Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Oaky Woods has Perdue in a sticky wicket

Sonny the land mogul

A 19,000-acre tract in Middle Georgia - described by experts as one of the richest nature preserves and hunting grounds in the Southeast - may shortly be filled with 17,000 homes and become a closed private city.
You can thank Gov. Sonny Perdue for making it happen - and for making himself richer.
In 2004, Perdue effectively blocked a $25 million offer from the national Nature Conservancy to buy for Georgia's public use the Oaky Woods property in Houston County. Oaky Woods was envisioned as a permanent natural area similar to Sapelo Island on the coast and the Smithgall Woods Conservation Area in Northeast Georgia. The Oaky Woods land would have been set aside for the use of Georgia hunters.
Perdue refused to issue a letter to the conservancy to declare that the state had an interest in acquiring Oaky Woods for conservation purposes at an unspecified date, perhaps years in the future. Perdue's refusal resulted in the conservancy withdrawing its offer to lend the Georgia chapter of the Nature Conservancy $25 million to buy the property for public use.
Instead, Perdue acquired for himself 100 acres adjacent to Oaky Woods for slightly more than $300,000, the value of which has soared to more than $750,000 in a mere 18 months.
A group of Middle Georgia developers, led by politically plugged-in Charles McGlamary, purchased the wildlife-management preserve from Weyerhaeuser Co. The Houston County Board of Education reports in official minutes that the Oaky Woods property will be used to accommodate 17,000 houses.
The investors have said they hope to turn the giant subdivision into a so-called private city in which developers are allowed to levy taxes and operate utilities in a special government entity exempted from Georgia's sunshine laws.
Earlier this year, the Georgia Legislature scuttled a bill to permit private cities (similar to ones in Florida), but Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson has promised to reintroduce the legislation next year.
The Oaky Woods deal emerged in February 2004 when conservation-minded Weyerhaeuser announced plans to sell off huge tracts throughout Georgia and suggested the state might be interested in having Oaky Woods.
The Georgia chapter of the Nature Conservancy immediately began negotiations to secure Oaky Woods, said to be one of the largest black-bear habitats in the South. Officials of the state Natural Resources Department declared that Oaky Woods could become one of most important conservation acquisitions in Georgia's history.
The national Nature Conservancy shared the enthusiasm and offered to put up the money for the property for Georgia - if Gov. Perdue would just assert in writing that Georgia government had an interest in buying it one of these days. Perdue said no.
The governor's involvement in the Oaky Woods transaction is the latest revelation regarding Sonny and his land/tax deals. Other arrangements involved multimillion-dollar sales in Houston County and an acquisition near Disney World in Florida - plus a special $100,000 backdated tax break on one of the Georgia deals.
State Rep. Larry O'Neal, Perdue's lawyer and tax adviser, counseled the governor on these transactions and shepherded passage of the tax exemption. O'Neal is chairman of the state House Ways and Means Committee, which writes tax laws. In addition, O'Neal sits on the board of the Columbus Bank & Trust Co., which provided a $23 million loan for the Oaky Woods development. CB&T executives are hefty contributors to Perdue's political kitty.
When Perdue won election in 2002, he declined to place his business interests in a private trust, as his predecessors had done. He said he needed to tend personally to his private businesses. Hardly anybody at the time dreamed those interests included becoming a real estate mogul.
Perdue is expected to be re-elected governor without much trouble on Nov. 7. No one has again mentioned the possibility of a blind trust to protect the governor in his second term from the appearance of conflicts of interest between his public duties and his private businesses. In fact, such an idea in the current atmosphere is laughable.
You can reach Bill Shipp at P.O. Box 440755, Kennesaw, Ga., 30160, or e-mail: shipp1@bellsouth.net.
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