More than half of the Oaky Woods Wildlife Management Area in Houston County that’s now leased by the state from private owners could soon become public land for good if Georgia officials agree to pay a nearly $29 million asking price.
More than 9,500 acres of the almost-16,000-acre swath of forest, prairie and wetlands that the state has leased since 1966 would come under state control in the proposed $3,000-an-acre deal, which still has a number of hurdles to clear.
“That’s the big ‘if’ here. This is just an option to buy,” Lauren Curry, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ director of public and governmental affairs, said Monday.
The 18-member Georgia DNR board will meet in Atlanta on Dec. 7 and Dec. 8. If on the first day of meetings the board’s land-acquisition committee signs off on the proposal, the next day it would go to the full board for a simple-majority vote. Then it would be passed on to the State Properties Commission, which meets Dec. 13, for final approval.
“The goal would be to close by the end of the calendar year,” Curry said of what would be a bond-funded acquisition.
Oaky Woods, a haven for hunting and fishing, spreads south and east of Bonaire. Its easternmost bounds hug the Ocmulgee River bottom from Ga. 96 on down east of Kathleen and Ga. 247 and into the northern reaches of Pulaski County.
Private developers’ plans for the land have been criticized by conservationists in recent years. The state’s option to acquire 9,595 acres is from those developers.
The ownership group, known as Oaky Woods Properties LLC, has expressed ambitious long-range intentions to use at least some of the property as a canvas for new town centers with upwards of 30,000 single- and multi-family dwellings, possibly served, eventually, by as many as 10 new schools.
A DNR memo about the potential sale notes that the portion of land Oaky Woods Properties is not selling, parts nearer to Ga. 247, would apparently remain open to some form of development.
“The sellers will retain the right to cross the property in two places for a possible sewer line easement and the right to use (a road) to service the sewer lines,” the memo states.
The DNR memo detailing the potential acquisition calls Oaky Woods “the largest, most ecologically important unprotected tract of land in the central part of Georgia. It ... contains extensive upland pine, forested wetlands, a blackland prairie and is the core habitat for the Central Georgia black bear population, the third largest in the state.”
The memo also notes that the stretch of the Ocmulgee River it hopes to preserve is a “very important” one for “endangered robust redhorse and numerous mussels.”
“We tried to get as much river frontage as we could over there to the west of the Ocmulgee,” Curry said.
If the deal goes through, she said, “our plan is to continue to operate it as a wildlife management area.”
“The state would now own half of it rather than leasing it from the current landowners,” Curry said. “Our purpose is land conservation for generations to come.”
The Oaky Woods WMA survived budget cuts two years ago when the price tag on its $12.50-per-acre-per-year lease came under state scrutiny.
The land made up 9 percent of all WMA acreage in Georgia but accounted for nearly 20 percent of the state’s total annual lease costs for such properties.
Curry said a move by the state to acquire Oaky Woods has “been burning for years, but on the back burner. And it’s just taken a long time to get to a deal that the state could feel comfortable with.”
Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report.