As the legal battle continues over the fate of Bethel Park, officials on one side of the bitter divide are attempting to clear up what they say are some of the main misconceptions that form the basis of the opposition. Their opponents aren’t convinced and the matter has moved to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.
As it stands, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has leased the 62-acre park to the YMCA of Metropolitan Atlanta, which plans to develop a youth summer camp facility on the site.
Bethel Park is located off Browns Bridge Road on the west side of Lake Lanier.
That plan has upset neighbors, who last month successfully urged the Forsyth County commission to appeal U.S. District Judge Richard W. Story’s Dec. 23 ruling that allowed the lease to move forward.
The YMCA’s interest in developing the park in northeastern Forsyth dates back to 2003.
But somewhere along the way, organization officials say, the truth about its plans has gotten skewed in the shuffle.
Dan Pile, YMCA senior vice president, said the facility will offer programs year-round, not just in the summer.
Furthermore, Pile said, the camp will serve children from “all communities and all walks of life.”
“The other part is they’re good kids striving to be better kids,” he said. “They’re from good families who are investing time and money and resources into improving their child’s leadership skills.
“Contrary to what’s being communicated, this is not a boot camp for children right out of jail.”
For nine weeks from June to August, 200 to 250 children per week will camp at the site. September through May will be the facility’s “retreat season,” he said.
During the cooler months, the camp will be used for leadership training and educational programs. It will also be available to families, organizations, churches and other groups for weekend camping trips.
In addition, the YMCA plans to give Forsyth County groups priority for activities at the camp, which could open as early as 2012.
The proposed camp would be similar to the YMCA’s Camp High Harbour on Lake Burton in Northeast Georgia.
Ken O’Kelley, High Harbour’s director, said concerns that summer programs at Bethel will bring traffic woes and impede emergency response to the area are off base.
“The first thing I did (in the Bethel designs) was put a 156-car parking lot up front so there never would be an issue with cars coming in or going out or cars that would be blocking any intersection, any driveway, anywhere,” O’Kelley said.
Pile added that in the event the parking lot were to fill up, there is enough curbside parking space for an additional 200 vehicles.
Michael Durkin is skeptical. He lives in Berringer Point, a subdivision about a half a mile from the site. He’s also a founding member of Friends of Bethel Park, which opposes the YMCA’s plans.
The group, Durkin said, is not against the YMCA itself, just the proposal to put this type of facility in their community.
“We purely see this as an invasion and intrusion of the lifestyle that many people moved out there to enjoy,” he said.
Durkin contends there will be traffic congestion during the summer that will restrict residents’ access to their homes.
He said Swiss Air Road, which leads to the park, is too narrow to handle the number of vehicles that will be bringing children to and from the site.
The parking lot, Durkin said, “doesn’t negate the fact you still have 250 some odd vehicles coming and going on a one-way in, one-way out peninsula.”
He worries the rush, when parents are dropping off or picking up children, could be a serious problem.
“Hypothetically, you’ve got that 1 in 500 chance that someone’s having a heart attack occurring right at the rush hour of 250 vehicles at the park,” he said. “You can’t say that’s not going to impede the rescue or emergency vehicles and personnel.”
But Pile said he has met with local public safety officials who said nothing about the plans preventing emergency vehicles from getting to the area.
“They did make some suggestions on some of our designs to widen some of our infrastructure and roads a little bit so they can have adequate turn around,” he said.
Durkin said Friends of Bethel also thinks public access to the park will be limited or not allowed at all in order to protect campers in the summer.
He said access would be limited to a park that is paid for not only by county taxpayers, but those nationwide.
“The argument is valid that the park is owned by the taxpayers of the United States,” he said. “I’m getting more local, but losing access to that is yet another example of Forsyth County citizens losing yet more green space.”
Pile insists that public access to the site will not be denied.
As a safety precaution, however, those who wish to walk the grounds or visit the park for other purposes likely will be asked to sign in.
“We’ll need to structure it some because our No. 1 priority is keeping kids safe,” Pile said. “Just having the general population walk in without us knowing who they are would be less than responsible for us.”
And counter to rumblings in the community, Pile said none of the YMCA’s options for waste-water treatment and infrastructure would require any investment from the county.
“We have learned not only from the EPD but the county staff that the discharge amount, because of the volume of kids and activity, exceeds the county’s jurisdiction,” Pile said.
“It is an EPD issue, it’s not even a county matter we will be following the state EPD guidelines and our engineers are currently looking at a variety of options that fall within the state’s provisions.”
Durkin said he doesn’t trust the YMCA’s plans to handle wastewater management on site.
He said his group is concerned that if the organization can’t get permission to use a septic system on the property, the alternative would be running a sewer line to the nearest pipe.
“Again you’re disrupting a bedroom community for a camp that for all practical purposes doesn’t even benefit the community at large.”
The park is in the district of County Commissioner Patrick Bell, who has said he doesn’t agree with the county continuing to spend money fighting the matter in court.
And even if the county were to succeed in stopping the corps’ lease with the YMCA, there’s no guarantee the county would get the park, Bell said.
He has remained optimistic about the county having an amenable relationship with the organization, noting that in past discussions the YMCA has expressed its willingness to negate residents’ concerns.
Those discussions included talk of the YMCA allowing the county access to some of the land for a precinct that could be used by public safety officials to house equipment and the like.
“But when you keep being obstinate, even though the YMCA maintains they want to be a good neighbor and I believe they will you can’t keep turning the cheek,” he said.
While foes of the facility may think representing them includes funding a lawsuit with taxpayer dollars to stop the park’s development, Bell said he thinks there should be a backup plan.
“In case we lose, how do we minimize this and go back and say we’re not going to be able to take Bethel Park for the county, but here’s what we were able to negotiate to minimize the concerns you had,” he said.
“But again, people can only turn the other cheek so many times.”
County Attorney Ken Jarrard said Forsyth contends in its appeal that the court “misapplied preference language in the Flood Control Act.”
The act gives local governments the right to first refusal, which has sparked debate between the two sides over whether the county received an adequate opportunity to acquire the park in northeastern Forsyth.
Beyond an opportunity, corps’ laws allow the land to be leased to whichever entity better serves the public interest.
The corps expected to lease the site to the YMCA in 2006. But in response to residents’ concerns, the county also sought to lease it and submitted a competing plan in 2007.
Bell, who was not on the commission at the time, described that plan as “pathetic,” paling in comparison to what the YMCA has proposed.
“If we really wanted that park, we should’ve presented a plan that was worthy of them giving it to us,” he said.
He also noted that affidavits show previous commissioners turned down the park before it was offered to the YMCA.
Bell said he is not specifically a YMCA advocate, but does support youth programs.
He said he thinks what the nonprofit has proposed “will help our youth become better people and that’s what we need.”