5/13/2007

Henry takes heat for eminent domain purchase of battlefield: Atlanta GA Journal-Constitution, 5/8/07

By Eric Sturgis

The tranquil stretch of rolling farmland in the northern tip of Henry County [Georgia] offers no hints of its bloody past.

In 1864, shortly after the Battle of Atlanta, Union soldiers rode to the Nash family farm, looking to destroy Confederate supply lines.

The Rebels surrounded the Union troops, and more than 500 soldiers from each side died in the battle at the farm, known as Kilpatrick's Raid.

Today, a new battle is being fought over the Nash family farm.

More than two years after the county plunked down $8 million to buy the farm — with the grand vision of turning it into a park commemorating the battle — some residents are second-guessing that decision.

They're upset that the county used eminent domain laws to buy the land, and argue the money could have been used to improve traffic or build schools in what is one of the nation's fastest-growing counties.

Opponents are using the Internet to spread their message, and the debate, it seems, is popping up everywhere — from lunch counters to community meetings.

McDonough resident Jason Pye is leading the charge.

In many ways, Pye is a son of the South. A native Georgian, he loves football — on Saturdays — and, of course, sweet tea and chopped barbecue. Initially, he supported the preservation effort.

But Pye's taste for the project quickly changed. He grew angry about the price and wasn't pleased that the county used eminent domain laws to force the sale.

So he's been using his personal Web site to criticize the preservation plans.

"It's over. The South lost. Let it go. Until people accept that, people are going to continue to spend money honoring slavery," said Pye, 26, who is white. "That's morally wrong."

Barbara Torbett, a longtime community activist, is another critic.

"Are we going to buy all the property that has historical significance?" she said. "And what is historically significant?"

Supporters, though, say the farm was worth every penny.

"We're starved down here [for parkland]," said Sharon Sagon, who went to an Easter egg hunt last month at the park. "It's just one of the greatest things that's happened on this side of Henry County."

The Nash Farm Battlefield is perfectly located for a subdivision.

To the east, you'll find a golf-course community, several subdivisions and a retail shopping center. A couple of miles to the west is busy U.S. 19/41.

The Nash family farm was the site of five military actions, according to Civil War historians. Yet, the farm's military history was largely unknown until late 2005, when its owner, auto dealer Maxie Price, approached the county with his plan to build 399 homes on the 204-acre site.

The plan would include some appropriate memorial to the battle, he pledged.

Henry County Commissioner Elizabeth "B.J." Mathis, whose district includes the farm, had a different idea.

She envisioned a park with walking trails and a museum with bullets, breastplates and other artifacts found on the farm.

The county negotiated with Price. He wanted $10 million. The county appraised the property at $4.1 million, according to Mathis. Unable to swing a deal, county commissioners used Georgia's eminent domain laws to force Price to sell them the land.

An attorney assigned to hear the dispute ruled the property was worth $8 million. The county paid that amount, but it's now asking a judge to lower the price.

At first, there was little grumbling about the deal. Over the years, the metal mouths of bulldozers have turned many Georgia battlefields into subdivisions. In Paulding County, a Confederate artillery battery site became the Summer Hill subdivision. The trenches of a Tennessee infantry were leveled for a shopping center.

At the time the county bought the land, Pye and others were busy protesting a plan by Henry's largest city, Stockbridge, to use eminent domain laws to buy businesses, tear them down and re-create its downtown.

After the shouting in Stockbridge ended late last year, Pye and others turned their attention to the Nash Farm.

"The cost was outrageous," said Pye, who is active in Libertarian circles and maintains his own political blog. "Most people feel it could had been used in better places."

Mathis disagrees.

"You don't often have a chance to acquire a historic battlefield," said Mathis, who is looking for grants to bring life to her vision for the property. "The majority of citizens are in full support of its acquisition."

Sagon, known for the elaborate Christmas decoration displays at her home, has had friends call her in recent months criticizing the purchase.

She doesn't get the complaints.

"If we don't remember our past, we are going to repeat it in the future," she said. "I think [preserving the property would] do more to educate the people than drive a wedge in it."

And so, the Nash farm remains a battlefield — in more ways than one.


Atlanta GA Journal-Constitution: http://www.ajc.com