Maxine Suzman’s leafy lawn on Northside Drive is shaded with mature trees and certified as an Audubon Wildlife Sanctuary. Through the greenery, across the street sits Bobby Jones Golf Course, which she once viewed as a companion park and now, as it undergoes a massive transformation, as a destructive surprise.

“The course needed a change. It didn’t need a lobotomy, though,” said Suzman during a recent visit as she pointed out the bulldozed landscape of the historic golf course, the distant towers of Peachtree Road now visible across it.

Neighbors Bryan Baer and Maxine Suzman stand at the construction fence of Bobby Jones Golf Course on Northside Drive. The tree loss and the cellphone antenna behind them are some of their complaints. (John Ruch)

She’s one of six residents suing the private foundation that oversees the course, whose transformation began as a community effort and has ended up in court. In a June 19 hearing, a judge declined to put an injunction on the golf course work before the case is heard.

In a 2016 land swap, the 1933 golf course passed from city to state ownership, while renovation and expansion plans are being carried out by the private Bobby Jones Golf Course Foundation. The six residents say they’ve been unpleasantly – and unlawfully –surprised by recent work on the course and changes to the renovation plans: the mass felling of trees, the erection of a new cellphone antenna tower, the placement of a maintenance shed and driveway on Northside and more.

The foundation says it’s state land, so city codes – such as the tree preservation ordinance – don’t apply. The residents got an attorney who argues that state case law proves otherwise. They filed suit in Fulton County Superior Court in May.

The other plaintiffs include Bryan Baer, Lynn Barksdale, Jeffrey Carper, Jeannette Greeson and Li Yu Lo. Baer, who is an attorney himself, lives at the corner of Northside and Longwood Drive, where some of the course’s biggest trees still stand, but many were cut down in recent months.

“For me, it’s more a governance issue,” said Baer, adding that while the community generally likes the foundation folks, they worry about the future. “If they’re above the law – and that’s not true – there’s nothing stopping another regime coming in and having a huge party there and fireworks happening after midnight… We are willing to back off of the position of having to comply with city law if we can come up with a reasonable governing structure.”

“We respectfully disagree with the contention in the lawsuit that the project is subject to city of Atlanta ordinances,” said Chuck Palmer, the foundation’s chairman, in an email. “The property is owned by the state of Georgia, all the buildings and improvements are owned by the state of Georgia, and all the building drawings are reviewed and approved by the state of Georgia. We do hope this litigation can be resolved to the mutual satisfaction of everyone involved.”

Efforts to upgrade the golf course began several years ago through such groups as the Atlanta Memorial Park Conservancy. The relationship got more complicated in 2015, when the city said the 18-hole layout was no longer safe and a reversible nine-hole reconfiguration was required. Then in 2016 came a controversial land swap, where the city traded the golf course to state ownership in exchange for properties, including a parking garage, near downtown’s Underground Atlanta to smooth its sale to a developer. The state’s expansive vision for the course included a golf hall of fame, a home for golf associations, an education center and more.

State Rep. Beth Beskin was involved in the years of golf course meetings, starting around 2013, and said some of the changes have surprised her, especially since the state took over.

Some of the older trees on the golf course remain after others around them were felled along Northside Drive. (John Ruch)

“Initially, it was a neighborhood effort to substantially change Bobby Jones,” she recalled, but the land swap raised the issue of exemption from city review processes. “I was disappointed at the time…that this deal even happened, and it happened so quickly,” she said of the deal “to essentially trade a park for a parking lot.”

She agreed that at least parts of the golf course plan had changed without notice since the state takeover.“I can tell you, I never saw a plat or map drawn to represent that maintenance shed being on Northside Drive,” she said, saying it raises issues of noise pollution and traffic. “When I saw that, I was shocked and disappointed.” Earlier versions of the designs showed the shed deeper in the course.

Beskin said she was in recent talks with state officials and believed a compromise on the shed, at least, was within reach. But the residents filed the lawsuit before anything was put on paper, she said.

Residents aren’t the only ones who have recently questioned the golf course renovation, which is expected to be completed this fall. Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, a major environmental advocacy organization, recently complained that the work was coming too close to the Peachtree and Tanyard creeks, leading to some compromise on tree-cutting and other measures.

Baer and Suzman say they never got any direct outreach from the golf course planners. “We woke up and trees were decimated,” Baer said.

“I bought [my] property because I thought I was going to be next to nature. Now it’s commercial,” said Suzman. “It really changed the character.”

Palmer said that the foundation will move ahead with its renovation work.

“Our plan continues to be to open the golf course and range this fall,” Palmer said. “We believe everyone, ourselves included, will look forward to that opening and to seeing and playing the golf course.  We do not know what the plaintiffs will do next. We would like to re-engage the surrounding neighborhood associations in discussions about the project, but the filing of the lawsuit derailed those discussions.”

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.