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Zoning changes for Smithgall Woodland Garden pass board
Work could begin in summer
Volunteer Diane Norton picks up leaves Tuesday morning between rows of potted azaleas at the Smithgall Woodland Garden greenhouse. The city’s Planning and Appeals Board on Tuesday unanimously recommended zoning changes for the Atlanta Botanical Garden project. Construction could begin in the summer.

Organizers behind the Smithgall Woodland Garden are another step closer to turning the 168-acre tract into a nature preserve and Gainesville attraction.

The city's Planning and Appeals Board on Tuesday unanimously recommended zoning changes for the Atlanta Botanical Garden project.

The move is part of the paperwork process needed before construction can begin, said Mary Pat Matheson, executive director of the Atlanta Botanical Garden.

"It's a precursor to breaking ground," she said, which is currently slated for the summer of 2012.

The hope is to open the garden, a satellite to the original Atlanta garden, to the public in the fall of 2013.

The proposed zoning changes to the planned unit development permit would allow developers to modify internal roads and parking, build a waterfall feature with a trail and customize a direct entrance from Cleveland Highway.

Mildred Fockele, the organization's horticulture director, said the project is on track, though the organization is still raising funds to meet its $21 million goal.

The project originated from the dreams of Lessie and Charles Smithgall, who among other accomplishments founded The Times in 1947. The Smithgalls gave the land to Atlanta Botanical Garden in 2001, before Charles' death in 2002.

Their goal was to turn it into a one-of-a-kind nature preserve. Proposed plans are to build a visitor center, an amphitheater that can seat 2,000 people and the woodland garden.

Matheson said when complete it will be "one of the most significant culture destinations in Gainesville."

One of the chief goals would be to provide educational opportunities for children — with a focus on conservation.

"It's about children being out in nature and interacting with nature," she said.

For now, the lot houses a small greenhouse and nursery where horticulturist Ethan Guthrie, with the support of local volunteers, is growing plants and trees that will one day be featured in the garden.

Guthrie said the garden will specialize in plant varieties like maple, hydrangea, magnolia and witch hazel. Those may sound familiar, but Guthrie promised some would be "rare and unusual."

"This would be a wonderful showcase for the natural beauty of North Georgia," said Gainesville Planning and Appeals Board Member John Snyder at Tuesday's meeting.

The proposed changes will now go to Gainesville City Council for consideration.