The Blackhall Land Swap

Development Versus Conservation Defines Debate Over DeKalb Land Swap.

DeKalb County is considering a land swap that would turn over a large part of Intrenchment Creek Park for the expansion of Blackhall Studios. Some environmental groups are opposed to the trade.

Blackhall Studios wants to trade land it already owns in South DeKalb County for a portion of Intrenchment Creek Park, where it plans to build an expansion of its facilities. It’s also proposing to spend nearly $4 million to put in park amenities on the land the county would receive in the trade.

Blackhall Studios wants to expand.

The film and television production complex said it’s booked through next July and wants to have more room for more clients. But the way the company wants to grow its footprint in South DeKalb County has become a polarizing issue.

That’s because part of the plan would involve a land exchange with the county involving forest land that’s supposed to remain a park forever.

Not long after Blackhall opened in 2017, it already had to expand.

The company has invested millions more in its sound stages. There are now nine of them where films and television shows, including the latest “Godzilla” movie, are made.

“Georgia, as a whole, is one of the hotbeds of production in the world. And we just don’t have enough space to meet the demand that we have at Blackhall,” said Blackhall President and CEO Ryan Millsap.

He said one of the things that attracts productions to the complex is its location: minutes from the airport and downtown Atlanta.

It is inside the perimeter but in a part of the county that hasn’t seen much development. It’s a mix of industrial buildings and green space surrounded by neighborhoods.

Some who live there are hungry for growth and Blackhall Studios is too. The company had plans to build on land it already owned a quarter mile up the road. But then Millsap met community planner Jay Scott.

“He said, you know, I’ve been working for years on an overlay master plan of this area,” recalled Millsap. And then, Scott made a suggestion: Blackhall should build on 50 acres on the corner next to its current property. “I said, ‘Well, I don’t own that corner,'” said Millsap. “‘How am I going to build in a place I don’t own?’ And he said, ‘Well, the county owns that corner.'” And thus, the land swap idea was born.

Blackhall would get a large swath of the forest that’s part of Intrenchment Creek Park. In exchange, 55 acres of wooded land the company owns up the road goes to the county. It would become a new park with Blackhall kicking in nearly $4 million for trails, pavilions and parking lots.

Ayanna Williams, Healthy Cities director with the Nature Conservancy, worries that DeKalb County parks budget won’t be able to support it. “Parks are expensive. If you’re going to move something from one space and rebuild it in another, it’ll add up pretty quickly,” she said.

The Nature Conservancy also has concerns that the land DeKalb County would receive in the swap is not of greater ecological value. Still Williams said they’ll continue working on efforts to enhance parks in South DeKalb.

“Whether this swap goes forward or doesn’t go forward, I think that there’s a lot of opportunities in looking at the region and looking at the parks as a whole,” said Williams.

In 2003, Intrenchment Creek Park was donated by the Blank Foundation with the stipulation that it remain park land forever.

DeKalb County traded nearly nine acres in exchange for 20 acres nearby in 2007. The Blank Foundation said it was never made aware of that swap.

In 2018, the county asked the foundation to agree to the latest swap with Blackhall.

The Blank Foundation said only under certain conditions including a study of the impact of the ecology and public meetings. So far, there’s only been one.

That’s not enough public input for Kathie Gannon, a DeKalb County commissioner whose super district includes Blackhall’s current campus and Intrenchment Creek Park. She said she hasn’t made up her mind.

“If you’re taking county resources that belong to the taxpayer to give, swap, exchange with a for-profit company, the benefit, public benefit, to the citizens of DeKalb County, needs to be very, very great, very high,” said Gannon.

The Blank Foundation deferred questions about the swap to the Trust for Public Land. It holds the deed for Intrenchment Creek Park.

“The Trust for Public Land is monitoring DeKalb County’s assessment of the proposed land swap’s impact on expanding recreational opportunities, creating a more cohesive public space, maintaining ecological integrity and increasing park access,” wrote George Dusenbury, Georgia state director with the Trust for Public Land. “At the conclusion of this assessment, and after extensive public outreach and engagement, The Trust for Public Land would consider a proposal.”

The trust said it’s waiting for the assessment and the meetings before it would consider the idea.

DeKalb County continues to talk with Blackhall and said it welcomes public feedback.

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