Barker Overlook site plan

FORSYTH COUNTY, Ga. — A plan outlining a new phase of upgrades at the Sawnee Mountain Preserve was not received with open arms by the Forsyth County Commission at its Nov. 24 work session. While commissioners did not completely dismiss the proposed master plan, there was a consensus to redraw certain elements of the blueprint.

The Phase 4 master plan dealt with two areas on opposite ends of the 821-acre site. One included development of the former “Barker House” property, which formerly housed the county’s most unique home, a flying-saucer-shaped residence designed by architect Jim Barker, that was demolished in 2017. Now formally deemed the Barker Overlook, the site has an elevation of about 1,960 feet.

The other area outlined in the improvement plan was the Sawnee Mountain Preserve Visitor Center property along Spot Road.

Some commissioners were most outspoken about the visitor center upgrades, specifically related to parking. The master plan calls for adding 34 parking spaces. That was not enough for some commissioners to warrant the county’s investment.

Forsyth County purchased 2.6 acres for $170,000 to expand the property in 2017, according to County Attorney Ken Jarrard. Some of that land is shown as future parking in the plan with another portion slated to be an open field.

Commissioner Cindy Jones Mills said she understood the county was purchasing the site to expand parking, and she would have never agreed to support the purchase if portions were going to be used as a field.

“I just think the greater need is for parking,” Mills said.

She added that with the plan calling for trees to be planted in the area, it would limit any future parking expansion without having to remove trees or purchase more land.  

Commission Chairwoman Laura Semanson agreed, stating a rectangular field is not the best use of the property when more parking is needed.

Parks and Recreation Director Jim Pryor agreed that parking on the site, which also serves as a trailhead for the Big Creek Greenway, can be “crazy” at times. He said his department did want to have an open space on the property, and by adding more parking, stormwater issues would come into play. With the board’s comments, Pryor suggested a redrawing of the master plan.

“Now is the time to get it right,” Pryor said.

Commissioners did not take issue with any of the other proposed site upgrades, which include a new pavilion, improvements to the grounds and a storage building.

For the Barker Overlook site, Commissioner Molly Cooper spoke out against the possible upgrades stating they would essentially ostracize those with disabilities.

To limit car access to the overlook, the master plan calls for a gate along Tower Road that would restrict passage to anyone who was not a homeowner beyond the gate, a homeowner’s guest or county staff. Visitors wanting to reach the overlook would be required to hike along a trail that is not proposed to be ADA compliant due to the extreme slopes of the area.

Cooper argued this would lock out those with disabilities, denying them from enjoying the overlook.

Allowing vehicle access to the overlook would go against survey results from those in the area, who shared they wanted to restrict vehicle access. Commissioner Mills said homeowners near the site were adamant in that point.

Cooper and Pryor said they were open to allowing bus access through the gate to reach the overlook, perhaps on certain dates or times.

Cooper said she does not believe the design “is a total failure by any means,” but she did want the matter further explored.

In addition to new access trails, the master plan for the Barker Overlook site calls for a pavilion, restroom building and plaza on the summit of the property.

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