The state’s purchase of thousands of acres of a popular Houston County wildlife management area cleared another significant hurdle Wednesday when the Department of Natural Resources board voted 11-6 to approve the $29 million deal.
The state purchase would preserve 10,000 acres of Oaky Woods west of the Ocmulgee River, including black bear habitat, the highest quality known Georgia Eocene chalk prairies, endangered plants, and river habitat for rare and endangered fish and mussels.
If the purchase is approved Monday by the State Properties Commission, the deal is scheduled to close before the end of the year.
According to DNR documents, the department expects to spend $57,815 in fiscal 2011 on operating the wildlife area it has purchased, and about $150,000 the next year.
Many local residents, from hunters to bear enthusiasts, campaigned for conserving Oaky Woods after the land was purchased in 2004 by a group of developers planning to build 30,000 or so homes there.
“Unfortunately, the state didn’t purchase this land years ago when it was a much better deal, but ... protecting this and other WMAs is a priority in my opinion in spite of the economy and other factors,” Mike Duncan wrote in an e-mail. The longtime Oaky Woods supporter said he was pleased with the sale but disappointed the state is not buying the whole property.
Reactions to the state purchase, which will protect about half the land owned by Oaky Woods LLC, vary from enthusiasm to disgust. The range reflects the political turns the issue has taken over the years.
For decades, the land was owned by Weyerhaeuser, which harvested timber but leased wildlife management rights for 16,000 acres to Georgia.
The company auctioned the land in 2004, with the winning bid of $1,600 an acre going to a partnership of businessmen including Houston County mega developer Charlie McGlamry, The Sports Center in Perry owner Charles Ayer, Warner Robins real estate agent Scott Free and Atlanta partner Art Williams Jr. Eventually they formed Oaky Woods LLC.
At the time of the sale, the Nature Conservancy offered to buy the land on behalf of the state if Georgia would pay for it later. But the state refused the offer, with Gov. Sonny Perdue saying Georgia couldn’t afford it.
During the 2006 gubernatorial election campaign, Democrats filed ethics complaints against Perdue over the decision, saying he had a conflict of interest because he had purchased 101 acres next to Oaky Woods through a limited liability company the day before bidding closed. Perdue has longtime relationships with many of the partners, some of whom were campaign donors or fundraisers on his behalf.
In the last few years, the bottom has fallen out of the economy and the state has made deep cuts in education, services to veterans and the mentally ill, among other areas. But the current deal would pay Oaky Woods LLC $2,874 an acre -- 56 percent more than it cost six years ago.
Houston County resident Tom Thornton pointed out, “The state was in better shape then than now. ... Back then, teachers weren’t being laid off/furloughed, our property taxes hadn’t been raised and the state was much more financially able to buy the entire tract” at a more reasonable price.
“My personal feeling is that the sole purpose of the investors was to buy the land and sell it to the state at an outrageous profit, being friends of the governor,” Thornton said. He called it a bailout that will benefit the investors, but not taxpayers.
However, the price is still notably less than the $14,000 an acre Ayer had said the partners were seeking in 2007.
Wednesday, Ayer said the property “never had an asking price.”
He said the state has been “a good negotiator.” The state can’t legally pay more than the appraised value of land, and the final price landed between the two appraisals commissioned by the DNR.
“Their appraisals were based on timber land, not Houston County land” where property values have been increasing, Ayer said. “We had our own appraisals done, and they came up higher than theirs.”
Although the Houston County Assessors’ Office puts the land at a lower value, its appraisals don’t include the timber, Ayer said. He said the partners have only thinned the pulpwood, and much valuable timber remains.
“The state drew the lines they wanted,” he said Wednesday. “They got most of the river frontage and most, if not all, of the creek bottoms,” as well as the main road systems through the property.
And the state actually negotiated extra acreage and a better price in the last week. The original agreement would have included 9,595 acres for $3,000 an acre.
“We wanted to make it work,” Ayer said. “We’ve always wanted to conserve part of” the land.
Ayer and Perdue’s spokesman have said the governor was not involved in the negotiations. But the timing of the agreement, only a few weeks before the end of Perdue’s term, leads some observers to credit the governor.
“I commend Sonny Perdue and the owners for reaching this compromise,” said John Trussell, head of a citizens group called Save Oaky Woods. “I’m happy with what they did. It’s been a long, hard process. ... The curtain was closing on this deal with the governor leaving office.”
Trussell, a Houston County naturalist who conducts tours of Oaky Woods, said most people he’s heard from are pleased with the deal. “A few years ago, we expected nothing.”
He said he hopes to see Save Oaky Woods evolve into a Friends of Oaky Woods support group for fundraising and volunteering. “We’re going to stick together and try to expand the perimeter where we can,” he said.
Patrick Lynch, a graduate student who has spent two years surveying and sampling plants at 30 sites in Middle Georgia, said the majority of the most ecologically valuable limestone forests occur in the portion of Oaky Woods the state is buying. He wrote a letter to the DNR supporting the purchase.
“I was very pleased to hear of the pending initiative, though I would have been happier had it included more of Oaky Woods,” he wrote in an e-mail Tuesday. Oaky Woods LLC is keeping much of the land that is nearer to Ga. 247 and Ga. 96, and may still develop in future, Ayer said. Given the state of the economy, the owners now plan to maintain it as timber investment property, he said.
At $12.50 an acre, the current state lease, which lasts until the end of June, is the most expensive for a wildlife management area in Georgia. Ayer said owners increased the lease price over time to cover their property tax bill, which runs about $11.25 an acre.
To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.