By Tia Lynn Ivey managing editor A controversial $3.7 million land sale, that is still pending, has lead to two Joint Development Authority (JDA) members, Keith Ellis and Mort Ewing, resigning in December. Both contested that the deal would yield millions of dollars less than what the JDA originally paid for the land, and Ewing went so far as to question the very legality of the pending deal. Ellis estimated the land pending to be sold should be worth around $6.5 million, based on what the JDA originally paid for it. Ellis and Ewing were the two Newton County representatives on the JDA, the four-county board charged with overseeing the development of Stanton Springs, which owns about 1600 acres of land total. The pair resigned due to the board’s recent approval of selling 536 acres of Stanton Springs to a private house developer, Chandler & Clarke LLC, believing the terms of the agreement result in a huge loss for the JDA and the taxpayers of the four counties who foot the bill for the land. The four counties represented in the JDA are Newton, Walton, Morgan and Jasper counties. The Morgan County representative on the JDA, Andy Ainslie, was uncertain of the reasons for the resignation of Ewing and Ellis. “I am not really sure what happened with that…there seems to be some dysfunction in our neighboring county,” said Ainslie.The JDA originally paid about $5000 per acre and then fronted the cost of running water and sewage lines, which brought the JDA’s investment to about $13000 per acre. According to the Newton Citizen, “The JDA and its development partner, Technology Park Atlanta (TPA), have entered into a contract with Chandler & Clarke LLC for the sale of a total of 536 acres of land — 379.83 acres of developable land at $8,000 per acre, 114.73 acres of flood plain at $3,000 per acre, and 42 acres of land designated for future detention ponds at $8,000 per acre.” However, after the JDA splits the proceeds in half TPA, plus TPA’s 7 percent commission, and pays to build a 1400-foot long road leading into the development (as stipulated in the contract), the JDA would have $832,000 left over. Ewing and Ellis submitted a three-page letter to the JDA detailing their grievances about the deal, with Ewing asserting that the deal may even be illegal.
“We were taught Georgia law prohibits local governments, including public authorities, from giving away public money and property to private companies and individuals,” wrote Ewing, who went on to say the land deal ‘may be vulnerable to a legal challenge for this reason and perhaps others.” Ewing noted he was resigning to protect himself and his assets. According to the Newton Citizen, “Ewing and Ellis note that the JDA has invested about $13,500 per acre in the Stanton Springs property, which includes the original purchase price of $5,000 per acre, plus the cost of water and sewer lines and construction of Baxalta Parkway. Based on that formula, Chandler & Clarke would have to pay more than $7.2 million to the JDA for the land in Stanton Springs.” While the JDA approved this deal, with Ewing and Ellis voting against it, the land sale is dependent upon the Newton County Commissioners approval to change the Stanton Springs master plan to accommodate the development of a town center and housing subdivision called Emerald Springs, that could eventually have 180 single-family homes it. The deal is currently 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 and the Newton County Commissioner will have the final vote on the matter. But proponents of the deal argue that not all land is created equal—especially the land that falls in the flood plains. Ainslie also believes the deal is fair and the JDA will earn back the rest of its original investment with the 1000 acres of land leftover. “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,” explained Ainslie. “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.” According to the Newton Citizen, “treasurer Steve Jordan, the citizen representative from Jasper County, also defended the contract price, saying that not all of the Stanton Springs property has the same value. ‘We still have 1,000 acres after this (sale),’ Jordan said. ‘(The land value) figure averages out when you look at the development as a whole. There are properties that are going to sell for more than $13,000 per acre because they are worth more.’” The Newton County BOC is slated to vote on the rezoning stipulation that is currently stalling the deal sometime in February.