Monday, July 27, 2009

Editorial: Park Plans

An editorial from the Marietta Daily Journal on Sunday, July 26, 2009

Cobb voters had their priorities right in 2006 and 2008 when they approved a pair of parks bond referendums. And those designing one of the biggest park tracts bought with proceeds from the first of those referendums are getting their priorities in order as well.

The revised master plan for the sprawling Bullard-Stockton property at the intersection of Dallas Highway and Old Hamilton Road was unveiled at a public hearing Thursday night and was greeted with positive reviews all around. The initial plan by Lawrenceville-based Lose and Associates had a gazebo, bandstand and more than 600 parking spaces intended in large part as overflow parking for nearby Oregon Park. That led to creation of a 15-person committee of interested stakeholders to provide input into the final plan.

Bullard-Stockton was intended as a passive park, as opposed to a recreational, ball-field-dominated park like Oregon. So the revised plan takes that more into account.

One very significant change was the June decision by the county to acquire the 13.75-acre Swing Time driving range on Old Hamilton for $1.3 million. That property will act as a land bridge between the 112-acre Bullard and 44-acre Oregon parks, and will allow room for a parking lot for the adjacent parks.

"This plan is a thousand times better than the first plan," said west Cobb resident Sue Lake at the hearing. "This first plan had over 600 spaces. This one has only about 300 spaces. The previous plan had 12 to 14 different structures. This plan has far less structures and less disturbing of the natural features. I'm delighted that they're preserving this land, and that they're also preserving the house and barn."

The new plan brings Bullard's focus back to passive recreational use. Planned are almost seven miles of trails, including a 10-foot-wide pervious asphalt trail, and 8-foot crushed gravel trail and a 6-foot-wide nature trail.

"As the trail network gets in the more environmentally sensitive area it will change to compacted gravel trails and the mulch/dirt paths will be into some of the deeper parts of the property," explained Whit Alexander of Lose.

And it will be primarily a dawn-till-dusk park, meaning there will be little need to install lighting.

"The end result was what we all started out to do with the parks bond - preservation," said Parks Coalition and stakeholder committee member Jim Dugan. Added Paul Paulson, another stakeholder, "The first plan tried to make something of the property. This plan accentuates what's already there while preserving the essence of what Bullard means to the community."

Cost of the changes is estimated at around $3.5 million to $4 million, although those funds have yet to be identified in the budget due to the economy.

The plan appears to be a good one. The county deserves credit for listening to the public, and the stakeholders and others who have provided their input deserve the public's thanks.

Preservation top priority in revised Bullard land plan

From the Marietta Daily Journal on Friday, July 24, 2009, by Ashley Hungerford, MDJ staff writer

WEST COBB - The revised master plan for the Bullard-Stockton property includes nature trails, open fields and as little paved surface as possible.

"The first plan tried to make something of the property. This plan accentuates what's already there while preserving the essence of what Bullard means to the community," said Paul Paulson, a west Cobb resident and member of the stakeholder group that helped create the revised plan.

More than 120 people gathered at the West Cobb Senior Center off Dallas Highway on Thursday evening to review and comment on the revised plan for the Bullard-Stockton Property at the corner of Dallas Highway and Old Hamilton Road.

Bob Ash, Cobb public services director, said the plan will likely go before the county's recreation board in August for approval, and the Board of Commissioners will vote on a final plan around September.

The public can submit comments on the plan to the county at

Cobb County purchased the 112-acre tract at the corner of Dallas Highway and Old Hamilton Road using $18.6 million of the $40 million parks bond approved by voters in 2006. This property is the first land purchased with the parks bond to undergo the master planning process.

In June, the county added to the parkland by purchasing the 13.75-acre Swing Time driving range on Old Hamilton Road for $1.3 million. The property ties the Bullard-Stockton tract to the neighboring 44-acre Oregon Park, which caters to more than 100 baseball teams and 1,200 players ages 5 to 12. County leaders plan to use this property to provide parking for the Bullard-Stockton tract, while alleviating an already overcrowded parking lot at Oregon Park.

"This plan is a thousand times better than the first plan," west Cobb resident Sue Lake said. "This first plan had over 600 spaces. This one has only about 300 spaces. The previous plan had 12 to 14 different structures. This plan has far less structures and less disturbing of the natural features ... I'm delighted that they're preserving this land, and that they're also preserving the house and barn."

The county conducted a public meeting in March to present the initial master plan developed by Lawrenceville-based Lose and Associates. The group has a $45,000 contract to create a master plan for the property.

That plan included a trail network, several learning areas, educational hands-on play area, a gazebo, bandstand and 600 parking spaces, including a 225-space overflow lot for Oregon Park.

After the March meeting, the county formed a stakeholder group with about 15 interested citizens who were charged with sifting through all the comments gathered by the county on the initial plan and work with Lose and Associates to create something that will work on the land and be beneficial to the community.

Northwest Commissioner Helen Goreham said the goal of the first plan was to elicit public response to hone in on what people wanted in the park.

"It was designed to encourage input from the community," Goreham said. "Tonight, we can see the results for all the citizen input."

The revised plan is primarily passive, with most of the existing natural landscape preserved.

"The end result was what we all started out to do with the parks bond - preservation," said Jim Dugan, a member of the Cobb Parks Coalition and member of the stakeholder committee.

It will likely be a dawn until dusk park so that the addition of lighting would be limited, Ash said.

Almost seven miles of trails are planned for the property including a 10-foot-wide pervious asphalt trail, an 8-foot crushed gravel trail and a 6-foot-wide nature trail.

"As the trail network gets in the more environmentally preserved area it will change to compacted gravel trails and the mulch/dirt paths will be into some of the deeper parts of the property," said Whit Alexander, vice president of Lose and Associates.

The main entrance will be on Old Hamilton Road near Swing Time. Ash said they'd work with county transportation officials to determine the safest place for the entrance as some neighbors have expressed concerns about already existing dangers on Old Hamilton Road such as speeders and limited sight distance.

The main lot will have parking for about 200 cars. There will also be restrooms, a community garden, playgrounds and small picnic area there. A small parking lot will be available off Bob Fleming Road.

The old farmhouse on the property will be restored, and county leaders plan to eventually open it to the public.

As for the timeline of the project, that is extremely dependent on funding. Ash estimates the project is $3.5 million to $4 million.

"It's a hefty sum," Goreham said. "In today's economy, we're looking for every dollar to maintain our existing services."

There is not funding in place to develop the park, although several county leaders have suggested another Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax program that would fund the development of some of the parks purchased using the parks bond. Goreham said the county is also in discussions with forming a "Friends of the Park" group that could assist with fundraising and development of the park.

Laura Armstrong: Cobb County making columnist, Thomas Jefferson very proud

From the Marietta Daily Journal on Sunday, July 19, 2009, by Laura Armstrong, MDJ columnist

Two hundred and four years ago, Thomas Jefferson said at his second inaugural address, "Our wish is, that the public efforts may be directed honestly to the public good ..."

He also encouraged, "Come forward, then, and give us the aid of your talents and the weight of your character towards the new establishment of (democracy)."

These days, it's difficult to pinpoint a worthy model for such high ideals in government, with honesty, civility and the "care of human life and happiness" (which Jefferson said is the "first and only legitimate object of good government") taking a backseat to power grabs and crisis-induced redistribution, i.e. change.

In many places, good people have turned away from involvement in their governments, feeling they can't make a difference.

Fortunately, Cobb citizens aren't that easily discouraged.

Consider the 2006 Land for Parks Bond Referendum, approved by 72 percent of voters and now well on its way to success in our community.

Conceived, prodded, pushed and nurtured by We the People along with Commission Chairman Sam Olens, other commissioners and county staff, this visionary move to secure more parkland should be and is in fact (I'm told) a model for others to follow. But as the City of Marietta is finding with its current initiative, making parkland happen isn't as easy as Olens et al have made it appear.

In reality, the county campaign and vote was only a miniscule part of the whole process. The untold and still unfolding story on the county level involves a whole cast of characters, from landowners to national preservation groups to dastardly developers to a coalition of dedicated volunteers. One tireless force behind the volunteer effort, aka the Cobb Parks Coalition, is Paul Paulson, a small businessman. He and other stakeholders (Paulson calls them "regular people working to save what they love") have a special interest in more than 100 pristine acres known as the Bullard Farm property, adjacent to Dallas Highway near the Avenues at West Cobb. Not the typical Cobb mover-shakers, they've come together in earnest with their representatives and already accomplished a great deal.

Refreshingly, they've not sought the spotlight, but instead have shined it on the projects themselves, putting in hours upon hours of effort to enrich our lives and those of future generations.

I tagged along last April with the group as they walked Bullard Farm with Bob Ash, head of community development, and Bob Hovey, west Cobb's planning commissioner. A conceptual plan had been drawn up and presented to the public in March by a Gwinnett-based company, but with about 250 citizens attending, staff received over 150 comments, largely critical of proposals such as an amphitheater and massive paved parking. The result was a decision to involve We The People even more, another refreshing twist, and the exhilarating walk we later enjoyed was an effort to brainstorm more suitable ideas for the land. As Paulson asked, "How do we accommodate...without compromising the beauty of the natural landscape we're now stewards of?"

And now the plan is amended with input by people such as Dan Brown, superintendent of the Chattahoochee National Park, John Pape, chairman of the citizen group charged with spending our bond funds and Kelly Gambrill, president of PLAN (People Looking After Neighborhoods). There was even a small suggestion by yours truly, the humble playground expert, which I'm told has been incorporated.

The new ideas will be revealed this Thursday evening, 7 p.m., at the West Cobb Senior Center at Lost Mountain Park. Public comments and questions are welcomed.

As the stakeholders so aptly stated, "We hope people from throughout the county will attend, not only to view the results of the public input, but to learn more about the process used by our group."

My guess is Thomas Jefferson would be proud of Cobb County, where public efforts are directed to the public good. I'm proud to be a citizen here. See you at the park.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Cobb to narrow possible park purchases

From the Marietta Daily Journal on Tuesday, June 16, 2009, by Ashley Hungerford, MDJ staff writer.

MARIETTA - The 2008 Parks Bond Citizen Committee is still deciding how to narrow down a field of more than 200 nominated park properties to a manageable number for the committee to visit.

"We need to decide how we're going to eliminated properties," Committee Chairman John Pape said. "We can't possibly look at and visit 240 properties."

The citizens committee is reviewing about 240 nominated parcels that have willing sellers and will make a recommendation to the Board of Commissioners on which properties should be purchased using the $40 million in bond money. Voters approved the bond on Nov. 4.

The Board of Commissioners appointed the 15-member citizen committee. Chairman Sam Olens nominated Pape.

After hearing from seven citizens lobbying for various nominated park properties on Monday, the committee went into executive session to review the committee's rankings of all the properties.

Each of the committee members ranked the nominated parcels based on criteria agreed upon in April. The criteria includes property in underserved areas and passive uses.

Committee member Larry Ceminsky, also appointed by Olens, suggested narrowing the field down to about 50 or 60 properties to visit.

"The prices have dropped, and there are not as many large, expensive parcels like last time," he said.

Large parcels were weighted heavily with the 2006 parks bond. Then, the committee only had to consider 94 properties.

The complete list of nominated properties has remained under wraps because the parcels are potential real estate purchases, which are exempt under Open Records laws. Any discussion on specific properties by the committee is done in executive session.

Any information about the properties is gleaned from the two public hearings the committee conducted earlier this year, and the public comment portion of each committee meeting.

Jared Conroy, along with a dozen of his neighbors from the Rose Arbor development off Mars Hill Church Road in Acworth, attended Monday's meeting to lobby for a 7.6-acre tract of land on Mars Hill Road.

"We would very much appreciate a nice park to take it easy in," he said.

Cindy Brake presented a slide show of the Jake Canup property at 1205 Villa Rica Road. The 26-acre property has a lake and creek, and it's directly across the street from Mud Creek Ranch. Brake said the property would be a perfect location for area schools to come see nature.

"It would be a very big help to have a passive park here for our community and the local schools," she said. "Think about how we can take this easy property and enrich both adult and children's lives."

The question was raised as to when the list would be made public.

"That's not my call," Pape said.

Jimmy Durham, who was appointed by Northwest Commissioner Helen Goreham, said that's a decision left up to the Board of Commissioners.

"The direction we have (from the commissioners) is that once we make a cut, we will notify the landowners of the properties that are cut," said Bob Ash, Cobb's public service agency director.

The others will be kept secret until a recommendation of properties is made to the commissioners, he said.

Eddie Cannon, Cobb parks and recreation director, said the committee would likely present a recommendation to the Board of Commissioners in September. The committee is expected to nominate about 20 properties for the board to consider purchasing.

That could be pushed even later as it appears the committee won't begin making site visits to the parcels until August. Nine of the committee members have travel plans in July.

The committee's next meeting is July 6 at 6 p.m. at 100 Cherokee St. Public comment is open the first 15 minutes of the meeting.

Secrecy shrouds Cobb’s parkland plan

From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Sunday, May 3, 2009, by Jeremy Redmon and Mary Lou Pickel, AJC staff writers.

Cobb County officials won’t disclose the locations of 277 properties they are eyeing for parkland, and a county committee says it will meet behind closed doors to decide which ones should be purchased with taxpayer money.

The secrecy is necessary, say county officials, to prevent land speculators from driving up prices as they prepare to spend $40 million in proceeds from a bond issue voters approved last year. Many other local governments in Georgia and other states operate similarly, citing the same concern.

Critics, however, don’t buy the county’s argument now, particularly amid a recession that is socking property values. They say publicizing the locations of the properties could encourage owners to make their prices more competitive.

“I’m not sure if I really understand all of the secrecy around this,” said Jeff Wood, who serves on the 15-member committee county commissioners appointed to evaluate the properties. “I just happen to think that it is may be a little bit shortsighted because there is so much competition for the $40 million.”

The county rejected an April 22 request from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for the list of 347 properties the public nominated for purchase. In doing so, it cited an exemption in Georgia’s Open Records Act that allows governments to withhold records related to real estate transactions “until such time as the property has been acquired” or the transaction has been abandoned.

The county’s secrecy is not new. Cobb also kept things under wraps while buying parkland with proceeds from a bond issue voters approved in 2006.

Asked about the secrecy, Cobb Commission Chairman Sam Olens said he is deferring to the county attorney’s office, which has recommended against releasing the information. Olens said he also doesn’t want to interfere with the work of Wood’s committee.

Olens, however, said he would direct the county to disclose the locations of the properties the committee ultimately recommends, as he did after the 2006 parks bond issue. County commissioners, Olens added, will vote on purchasing the parkland in public after giving residents an opportunity to comment.

“I can clearly see both sides of the argument,” Olens said about disclosing the locations of the properties.

Cobb isn’t keeping everything secret. Bob Ash, the county’s public services director, said the properties are from all over the county, though most are in western Cobb. They range in size from a fraction of an acre to 150 acres, Ash said.

The county solicited nominations through the news media, county water bills and newsletters. Anybody was allowed to nominate a property, even if they did not own it. Cobb officials have said they would seek to buy land only from willing sellers, so they reached out to the owners of the nominated properties. For 70 properties, the county either got no response or the owners said they were not interested in selling. So those properties were taken off the list.

Some of the property owners described their land during a public hearing April 21. Barry Allen, for example, promoted the 4.5 acres he said he owns at 5570 Old Stilesboro Road in Acworth. He said it is relatively isolated, includes a pond and is adjacent to the entrance of an existing park.

“My property is pastoral,” he told the committee. “It has some trees, a house, an outbuilding, a barn and a pool.”

Committee members, meanwhile, say they will consider 10 factors in recommending which properties the county should purchase. Price is not on the list. At the top of the list, however, is whether a given property is in an “underserved area.” That factor will weigh the most — 14.87 percent on a 100 percent scale. The county defines it simply as property “located in an area in need of additional public parks.” Cobb officials say they have not devised a quantifiable way to measure that criterion, but officials say they could look at population statistics and distances to existing parks.

The committee ranked the rest of the criteria in this order: parcel sizes, potential for long-term public use, environment, accessibility, linkages to other parks and trails, topography, hydrology, history and whether the property is in danger of imminent development.

Paul Paulson, chairman of Cobb Parks Coalition, said the last two criteria should be given more weight. And like Jeff Wood, Paulson says the locations of the properties under consideration should be publicized.

“There is absolutely no reason to cut us out, because we should know what is going on,” said Paulson, whose grass-roots coalition promoted the parks bond issues in 2006 and 2008. “We want to be part of the process just like we have from the beginning. We voted for this.”

But John Pape, the committee’s chairman, said his panel doesn’t want to irritate property owners.

“Last time around in 2006 or 2007 there were people — whose properties were publicized — who were not happy about it,” Pape said of the county’s efforts to buy parkland after the 2006 bond issue. “And that did impact negotiations.”

Land owners eager to sell park land to Cobb

From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Sunday, May 24, by AJC staff writer Mary Lou Pickel.

The possibilities seem endless.

For sale:

• A lake and 19 acres in West Cobb.
• A 122-acre tract near the Douglas county line, complete with a creek, two ponds and numerous springs.
• A house and carriage house at the site of an old whiskey distillery on 2.7 acres in Vinings.

Cobb County wants to buy park land, and residents and developers are more than ready to sell.

Harsh economics times have turned a buyers’ market into a virtual going-out-of-business sale.

Industrial sites, private homes, even a strip of land with a Civil War earthwork is for sale.

Cobb County voters approved a $40 million bond program last fall to buy more greenspace.

A 15-member citizens advisory committee will meet at 6:30 p.m. June 1 in a side room near the Cobb County commission chambers in Marietta to debate a list of 277 properties nominated for purchase. There will be a brief public comment period.

The committee will winnow the list down to between 20 and 50 properties by the third Monday in June, according to Bob Ash, Cobb County’s director of public services. At the top of the county’s criteria is the mandate to buy land in areas underserved by parks.

Cobb County won’t release the list of the nominated parcels, citing public records laws that it says allow the county not to divulge information about real estate transactions. Nevertheless, the county has held two public hearings where property owners have hawked their land, giving PowerPoint presentations about why the county should buy it.

Ash said the citizens advisory committee should pick the best park land, regardless of where it’s located in the county.

“We don’t want to make it a public contest to see how many people can call in and vote a particular property,” Ash said.

Many who want to sell their land say the market is tough.

“That’s why everybody’s here. They can’t develop their properties right now,” said Steve Tingas, co-owner of 19 acres at the corner of Mars Hill Road and Fords Road in West Cobb. He has owned the land for two years.

Tingas says the land is attractive because it has a lake and could serve as a neighborhood pocket park.

“If it’s not a park, then it will be developed in the next couple of years,” he said.

About two dozen properties are parcels where owners have continually tried to change the zoning, but the County Commission has turned them down, said Cobb County Commission Chairman Sam Olens.

Also available are large tracts for sale, which is “rare,” said Ash.

One of those tracts belongs to Carmine Wright, 66, of west Cobb, who spoke briefly before the citizens advisory committee earlier this month to urge the county to buy his 122 acres at the corner of Brownsville-Lithia Springs Road and Brown Road, near the Douglas County line. The property has close to a mile of creek-front as well as two ponds, numerous springs and grazing cattle, Wright said.

Northwest Cobb resident Tom Downs also told the committee about his 18-acre tract, which used to be a dairy farm and has tall white oak trees.

John Pape, head of the citizens advisory committee, said the committee won’t recommend a property “unless we walk it.”

Linda Dodd Lay, the daughter of former Georgia Tech coach Bobby Dodd, told the advisory committee that her land near downtown Vinings has a home, a carriage house, a creek and a waterfall. It was the site of the old Four Roses whiskey distillery founded in the late 1880s, she said. Lay was quick to point out the distillery was a legal one. Lay is the ex-wife of former County Commissioner Joe Lee Thompson.

Neda Gayle, who lives in south Cobb, spoke in favor of acquiring land next to I-285, near Oakdale Road.

Some of the land is zoned for townhomes. The area has more than 2,000 units and is in need of green space, she said. The county could expand Shoupade Park, which contains Civil War forts built in 1864 by slaves under the direction of Brig. Gen. Francis Shoup, she said.

One 3.5 acre parcel with a Civil War shoupade is owned by speculators who don’t want to build townhomes in this market, said real estate agent Nick O’Connor, who represents the owners. “They are willing to sell at a discount price,” he said, “it’s a deal.”

Landowners flood parks bond hearing

From the Marietta Daily Journal on Wednesday, April 23, 2009 by Ashley Hungerford, MDJ staff writer.

MARIETTA - Tuesday's parks bond hearing felt more like a real-estate forum, with more than 80 landowners lining up to speak on why the committee should recommend purchase of their property.

"Given its natural beauty, size and border with Lost Mountain park, this would be an asset for Cobb County," Catherine Bella said of her family's 141-acre Kyle Farm.

Catherine Hudson's property, on Turner Lake Road in north Cobb, includes a large lake.

"Everyone who fished it has said it's some of the best fishing in the county," she vowed. "We've enjoyed it for 40 years, and we'd like the citizens of Cobb to enjoy it for years to come."

Speakers had PowerPoint presentations, petitions and handouts ready to aid their sales pitches. So many people turned out, in fact, that citizens committee chairman John Pape limited the number of speakers to 50. Each speaker had three minutes to make his or her case.

Another hearing is set for 6:30 p.m. on May 4, for those who didn't get a chance to speak Tuesday. The meeting will again be conducted in the Board of Commissioners meeting room.

Wylene Tritt, who owns 54 acres on Roswell Road next to East Cobb Park, also spoke Tuesday night. Hers was the only top-tier property recommended by the first citizens committee that was not purchased.

"I would like the county to have my property so the park would be big enough for all the residents in the area to enjoy," she said.

The citizens committee is reviewing the 272 nominated parcels that have willing sellers, and will make a recommendation to the Board of Commissioners later this year on which should be purchased using the $40 million in bond money. Voters approved the bond on Nov. 4.

Many of the speakers Tuesday said public purchase of their land would keep developers at bay.

"My plan is to develop it with residential homes if it's not turned into a park," Ron Mann said of his nominated property at 1910 Milford Church Road in Marietta.

Others professed their area was in need of a park.

"This land is ... green and beautiful with Sewell Mill Creek running right through it, and there is a great need in east Cobb for small parks like this," said Ann Russ, regarding land on Sewell Mill Road.

Committee Vice Chairwoman Joni House said the public hearing further emphasizes citizen involvement in choosing new parks.

"People are leaving a green space legacy," she said.