems unlikely Jorns would choose that option, since the corps wants to transfer responsibility for the park to some other party.

"Both plans are excellent proposals," Coghlan said.

So how will Jorns make the decision? "He’ll look at the public comments, though it’s not a popularity contest (based on the number of responses)," Coghlan said. "Then he’ll consider all the factors described in the environmental assessment, such as land use, water quality, endangered species, wildlife habitat, traffic, noise and so on."

Both sides are hoping they’ve got the winning proposal.

"We are going to encourage YMCA members to send in comments," said Kristin Obaranec, spokeswoman for the YMCA in Atlanta.

There’s a lot at stake, she said, because the YMCA has not found any other property suitable for a lakeside residential camp. "We are not looking at another location," she said.

But some opponents of the YMCA’s proposal have argued that the camp would primarily serve people from metro Atlanta and would provide no benefit to the local community.

"I think our proposal will be good for the residents of Forsyth County," said Tommy Bruce, assistant director of Forsyth County Parks and Recreation. "We want to see this property stay open to the public."

Jackie Joseph, president of the Lake Lanier Association, said she’s received a number of phone calls from people who don’t want Bethel Park leased to the YMCA.

"Forsyth County would basically run it as a campground. The YMCA’s plan is much more extensive, with denser development that would increase the impact on the lake," she said. "The less impact we have on these parks, the better off the lake is."

But Obaranec said the camp will be developed in an environmentally friendly manner.

"It’s very low impact," she said. "There (would be) hardly any trees removed. It’s going to keep its natural surroundings."


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