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Area residents reject proposed rec expansions at Dawson County’s War Hill Park
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers asks for Dawson County help with three other lakeside parks
War Hill Park master plan
During an Oct. 19 meeting, Brad Jones with Pond and Company shows attendees potential upgraded camping options for War Hill Park to get their feedback as part of the process for updating the park’s master plan. - photo by Julia Hansen

During a community meeting Wednesday, War Hill Park-area residents were loud and clear when asked for their feedback on possible features that could be added to the recreation site’s future master plan. 

“Based on this, there's not really a want or a need to have any kind of yurt village or extra camping…that’s the input I'm getting back here tonight, at least from the public folks that live nearby,” said senior project manager Brad Jones with Pond and Company. “It’d be up to the county to decide, ‘Well, we don't have that program anywhere else, and this is the only site we have.’”

This story continues below.

War Hill Park is a 99-acre park along Lake Lanier, with 16 acres in its northern portion and 83 acres in its southern part. The Dawson County government is 13 years into a lease with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the park space. 

This community meeting about different potential improvements followed the Board of Commissioners’ initial approval of luxury camping at War Hill Park this past fall, only for the county to find out that any additions to the park first require an updated master plan and corresponding environmental study. 

In May, the BOC approved $124,300 from the county’s general fund to pay for an updated master plan and environmental assessment. 

Pond and Company is a Georgia-based consulting firm that’s worked with state agencies like the Department of Natural Resources and local governments to create master plans and implement projects, like park improvements, for various recreation sites. 

Jones reiterated that he wasn’t proposing “anything specific for the park right now” and emphasized the importance of first collecting community feedback before a master plan would be drawn up. 

Following the Oct. 19 meeting, Jones said his company’s survey would be expanded to the public on Dawson County’s website. Once the survey concludes in about a month, Pond and Company will take that cumulative feedback and design a proposed master plan. 

That plan will then be presented at another community meeting and then brought before the BOC during future work and voting sessions. Once the board approves the master plan for War Hill Park, it will go to the Corps of Engineers.

Potential park improvements could include more traditional and/or upgraded campsites, an education or event center, high-ropes course, a new pier to replace the old one, canoe and kayak-specific docks, fish cleaning stations or more picnic and trail areas.

Jones said the master plan is made to let the Corps of Engineers know what the county may intend to do in the future, even though a given project “may never happen.” 

His company will provide estimated development costs “in today’s dollars” for any projects included in the master plan, and those included projects will be based on citizens’ and county officials’ feedback. 

War Hill Park currently includes four boat ramps, day-use beach and picnic areas, 14 primitive campsites on its peninsula and a nearby bath house/restrooms. 

The park’s original master plan fell through following citizen response to talks of a proposed marina in the mid-2000s, said Long Range Planning Committee member Jane Graves, who attended the Oct. 19 meeting. 

When Graves wondered why a complete county parks master plan wasn’t being done like back then, Jones reiterated the focus on War Hill Park specifically because of the recent focus on it from the proposed glamping project. 

“Just in case anyone didn't know, there is a 267-acre park, Pea Ridge, which is accessed through Forsyth [county] off of Ga.53, which has much, much more room for all of this type of stuff,” Graves added. 

Meeting survey results

Not surprisingly, the top park priority for survey respondents was to minimize on-site facilities and development. 

Jones recognized that War Hill Park Road is an old, narrow and winding county road that’s preceded recent population growth and development along the Ga. 400-Ga. 53 corridor.

“You’ve got the whole development,” he said, “and it's a lot of pressure on these roads that are under-designed and everything else.” 

Other concerns included people speeding up and down the nearby Sapphire Road lost on the way to the park and War Hill Park Road possibly getting bottlenecked in the case of an emergency requiring area residents to evacuate. 

Jones said alignment shifts for the road curves and other road fixes would be “very good recommendations” but cautioned that road work was “not in the scope of what we’re doing.” 

In response to residents’ concerns, he eschewed “any kind of massive development to the park that increases traffic” and said that possible in-park solutions could include gated access and/or a capacity cap to manage volume and security concerns. 

Trails were the top item attendees actually wanted. Jones said possible trail additions could include branded or signed routes for hiking as well as easier loops for more casual exercise or for those with mobility concerns. 

More campsites were predictably near the bottom of the survey rankings for meeting attendees. 

Potential upgraded camping options include other traditional tent sites or possibly hammock sites for scouts or families.

Jones also mentioned sites for glamping or yurts, a portable, hard-shell tent that can be set up similar to a glamping site. 

Glamping is a step up from traditional camping and entails access to both outdoor recreational resources and comforts like beds, mini-fridges, air conditioning and heating.

Yurts have been installed in a lot of state parks in recent years and, similar to the glamping sites set up at the Amicalola Falls or Forsyth County’s Shady Grove campgrounds, an outside contractor would handle operations, while still bringing in funds for the county. 

“Some people want to go camping but don't want to be in a tent, they want to be in something slightly nicer,” Jones said. 

These kinds of sites would have to be placed near a comfort station, since bathrooms aren’t inside, Jones added, and water and electricity would also have to be added at the park for these upgraded campsites. 

Looking at the park’s 2007 master plan, Jones explained that a road could be added to access the park’s northern section, along with a parking area and a few more picnic areas and trails. Then, some improved campsites could be added to the southern part of the campgrounds.

Other options, like an education or event center, didn’t even make attendees’ top rankings.

Multiple people at the meeting wondered who exactly the improved War Hill Park would serve, and Jones said he’d watch the survey results and if the wider public gives “completely different” responses, he’d point that out to Dawson County’s Parks and Rec personnel. 

“We have to balance both [local and general audience wants],” Jones said of the forthcoming master plan. “What are we going to do, and what are we going to take out?” 

Area resident James Brewer encouraged his neighbors to reach out to District 3 Commissioner-elect Alexa Bruce with their concerns. 

“If you want to do something about making sure we don't kill people on War Hill Park Road [with the traffic], talk to her,” Brewer said. “Go to the [county] commission meetings.”

Other lake parks 

Parks and Recreation Director Matt Payne also presented a major proposal during the board’s Oct. 20 work session: the Corps of Engineers wants Dawson County to partner with them on managing Nix Bridge, Thompson Creek and Toto Creek parks.

Payne explained the Corps of Engineers made the request during a recent meeting he, District 2 Commissioner Chris Gaines and County Manager David Headley attended.

“The reason that our friends at the Corps have said [that] is they just don't have the funds to take care of them like they would like to,” Payne said. “The big question is, ‘Can we handle it? Can we do it?’”

The parks and rec director liked the idea and the challenge in theory. 

“The realistic answer is from a staff standpoint, I don’t have enough [employees],” he said. “That’s hundreds and hundreds of acres and programming that could go into those parks. If we were to take over these parks, we’d really have to look at our 2023 budget, which is another discussion for another time.”

Payne later added that beyond the first year of such an agreement or agreements, it would be especially important to look at options for funding a park or parks’ maintenance.

Previously, Dawson residents took to social media upset after Nix Bridge Park as a whole and Toto Creek Park’s campground were closed until spring. Thompson Creek Park was rumored to be closed, but it is open, Payne said. 

Payne wanted the board to consider authorizing him to enter into negotiations with the Corps of Engineers in efforts for the county to take partial or full control of these other three lakeside parks. 

If the board ultimately approves the move, Payne said he’ll form a team for the negotiations. 

Payne explained Nix Bridge Park, which has a nice passive area and a single boat ramp, is hard for people entering to turn around in, especially if they have a boat. 

Thompson Creek Park presents some promising opportunities with its pavilion, but it overall “needs some tender love and care,” Payne added. 

As for Toto Creek Park, its campground calls for about triple the nine campsites it currently has. 

With boat launch fees being mentioned, Payne pointed out that further plans for this kind of arrangement would include “all kinds of offers on how to generate revenue.” 

Gaines also pointed out the sales money made in the county from people buying boating and fishing supplies and snacks before going to the lake and mentioned forthcoming Corps of Engineers statistics on that kind of “trickle-down effect.” 

Gaines emphasized that the local Corps of Engineers people he met “want to keep these [parks] open.”

“The reality is, from a fed standpoint, the funding is drying up, so there's a timeline they can keep them open,” Gaines said, adding that the Corps is only planning for the parks about 12 months ahead at a time. 

“Beyond that, if it comes down to it and they have to shut down these parks permanently, and we don't have some form of agreement with them for a partnership, then that economic benefit or trickle-down part would dry up,” said Gaines. “So we need to take all of that into consideration.” 

Dawson County could pursue either a shorter-term, five year lease or a long-term, 25-year one, like what’s already in place at War Hill Park. 

The short-term option would give both the Corps of Engineers and the county some measure of control, with the longer lease giving the county “complete control,” Payne added. 

While the longer option seems more appealing, he, Gaines and District 1 Commissioner Sharon Fausett chafed at the prospect of getting hit with another required environmental study and master plan update, like with War Hill Park. 

“Certain ones, it may be more beneficial to take full control, and with other ones, to do a partnership,” Gaines said. “Under the partnership right now at War Hill, DNR doesn't patrol the park area, and that falls back on us, whereas if there’s a [joint] partnership, that’s part of the negotiation process, and things can ebb and flow a bit better.”

“We have to look at all options,” Gaines added. “Otherwise, if [they close] down, that doesn't do anybody any good.”