People who live in South DeKalb have cleaner air and are not worried about flooding when it rains because of the parks, forest land, and green spaces located east of the city in unincorporated DeKalb County along Constitution and Bouldercrest Roads.
But that may soon change, with 300 acres of forest in danger of being lost to a Police Training Center in the old Atlanta Prison Farm a/k/a the Honor Farm and another 40 acres in Intrenchment Creek Park (ICP), also in danger of being clear cut for a movie sound stage.
“The future depends on this place; these are the lungs and the sponge of our city,” Kate Carsan, with Defend the Atlanta Forest Coalition, said at a public meeting at the trailhead to Intrenchment Creek Park. This educational event was sponsored by Defend the Forest and Extinction Rebellion to raise awareness of an ongoing land grab of forest land.
The 300+ acres of the Honor Farm is the largest remaining green space inside the perimeter. This year, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms decided to give that green space to the police department to build a Public Safety Training Center. Mayor Bottoms did this without any public input and in violation of the city charter where that property was codified to be part of the South River Forest vision.
The Honor Farm was where inmates grew food for the Atlanta Penitentiary from the early 20th century to about 1971.
“In 2017, the Atlanta Planning Department agreed with the Nature Conservancy that we should have a South River Forest and the old abandoned Prison Farm forest is the keystone to that plan. Mayor Reed signed off on it and then City Councilmember Keisha Lance. Bottoms expressed support for it, as well as other community leaders. Now Bottoms has changed her mind,” Joe Peery, a member of savetheoldatlantaprisonfarm.org said at the Intrenchment Park meeting.
People are not happy about the possibility of losing green space inside the perimeter to build a mock “cop city” as it is called by advocates of the forest. Police will practice with explosions, burning buildings, and have shooting ranges none of which are conducive to peace and tranquility now enjoyed in that area.
According to the Statista Research Department, in 2020, there were 1,021 fatal police shootings, 457 were white, 241 Black, 169 Hispanics, and 140 unknown. Too many people who are unarmed and/or innocent are dying at the hands of the police. Some police are trained in foreign countries that violate human rights through the Georgia International Law Enforcement Exchange Program. GILEE has a history of enabling police brutality and right-wing extremism.
A letter to Mayor Bottoms to end GILEE
To add insult on top of possibly losing the forest, “They want to call the Police Training Institute, The Atlanta Institute for Social Justice. They know this will be an unpopular decision so they are putting a lot of money into the marketing to make it seem this is something people want,” a young man with Defend the Forest said.
“This construction is part of Bottoms plan to continue over-policing in our city. We are in one of the most surveilled cities in the world and we don’t need any more training or any more police. We asked them to defund the police and they gave the police more money instead of investing in our communities,” Sunny-Sol Underground, Woman on the Rise, said.
Commissioner Tim Keane and the Nature Conservancy have a big vision for southeast Atlanta. They envision the South River Forest as a massive, 3,500-acre public green space linkage of existing nearby parks and forests. Parks and forests included in this vision include the 300 + acre old historic Atlanta Prison Farm, 136-acre Intrenchment Creek Park, 200+acre wetland of Constitution Lakes, 200+ acre Lake Charlotte Nature Preserve, 200+ acres Southside Park, and the nearly 200 acres Live Oak Landfill.
When Mayor Bottom gave away the old prison farmland to the Atlanta Police Department she totally violated Commissioner Keane’s plan to connect parks and forest land into a massive green space to be protected from commercial or residential development.
Save the Old Atlanta Prison Farm (STOAPF) Facebook group also has a vision for the forest land. Their vision includes a dog park, conventional park, nature preserve, sports fields, eco-park, outdoor music venue, community gardens, arts & cultural event venue, historical site, and regional network of trails.
Some or all of these ideas are possible on the 300+ acres of green space around the historic old prison farm and would meet the needs of the community better than a mock “cop city” to shoot and blow up stuff.
“It is time to stand up and protect our forest. If we don’t do it now in the next 10 years Atlanta will change and there won’t be these parks or forests left. Right now you can cut down just about any tree for any reason if you are a developer,” Kathryn Kolb, EcoAddendum.org and cityintheforest.org, said.
The Land Swap of Intrenchment Creek Park to Blackhall Studio
Destruction of south Atlanta’s forests does not stop with the Honor Farm property turning into a “cop city.” A controversial land swap deal that gives forty acres of Intrenchment Creek Park (ICP) to Blackhall Studio to build a sound stage was finalized last year but a lawsuit may stop it.
The founder of Blackhall Studio, Ryan Millsap, proposed a land swap with DeKalb County. He agreed to give DeKalb County 52+ acres of land on Bouldercrest Road for 40 acres in ICP. He made lots of promises to bring jobs to the area, build a new park on the clear-cut land on Bouldercrest, commit $1.6 million in in-kind donations to the park, and other promises that may not be legally binding or even in writing.
On October 13, 2020, CEO, Michael Thurmond and the DeKalb County Board of Commissioners (BOC) voted to authorize the exchange, and the Trust for Public Land also signed off on the land swap. George Dusenberry TPL’s state director said he talked with residents in the area and they want the land swap and a new amenity-filled Michelle Obama Park, as promised by Millsap.
But many other residents don’t want the swap. Three thousand individuals are opposed to the land swap, 18 environmental and community organizations are opposed to the land swap, and it sets a dangerous precedent that will jeopardize all public land in Georgia, according to stoptheswap.org.
After the land swap was approved, Millsap sold his company, Blackhall Studio, and all his properties for $120 million dollars to Commonwealth Group, a private equity firm in California. It is currently unknown who owns the 40 acres in ICP – Millsap, Commonwealth Group, or DeKalb County?
“In the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) Millsap said he sold all his property to the Commonwealth Group but at a DeKalb BOC meeting, he said the AJC got it wrong and he did not sell those 40 acres in ICP to Commonwealth. So who do you believe, AJC Millsap or BOC Millsap,” Jacqueline Echols, Board President, South River Watershed Alliance, tells the Streets of Atlanta.
A lawsuit was filed in February challenging the legality of the land swap. The plaintiffs are South River Watershed Alliance, South River Forest Coalition, and individuals who use the park vs DeKalb County BOC and Blackhall. The lawsuit argues that the county lacked the authority to complete the swap, that it violates the agreement between Dekalb County, Trust for Public Land, and the Blank Foundation that the land “shall be used in perpetuity as park property.”
In 2018, the county asked the foundation to agree to the swap with Blackhall. The Blank Foundation said only under certain conditions, including a study of the impact of the ecology and public meetings, as reported by WABE.
“The counties can do different things with land by state law but that same state law also means you have to get more in terms of value than you are giving up and that is definitely not the case with this swap,” Echols said.
Much is still unknown about the land swap. According to the lawsuit, DeKalb county did not put the matter to a public referendum and had only one public meeting. DeKalb has refused to release records related to the land exchange, the valuation, appraisal, and assessment of Millsap’s properties, and the county will receive land of significantly lesser ecological value.
ICP has a thick tree canopy, abundant wildlife, wetlands, and floodplain that provide critical stormwater management for the area and helps protect the South River. The three tracts of land Blackhall wants to swap are clear cut on one side of Bouldercrest and the other two tracts are across Bouldercrest Road with a floodplain at the bottom of the property.
“The idea that you can trade a park that was purchased with public funds for a land development deal for private corporations is insane. Allowing that swap to happen is a terrible precedent for cities all over the country,” Kolb said
“Government disinvestment is almost always focused on the destruction of green space. and the environment. and what is going on at the farm and ICP are just two more examples of disinvestment in that community,” Echols tells the Streets of Atlanta.
There is a broader land use vision for southeast metro Atlanta green spaces with equitable, long-term environmental and economic sustainability. The land swap of ICP puts that opportunity in peril and threatens public parkland in DeKalb and metro Atlanta.
The South River Forest is a proposed “emerald necklace” of connected public green spaces around the South River and Entrenchment Creek which is supported by The Nature Conservancy and South River Watershed Alliance. The Emerald necklace, when complete, will create the largest protected public green space inside I-285 but land grabs by the APD and Blackhall threaten this environmental plan.
People are so pissed off that their city and county government do not listen to them that someone set fire to the deforestation equipment on Blackhall’s property. This is a criminal offense, but the real crime is that money influences many politicians to do the bidding of developers. It’s time for this to change and time for the people and nature to win or nature will change things with climate change. The equipment was easily replaced but if the forest is destroyed, it can’t be replaced.