The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has decided to turn over management of Bethel Park, a 62-acre corps property on Lake Lanier in Forsyth County, to the YMCA of Metropolitan Atlanta.
The YMCA has been seeking since 2003 to develop a residential camp at the site. The corps was set to award the lease to the YMCA in 2006, but local residents around Bethel Park complained to the Forsyth County Commission.
“Negotiations (with the YMCA) had been going on for quite some time without any public comment or knowledge,” said Donald Ward, a Forsyth resident who has opposed the YMCA’s plan.
The county, which has already leased several other corps parks, sought to take over Bethel as well and submitted a development plan in 2007.
Forsyth officials argued that according to the corps’ own regulations, the county should have been given the right of first refusal before the contract was offered to the YMCA.
Forsyth County proposed to run Bethel Park as a 75-site campground with a day-use area, open to the general public.
The YMCA’s $20 million plan includes residential cabins, a marina, sports fields, dining hall, amphitheater, chapel, outdoor pool, and a number of administrative and support buildings.
The corps published drafts of both the county and YMCA proposals in January and invited the public to comment.
“We had far more favorable responses from the YMCA than from proponents that did not want (the YMCA to have it),” said Lisa Coghlan, spokeswoman for the corps’ district office in Mobile.
She added that the YMCA had followed all of the corps’ requirements, including conducting an environmental impact study, and the corps could find no reason to refuse the YMCA’s proposal.
“Theirs was in the best interest of the public,” she said.
In a statement explaining the corps’ decision, public affairs officer Patrick Robbins said the corps’ evaluation team “felt the YMCA’s proposal ranked significantly higher in three of the evaluated areas ... public interest, market study, and feasibility.”
A representative for the YMCA could not be reached for comment Wednesday evening.
Ward said there was no mystery as to why there were more letters supporting the YMCA’s plan.
“They got members to send in comments who had never even been to the park,” he said. “There were (form letters) on the front counter of every YMCA branch in Atlanta.”
To compensate for giving Bethel to the YMCA, the corps has proposed to enhance amenities at another nearby corps property, Two-Mile Park.
“That will only make things worse,” said Ward. “The YMCA camp would increase traffic immensely on Bethel Road, which is not designed to handle it. And if you had more people going to Two-Mile Park, that would also increase traffic at the other end of Bethel Road.”
Aside from traffic and noise, Ward feels the YMCA camp would take away a recreational opportunity from local residents and would not contribute to the county’s tax revenue.
“It’s going to be a private park, not open to the public,” he said. “It brings no business to the county, because people will come up from Atlanta, drop off their kids, and go home. If it were a campground, people would stay and spend money at local stores.”
Charles Laughinghouse, chairman of the Forsyth County Commission, said he was surprised at the corps’ decision.
“We kind of thought the corps would want to play it smart and not step into that hornet’s nest,” he said. “No matter which side they awarded it to, there’s the potential for legal action from the other side.”
Laughinghouse said at the commission’s next meeting June 10, he may call an executive session to discuss the possibility of legal action on the Bethel Park decision.