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Gwinnett's long wait for green space

Deshong Crossing purchase on, off, on, off ...

The idea was simple: Gwinnett residents, sick of the smell of baking blacktop, would convince county officials to buy 200 acres and set it aside as a green space. Deshong Crossing would be a haven from development — a place of trees, creeks and even reputed Indian burial grounds.

But, in the last five years, bureaucratic foot-dragging has stymied the purchase. The county has missed chance after chance to buy the southwest Gwinnett tract. Meanwhile, the cost of the parcel has crept up.

This January, previous owner Reuben Rainey told the Gwinnett Daily Post that he'd offered to sell the land to the county in 1997. He said the county told him no thanks. Finally, in January 2000, Rainey sold Deshong Crossing — about a mile east of Stone Mountain Park — to developer Stephen Been for $4.6 million. Although Been said he planned to build several hundred homes and two office buildings on the property, he didn't rule out selling the parcel. But the price tag skyrocketed — to $10.6 million.

All wasn't lost for park advocates, though. Last October, Gwinnett Commission Chairman Wayne Hill offered his constituents a deal: If they supported a 1 percent special sales tax at the polls in November, he'd use part of the anticipated $320 million windfall to purchase Deshong Crossing. (He also noted — imprudently, it would turn out — that the county expected to pay up to $10 million for the property.)

Re-energized, the Summertown Home-owners Association jumped to Hill's aid. Members launched a telephone campaign, walked door to door and sent out flyers urging voters to pass the sales tax (commonly called SPLOST). And on Nov. 7, they did.

Things were looking up for the greenies. Until Jan. 2, that is, when John Dunn went to his first meeting as a new Gwinnett commissioner. Voters were pinning high hopes on him to save Deshong Crossing. After all, as a slow-growth candidate, he'd championed the green space cause.

But he confounded his supporters when he voted against purchasing the property. First, he said, the property was too close to the county line, so DeKalb County residents would be benefiting from a Gwinnett County purchase. Second, he said Been's $10.6 million asking price was inflated, especially compared to the $8.1 million that the county estimated the land was worth. Finally, Dunn was suspicious of Been, wondering aloud if he'd ever intended to develop the land or was trying to shaft taxpayers in a land speculation deal.

Dunn's vote alone wouldn't have been enough to kill the initiative. But three other commissioners, figuring Dunn knew what was best for his own constituents, voted with him.

But in a surprising reversal, the com-mission decided three weeks later to offer to buy the less-pricey residential portion of Deshong Crossing — about 171 acres of the 200-acre parcel — for $5.05 million, even though Been said he wasn't interested in selling just part of the tract. What's more, commissioners threatened to condemn the property if their offer wasn't accepted. On February 14, spurred by the developer's refusal of the offer, the county filed a lawsuit, thereby moving the case into condemnation.

This latest move baffled Dunn and fellow freshman Commissioner Marcia Neaton-Griggs, the only two to vote against making the offer. "They could have gotten this done a long time ago," Griggs says. "If they would have done their homework in the first place, we could have saved ourselves a bundle."

Griggs was also distressed that the county's offer was based on the developer's appraisal, and not the $4.7 million that the county had estimated the residential portion was worth.

"By doing that, you validate the developer's appraisal," Griggs says. She fears that the county could compromise its bargaining ability by lending legitimacy to the higher figure. The offer could be used as an argument by the developer during condemnation proceedings, in which the court determines a fair market value on the property based on appraisals from both sides.

Because such an offer was never extended before moving to condemn the property, Griggs worries that the county could be ordered by the courts to buy the entire tract. On February 28, at a pretrial hearing in the Gwinnett Superior Court, the developer argued that it would be too expensive for him to develop only the commercial part of the property, and has asked the court to consider condemning the entire area. His argument is that his plans to move dirt from the residential area to the commercial area for leveling would be scuttled, forcing him to pay for truckloads of dirt to be brought in. The next hearing for the case is set for April 16.??