The city of South Fulton is suing Fulton County for control over several county-owned amenities, including arts centers, libraries, an amphitheater, a shooting range and other properties.
South Fulton Mayor Bill Edwards announced the lawsuit in a press conference Wednesday, saying his two-year-old city has a right to the properties because they fall under the legal definition of parks that state law requires counties relinquish to new cities.
The lawsuit comes after more than a year of negotiation and involves a bit of irony since Edwards, as a Fulton commissioner, fought transferring county property to other new cities when they formed.
“It was a grueling and contentious set of negotiations,” Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul said about his city’s efforts to get parks and fire stations from Fulton County, and Edwards’ disinclination to let them go.
Mike Bodker, the mayor of Johns Creek, said he remembers Edwards as among those county commissioners who gave his start-up city a hard time when property transfers were negotiated.
“Now he wants to use the same argument,” Bodker said. “If that doesn’t drip with hypocrisy, I don’t know what does.”
“I respect all the north Fulton mayors,” Edwards said. “We want to negotiate. It’s just what we feel we should have. … I understand the north county (cities were) fighting for things.”
Edwards said South Fulton is willing to pay fair market value for properties like the Wolf Creek amphitheater, but others should be transferred for $100 an acre — the discounted rate cities get for county parks.
In negotiating for the properties, South Fulton asked the county to transfer $400,000 earmarked to beautify Wolf Creek, if the city was required to pay full price for the property.
Edwards said he became exasperated when the county said the amphitheater, the Tom Lowe shooting range and the Wolf Creek and South West branch libraries were “off the table.”
“We didn’t want to do this, man, this is crazy,” he said of the suit filed in Fulton County Superior Court. “We’re fighting for equity. We’re not demanding no more than we should get.”
As the negotiations ended unsuccessfully, it affected other agreements.
A letter from the county attorney gives the city until the end of the month to get out of the South Fulton annex, which it had been using for council meetings free of charge. Alternatively, the city could pay $1,000 per use, the letter said.
And the city has until the beginning of December to vacate the public safety and transportation centers, or it will be charged more than $120,000 a month for those facilities, which the city is also using free of charge.
“The City of South Fulton has not accepted any of the offers made by Fulton County,” county attorney Patrise Perkins-Hooker said in a statement. “At this point, we have exhausted all practical solutions and must now allow the judicial process to run its course.”
County worried about `piecemeal depletion’ of libraries
The county acknowledged in letters attached to the lawsuit that the Southwest and South Fulton arts centers should be considered parks under the law. It disagreed about the other properties, including the county’s Public Safety Training Facility, which is part of the Wolf Creek complex.
In letters, county attorneys said the shooting range sits on top of a closed landfill, and they could not transfer the landfill as a park. They also said the Wolf Creek amphitheater’s proximity to the Merk Miles landfill presents an environmental problem, and disputed that it is a park.
Instead, county officials said, the amphitheater is an entertainment venue.
As far as the libraries are concerned, the attorneys acknowledged that they could be transferred to the city. But they said to do so would lead to a “piecemeal depletion” of the library system, and so they declined to include them. The county has already transferred parks and fire stations to the city.
“I assure you that the County’s decision not to transfer the landfill upon the City’s request is not in bad faith, as you suggest,” said one letter signed by Perkins-Hooker. “Rather, it is based upon a detailed legal and factual analysis, the impossibility of dividing these interests, and the reality that the property has been, is, and will always be as a matter of law a landfill.”
Emilia Walker, South Fulton’s attorney, said she wanted to ensure the library buildings were under city control if they were no longer being used as libraries. The county is in the midst of a multi-million dollar plan to renovate its 34-branch library system.
In a statement, Perkins-Hooker said the county has treated South Fulton like a partner, and has offered numerous compromises, including in negotiations about the amphitheater. In another letter, she gave the city until Wednesday to accept the latest terms.
That did not happen.
AT A GLANCE
The third time was the charm for the City of South Fulton, which was approved by voters in November 2016 after two previous votes to form a city in the unincorporated south part of Fulton County failed. The city became operational May 1, 2017. It has about 100,000 people. Mayor Bill Edwards is a former county commissioner who represented the area for years, and was known informally as its mayor before the city was incorporated.