Sunday, April 08, 2007

Park backers hope renewed for Bullard tract

From the Marietta Daily Journal on Sunday, April 8, 2007 by Joe Kirby, Editorial Page editor

The soft real estate market isn't so good for homebuilders, but it may have a silver lining for Cobb lovers of the great outdoors.

Well-placed sources last week reported that the years-long zoning battle over the future of the 112-acre Bullard Farm on Dallas Highway in west Cobb is likely within weeks of a happy ending - happy, anyway, for those who have been eyeing it as the perfect site for a new county park.

The Florida-based Goodman Co. has been trying since 2004 to gain approval for a mixed-use development there, but was denied by the county commission and then sued the county.

Now, members of the Citizens Advisory Committee (the group that is to recommend how Cobb will spend proceeds from a $40 million bond approved by local voters in November) are optimistic the land could be sold to the county for a park.

Word from Advisory Committee insiders last week was that Goodman's sales contract with the Bullard descendants is about to expire and, due to the failure to get the requested zoning and to the snails-pace home-sales market, will not be renewed.

"So the family has to find a new buyer or else turn it back into a working farm in order to lower the tax rate on it," one committee member said.

There likely would not have been a parks bond referendum last year had not the Bullard rezoning become such a high-profile issue in west Cobb.

The commission voted in February 2006 to reject Goodman's proposal, which would have been called "Whisper at the River." (River? There's no river within a dozen miles of the site). Goodman was planning a 262,000-square-foot mix of housing, restaurants, retail and office space, including 400 houses. That's not all.

There also would have been an amphitheatre, an observatory, a nature trail and a dinosaur relic park.
(An observatory? In west Cobb? With all the growth out that way in recent years, the nighttime sky is now so bright you have a hard time picking out the Big Dipper. Goodman might as well have tried to place its big telescope in Midtown Atlanta.)

Neighboring subdivisions were opposed to Goodman from day one, arguing correctly that a development of that magnitude would absolutely inundate Dallas Highway, which at just two lanes in each direction is already saturated and then narrows to just one lane each way at the entrance to Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park. And that's where the economy comes in.

Cobb is feeling its share of the national downturn in the home sales market. New home sales fell 3.9 percent in February nationwide - the slowest pace in seven years. And that followed a 15.8 percent drop in January, a 13-year low. Meanwhile, home foreclosures in Cobb hit a six-year high in December with 4,567 on the books.

The Advisory Committee is quietly investigating some 20 or so properties for possible purchase - but only if the landowners want to sell. And at least some of its members are especially interested in trying to acquire three sizable tracts from local developers whose projects have hit the shoals at least in part because of the downturn. They include the Bullard Farm project; a townhouse project once planned by Madison Retail for a 12-acre site in downtown Kennesaw that during the Civil War was the site of Camp McDonald, (a basic-training camp for the Confederate army); and 16 acres on Henderson Road just north of Veterans' Memorial Parkway in Mableton. The latter property consists of a series of heavily forested ridgelines and ravines, as well as the remains of an earthen fort built to shield Union artillery. The fort faced the nearby "Johnston's River Line," built by Confederate Gen. Joe Johnston in 1864 to block Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman from the Chattahoochee River. The Henderson site borders a six-acre park the county bought with money from Gov. Roy Barnes' "greenspace" program several years ago, a site that also contains extensive Civil War trenches.

The elaborate and expensive grading needed to make such a hilly tract suitable for houses, the difficulty of mitigating stormwater concerns and the fact that the housing market is in such a slump reportedly has the owner of the Henderson site eager to sell it to the county for use as a park.

"Because of the slowdown, developers are now starting to walk away from some of the deals they had planned on," said a source close to the Advisory Committee's leadership. "It's not a coincidence. We're in a real good position to bargain."

OK. Let the bargaining begin.