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$1 payment may keep park a park

W.R. Altman gave 3.5 acres of land to Screven County for Blue Springs Park in August 1951 for the price of one dollar, and wanted the land to be used “as a public park or recreation ground,” according to the deed.

Neighbors who are trying to save the park argue that Altman’s intentions 58 years ago should be respected today. County commissioners recently announced they would try to sell the park by taking sealed bids in late September. But when some residents protested, commissioners decided to postpone the sale for 90 days to allow the neighbors time to try to find a way to save it.

Commissioners have said they are concerned that someone might drown in the shallow waters that remain at the springs, leaving the county exposed to an expensive lawsuit. Selling the park also would mean the county would no longer have to maintain it, the land likely would return to the tax rolls and the county would make some money on the sale.

When Altman donated the land to the county, residents already had been using the property “for several years with Mr. Altman’s approval,” according to an editorial in the Sylvania Telephone that was printed Sept. 7, 1951. “The people who live in the South end of the county have enjoyed the facilities at Blue Springs every summer,” the editorial read. “Mr. Altman wanted to make the arrangement a permanent affair, so he deeded the property to the county. It was a most generous and thoughtful gesture and one which the citizens of Screven County appreciate greatly.”

Gerald Johnson, who lives across from the park, said he hasn’t yet talked to a lawyer, but he’s hoping that the phrase in the deed: “as a park or public recreation ground, forever in fee simple,” will hold some legal weight in protecting the park.

The phrase “forever in fee simple” is a common one used in deeds. It doesn’t mean the property must forever be used as a park, according to Hubert Reeves III, the county attorney. Since the springs were essential to the park and they dried up long ago, Reeves said he believes the county has the legal right to declare the property surplus and sell it.

“One of the first things we did in this country, different from England, was change the concept of entailing property forever,” Reeves said.

Altman’s granddaughter, Linda Widdowson of Jacksonville, Fla., said when the springs were flowing, her grandfather’s intention was for the park to be enjoyed by everyone. “He envisioned it as a nice area for people to come to,” she said. Back then, very few people had swimming pools. Places such as Blue Springs, creeks and rivers were some of the few locations where people could swim.

“That was his idea of solving the problem – for fun and recreation and family use,” she said. “With the springs dried up, I don’t know what he’d think. … It’s not useful, not like it used to be for sure.”

What to do with land that is donated as a park can cause a dilemma for many governments. The City of Sylvania still owns about 24 acres that was donated 26 years ago for the purpose of developing a park named after George M. Hill Jr. The land was never used as a park.

Mayor Margaret Evans said the property is off of Buttermilk Road, just past the Bypass and outside the city limits. The land originally was donated to Screven County and the City of Sylvania, but the county soon decided to relinquish its share to the city. The city evaluated the land’s potential as a park and decided at the time that the area was too isolated, said Evans, who was a member of the city council at the time.

She said the city still owns the land and it could still be made into a park one day.

Evans said if families want to donate land to the government for the purpose of a park, they might want to consider including a clause that requires that the property revert to the family or its heirs if circumstances lead to the park never being built or the park being closed. “I wouldn’t want to do it any other way,” she said.

The tax assessor’s office has valued the 3.5 acres of Blue Springs Park at $46,400, which would be approximately fair market value. The county commission, with input from the planning and zoning board, would decide what to zone the land if the park were sold, said Mike Dixon, zoning administrator and county building inspector.

He said property frequently is zoned the same thing as nearby property. Blue Springs Park is adjacent to residential and agricultural land.