Thirty-two-year Dunwoody resident Don Converse said he has never been to Arabia Park near Lithonia and probably never will. Instead he enjoys volunteering in community garden in nearby Brook Run Park.
But Converse is tired of seeing the two dilapidated mental hospital buildings on the park’s property. And he is tired of paying approximately $400 annually that goes into DeKalb County’s budget instead of being used to fix up the park.
That is why Converse joined the city of Dunwoody in filing a lawsuit against DeKalb County for more than $7 million it claims should go to Brook Run Park. In 2005, DeKalb County voters passed a bond referendum that contained $11.5 million for Brook Run Park. To date an estimated $4.5 million has been spent, according to the lawsuit.
“We were promised a certain amount of money and we’re entitled to get it,” Converse said. “I’d like to get something in return.”
Dunwoody officially took over ownership of the park in July when DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis executed the order transferring the park to the two-year-old city, according to Dunwoody’s attorney Brian Anderson. On Aug. 20, the transfer was finalized with a quick claim deed filed by the county in DeKalb Superior Court.
After the deed was filed, Dunwoody officials made a phone call to the county asking for the bond money.
“They said they’d get back with us,” Anderson said. After receiving no money or response, Dunwoody sent a demand letter to Ellis’ office in September asking for the park money. There was still no response. Now the matter will go before a judge.
Dunwoody officials expect a judge to order the county to transfer the remainder of the money to the city, Anderson said.
According to Anderson, when a municipality takes over a park from a county, the county must turn over any unused bond money earmarked for the park.
“We’re not expecting it to be that big of a battle because the law is pretty clear,” Anderson said. But if there is a legal war over the money, Dunwoody is ready. To fight on its side, the city has hired former Georgia Supreme Court chief justice Leah Ward Sears of the law firm of Schiff Hardin, which has been handling the city’s tax anticipation notes for two years.
Sears said her firm would be agreeable to settling the matter out of court, but is prepared to go before a judge because the lawsuit is more than about a park.
“It’s about taxpayers being promised one thing and government officials not following through,” Sears said. “This goes to the heart of the democratic system. It’s way more than about a park.”
Brook Run Park, at 4770 North Peachtree Road in Dunwoody, was once the site of Brook Run Hospital, which served the mentally ill. The hospital was composed of several buildings in addition to a theater and greenhouse.
“It was state-of-the-art at the time,” said Bill Grossman, president of the Dunwoody Homeowners Association. Grossman said he and other residents regularly bought plants from the hospital’s greenhouse.
Nearly the size of Piedmont Park in Atlanta, Brook Run Park is popular because it is the only significant park in Dunwoody, Grossman said. The 102-acre park has a community garden, dog park and skate park. And there are still some unused hospital buildings on the property.
“It looks like it’s been abandoned,” Sears said. “And it has been—by the government of DeKalb.”
In a statement released last week, the county’s chief communications officer Burke Brennan said, “The county is reviewing the Dunwoody lawsuit, which it just received, and will respond at the appropriate time in an appropriate manner consistent with the interests of all the county’s citizens.”