Path to reopening Intrenchment Creek Park remains unclear due to land swap litigation

A small group gathers before entering into Intrenchment Creek Park. The public park has been closed since DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond issued an executive order in March, citing public safety concerns found by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

In the late afternoon golden light of a hot Atlanta summer, a small group of people quietly hike down a forested path in South DeKalb’s Intrenchment Creek Park toward a destroyed campsite and makeshift memorial.

“Is this where they were killed?” DeKalb County Commissioner Ted Terry asked.

“Yeah,” replied Brad Beadle, “You can see a shotgun shell there.”

The group of environmentalists, community members and media circle around a trench outlined by spiky sweetgum seeds. It’s where state troopers shot and killed protester Manuel Teran in January. 

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation will not confirm the exact location where Teran was killed, but community members led their family to this spot. Teran’s ashes were scattered here, firmly in what’s left of Intrenchment Creek Park.

DeKalb County Commissioner Ted Terry kneels with Brad Beadle at the site where environmental activist Manual Teran was shot and killed by Georgia State Troopers in Intrenchment Creek Park. A small memorial hides in the brush where Teran’s ashes were spread by family. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

The public park has been closed since DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond issued an executive order in March, citing public safety concerns found by the GBI. But access to the park has been limited since the county traded the park’s entrance and main trails to a private real estate company in 2020.

Terry’s been trying to get the park reopened since May, but the path to reopening is not very clear. 

The county announced in June it will use $1.8 million from the 2023 Tourism Product Development Fund — which comes from hotel and motel taxes — to build a new entrance and trails within the park. County officials said at a June committee meeting they intend to fully redevelop the park before opening it. 

Terry argued that other parks in the county remained open while under construction.

He said the county had not updated commissioners on what attempts it made to remove the public safety hazards so DeKalb residents can use the park again. When he asked to go to the park to see if the public safety concerns were cleaned up, his request was denied, but the county sent a map of possible new trail routes. 

Katherine Kolb, a master naturalist, stands next to what is believed to be the second largest cherry bark oak in Atlanta while describing the tree’s significance. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

Terry is in charge of the county’s public safety committee and the park is in his district. 

“So much about this land is sacred,” he said. 

At the latest commission meeting this month, other county commissioners started to ask questions, including Steve Bradshaw of District 4.

“If my memory serves, what induced the executive order to begin with was hazards,” he said. “What’s the criteria for determining if those hazards no longer exist?” 

The story of the forest

The struggle to reopen Intrenchment Creek Park is often tangled up with the conflict over Atlanta’s 85-acre, $90 million police and fire training facility slated to be built just across the creek.

Teran was camping in the park in protest when state troopers shot and killed them. GBI says Teran shot at an officer during a multi-agency raid to clear protestors out of the forest. Advocates dispute that account. 

But the problems at Intrenchment Creek Park started before the shooting.

There’s ongoing litigation about a 2020 land swap when DeKalb County traded a portion of the public park land to the private real estate company BlackHall Real Estate Phase II LLC. And there’s an even older question local environmentalists ask about protecting the creek based on a decades-old federal Clean Water Act case against DeKalb County.

The county received the deed to Intrenchment Creek Park in 2003. It spans multiple parcels of land, and DeKalb still owns a large swath of the park after the 2020 land swap. As the county says it’s planning to rebuild, environmentalists want to make sure it takes care of the forest.

Katherine Kolb craned her neck upward as she walked toward an oak tree that towered over the rest of the forest. 

“This is the second largest cherry bark oak in Atlanta,” she said. Kolb is a master naturalist who has been involved in Atlanta-area environmental work for decades.

“It’s a huge tree. It’s an old growth tree. It’s a relic tree,” she said. “We can kind of read the story of the forest through its tree forms.

The hikers shrunk next to the magnitude of this tree. The Muskogee call it the grandmother tree, and Kolb said it was probably kept to provide shade when the park was part of the Old Atlanta Prison Farm. 

Its canopy completely concealed the sky.

Environmentalists like Kolb want to keep this tree safe, as the private real estate company knocked down other trees in December. The county had to issue a stop work order to prevent more damage.

The county has to build a new entrance and new trails because they traded the original entrance to that real estate company. The company then ground up paved trails and put what was left of a park gazebo, partially crushed, upside down next to the road.

Attorneys for Blackhall have not responded to requests for comment. 

As Terry and the group hiked out of the forest, they passed some of the proposed new trails near Teran’s ashes. 

Joe Peery led parts of the hike. He revived the Friends of Intrenchment Creek Park volunteer group and is involved in the lawsuit over the land swap.

“I looked at the overlay of the map that the county had for the boardwalk, and it’s right through here,” Perry said, gesturing toward the former campsite and Teran’s memorial.  

“They can’t do it,” he said. “Not here.”

Joe Peery stands near the memorial of environmental activist Manual Teran, surveying the forest floor for signs of disruption. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

DeKalb County has no timeline or immediate plan to open the park. Terry did bring a report from the hike back to the commission. It deferred any decision until October.