Land deal stalls

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By Tia Lynn Ivey managing editor

Alan Verner, the chairman of the Joint Development Authority (JDA) appeared before the Morgan County Board of Commissioners (BOC) to deliver a presentation on the currently stalled land deal out in Stanton Springs. Verner, joined by Wayne Tamplin, head accountant for the JDA, presented “Plan A” and “Plan B” concerning the JDA’s current options, believing the proposed land deal to be the most beneficial option.

The JDA recently approved a proposed land sale of 536 acres in Stanton Springs for $3.7 million in a 5-2 vote for the purpose of residential development near the coming $1 billion Baxalta Plant. But the deal with developer Kippy Clarke and partners Chandler & Brown has stalled due to 44 acres of the land needing to be rezoned to Residential in order to gain road frontage and closer proximity to Baxalta, as well as greater access sewer lines. The Newton County Planning Commission denied the request for rezoning and the Newton County Board of Commissioners tabled the request on Dec. 2. The sale is contingent on changing the master plan of Stanton Springs to reflect the residential land development deal.

TheJ DA, a four-county board comprised Morgan, Walton, Newton and Jasper counties, is tasked with overseeing the development of Stanton Springs. Verner and Tamplin said without the proposed land deal, the JDA would be left with about $100,000 in cash flow, but if the land sale goes through, the JDA would reap about $836,000 in profit, after Technology Park of Atlanta receives half of the proceeds, an additional 7 percent commission, and the JDA contributes $1 million dollars to build a 1400-foot long road leading into the proposed residential development.

“The JDA has approved this after a long study of it. We think it’s in our best interest at this time…we don’t know what our future is, but this will get us about a million dollar,” said Verner, who noted the land has the potential to accommodate 800 residential homes. “We can operate the entire organization off this money, and make payments out of this proceeds,” said Tamplin. But some opponents argue that the proposed arrangement ends up with the JDA selling the land at a significant loss and do not believe this land deal is beneficial for the JDA or for the taxpayers of the four counties who fund it. Keith Ellis, a member of the JDA, voted against the land deal for precisely that reason. “I had concerns about selling the land for less than we invested from four counties. We invested significantly more than that,” said Ellis, who noted the average price per acre of the land is just over $13,500.

Based on that price, the land to be sold is worth about $6.5 million in total, yet would be sold for only $3.7 million. However, proponents for the land deal, like County Commissioner Andy Ainslie, argue that not all the land is created equal, noting that a good portion of the land to be sold resides in flood plains and that residential land never garners as much as commercial or industrial lands. Ellis wants to see a residential development happen on the land, but believes this particular deal is not the right one. “I just didn’t think this deal was a good deal for the four counties. We are not trying to prevent housing. That is not the goal. I just felt the deal itself could have been better negotiated…But the JDA has done a great job over the years of working together, and we will continue to that.” According to Mary Patrick, chairman of the Taxpayer’s Watchdog Group out of Jasper County, after all is said and done, this deal amounts to an 87 percent loss of the taxpayer money originally invested into this land back in the early 2000s. “It’s a complete waste of taxpayer money,” said Patrick. “To lose this much money right off the bat with this land deal is what is so concerning…We have been paying into this since around 2002, and now you are going to lose everything we paid into this in one bad land deal.” Ainslie, who also sits on the JDA board, argues that the land deal is just the first piece of the puzzle in securing future funds to help recuperate the four counties’ investment.

“There’s over 1600 acres of land and this portion of the land, minus the 40 acres we requested to be rezoned, was always intended to become a site of residential development. It is also the weakest part of the land, the least desirable and when I say least desirable, I mean commercially and industrially speaking. So yes, this portion of the land would be sold at a lesser rate than the rest of the land, but that money would be recouped through the higher price the industrial and commercial portion of the land would yield. Even if this sale goes through, all of the commercial and industrial parts are still there with a higher value.”

“We always thought this was going to be the hardest sale,” said Ainslie. “There is nothing on that land now. Do we wait around another 16 years and hope a different opportunity comes along? This is just part of the entire investment. A residential area then brings in the need for a town center component, which brings in more people and businesses, and makes the surrounding property even more valuable. It’s all part of the process.” The Newton County Board of Commissioners will hold a work session sometime in January 2016 and invite leaders from all four counties to further review the zoning issue, which is currently stalling the land deal.

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