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$28.7M Oaky Woods deal OK’d; appraisals remain secret
By JIM WALLS
Georgia today agreed to pay $28.7 million for a 10,000-acre bear habitat in Houston County but still won’t release the appraisals used to determine that value.
Critics complain the state is paying too much to bail out landowners who bought the site for an ambitious mixed-use development that never happened. The land abuts 101 acres owned by Gov. Sonny Perdue.
The final price — $2,875 an acre – is 80 percent higher than the sellers paid for the property six years ago, before the real estate market collapsed. The state cited two 2010 appraisals to justify the higher price.
The land and timber was valued at $2,405 an acre in January and $3,010 an acre in October, according to appraisal summaries released by the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) last week. Houston County’s tax assessors value the property at $1,165 an acre.
State officials declined to disclose details of those appraisals, which would include comparable sales and an analysis of market conditions, even after today’s vote by the State Properties Commission.
State law allows — but does not require — government agencies to withhold appraisals while a deal is being negotiated and until it is closed. Atlanta Unfiltered last week asked DNR to waive that privilege since the total proposed purchase price has been public for two weeks.
DNR would not release the information, department spokesman Lauren Curry said in an e-mail:
“…it has not been DNR’s practice to release this type information while a deal is still in the discussion phase (i.e., until it closes). The DNR is exempt from disclosing this material at this time pursuant to OCGA 50-18-72 (a)(6)(A).”
DNR even refused to release its contracts with the appraisal firms that set that value. Curry said the exemption covers those documents as well.
The state’s option to buy the property specifies Dec. 31 as the last permitted closing date.
DNR has leased the timberland from Weyerhaeuser Co. for use as a wildlife management area since 1966. The property – a core habitat for black bears and the largest unprotected tract in central Georgia — has been high on the department’s priority list for acquisition since the paper company put the land on the market.
DNR Deputy Commissioner Todd Holbrook described the property this way before the DNR’s board recommended the purchase last week on a 11-6 vote:
This part of the State still has a viable black bear population, which this acquisition will help sustain. Big Grocery Creek is a beautiful part of the tract with high quality bluff and hardwood floodplains. Because of the location of Oaky Woods there are plants common to both the Piedmont and Coastal Plain physiographic provinces. This site also contains unusual natural communities known as “black belt prairies.” These prairies support cone flower, eastern gammagrass and other species associated with prairies. Widespread exclusion of fire and conversion to other uses has made eastern prairies some of our rarest natural communities.