After much deliberation, Forsyth County has decided to keep fighting over the future of Bethel Park.
Last week’s decision by the county commission means Forsyth will appeal U.S. District Judge Richard W. Story’s ruling to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.
On Dec. 23, Story denied the county’s request to stop the YMCA of Metropolitan Atlanta from developing a youth summer camp facility at the 62-acre site on Lake Lanier.
“The consensus was, we’ve gone this far, let’s take it to the next level,” commission Chairman Charles Laughinghouse said.
He said the basis for the appeal is that the county believes Story incorrectly interpreted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ statutes.
The Flood Control Act of 1944 gives local government 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 in September executed a park lease with the YMCA. The county responded with a request for preliminary injunction.
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 YMCA has worked since 2003 to develop the park, which court documents say will serve inner city youth and “other camping youths.”
Jerry Killinger, who lives near Bethel, thanked commissioners Thursday for their decision.
“I think (the corps) overstepped their boundaries,” he said. “I think they stepped over our rights, and I’d like to see the county commissioners continue on in an effort to keep this green space and park available to all the citizens of Forsyth County.”
Michael Durkin, a founder of the Friends of Bethel Park group, said the county is doing the right thing in attempts to prevent an “error from happening.”
As for the circuit court’s decision, he said, they would “cross that bridge when we come to it.”
Durkin felt the show of support for an appeal during a recent town hall meeting may have influenced the commission’s decision.
Commissioner Patrick Bell, whose district includes the park, held a town hall meeting Jan. 11 to gauge public opinion on how the county should proceed.
Commissioners Jim Harrell, Jim Boff and Laughinghouse also attended that session, which drew about 150 people, including some residents who criticized the legal fight as expensive and futile.
Bell said that the commission weighs public feedback when determining what to do.
All commissioners want to help residents living near Bethel, he said, but they were split on how to best accomplish that, in court or negotiations with the YMCA.
Personally, Bell did not support the decision to appeal the ruling, feeling the appeal would “weaken (the county’s) negotiating position” with the YMCA.
Boff disagreed, saying the board should “fully assert the county’s rights on this property and others in the future.”
If the county loses the appeal, Laughinghouse said, that might be the end of the legal fight.
The commission came together on one point Thursday, when it took exception to a comment that had been made during the town hall meeting.
“Although the individual members of this board may in fact disagree with respect to Bethel Park and the county’s litigation efforts,” Laughinghouse said, “we stand united in condemning any comments suggesting that the social status or demographic makeup of camp attendees is a legitimate basis for objection.”