Categories: General Date: Jan 23, 2009 Title: Macon Telegraph: Lobbyist Hired to Sell Oaky Woods as Nature Preserve
This article originally appeared in Macon Telegraph, Friday January 23, 2009
By Travis Fain
The group that owns Oaky Woods, a massive tract of prime woodland in Houston County, has hired a lobbyist in another push to sell the land as a permanent nature preserve.
The group, which includes several Houston County businessmen, hired Brad Alexander — Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle’s chief of staff until last year — when he left to form a new lobbying and consulting group, Georgia 360 LLC.
Oaky Woods has been a major source of controversy for Gov. Sonny Perdue, who owns land nearby. Perdue said the state couldn’t afford to help purchase the popular hunting area and black bear habitat back in 2004, when the Weyerhauser timber company put it on the market.
Investors bought it for $32.1 million and, though they continue to lease the area to the state as wildlife management and hunting area, the group also announced plans to build more than 30,000 new homes on the land.
That development proposal has been unpopular in Houston County, as well as with hunters and conservationists. Warner Robins Mayor Donald Walker recently called the massive building plans “a dead issue.” Faced with roadblocks to developing the land and with an interest in seeing the area preserved, the owners have been through several rounds of negotiations with the state about selling the land.
But by 2007, the price had gone up significantly — from the $1,600 an acre the group paid for it to about $14,000 an acre. Talks fell apart, with co-owner Charles Ayer saying the state and the ownership group couldn’t agree on a fair price for land in fast-growing Houston County.
Alexander, the lobbyist, said this week that he couldn’t lay out a current per-acre asking price for the land. But he acknowledged that the state’s current budget problems make a sale more difficult. Perdue has suggested more than $2 billion in cuts to this year’s budget, including massive cuts to the land conservation grant program.
Alexander said he’s working with several entities in the hopes that funding for the deal can be split up. John Trussel, who founded Save Oaky Woods, said money could be “stitched together” from public and private sources. That could include a penny sales tax in Houston County, he said.
Trussel said he talked to Ayer recently about the plan and that Ayer said the ownership group won’t raise the price it charges the state to lease the land as a wildlife management area next year.
“As a sign of goodwill,” Trussel said.
Ayer and other owners did not return telephone messages seeking comment.
Alexander said development is “not off the table” for the area, but the ownership group wants to “put the land in some kind of permanent conservation status ... if they can work out a deal that’s fair.” Trussel called recent developments “encouraging.”
To sell the land, though, Walker noted the owners are going to “have to get right on the price.”
DOT POWER SHIFT IN THE AIR
Almost since the session began, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has been reporting on a behind-the-scenes deal to radically change the way the Georgia Department of Transportation is governed.
The long and short of it, from the paper’s online “Political Insider” column: Instead of legislators in each of Georgia’s 13 congressional districts electing DOT board members and those members picking the commissioner, the board would be appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the house, with the governor choosing a commissioner.
That seems like a tough sell, given that members of the General Assembly would have to vote to give up their power over board members to make it happen.
But it may be part and parcel of a deal to increase transportation funding in the state, according to the Political Insider.
Middle Georgia’s DOT Board Member, Larry Walker, has been around state politics for decades. He was a longtime legislator from Perry and now represents the 8th Congressional District on the board. He’s also the board’s vice chairman.
Walker told The Telegraph that changing the way the DOT board is named would be difficult, but not impossible.
“If the speaker and the governor and the lieutenant governor got behind it and they pushed it hard enough, they could probably pass it,” Walker said. “It wouldn’t be easy.”
But a greater concern, Walker said, is bringing more clarity to the way transportation is managed in this state.
Right now there is a “hodgepodge” of groups, Walker said. That could include the alphabet soup of boards the DOT deals with, such as the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority and the State Road and Tollway Authority.
“Whatever (the governor and Legislature) want to do is fine with me,” Walker said. “(But) I would like to see some clarity.”
MERCER MEDICAL BUDGET CUTS
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle is scheduled to be in Macon on Monday, mingling with students and faculty at the Mercer School of Medicine during an evening event.
Perhaps they’ll talk about budget cuts the school would take under Gov. Sonny Perdue’s recommended budget.
The medical school got hit with a 6.7 percent cut in fiscal 2009 and a suggested cut of nearly 9 percent next year.
Altogether, that’s a two-year cut of more than $3.7 million. State funds don’t make up the school’s entire budget, but they are the largest single source of funds, according to Senior Vice President Larry Brumbly.
Medical school officials are working to absorb the proposed cuts, Brumbly said, and their effect “is still being sorted out.”
PLAINS WELCOME CENTER MAY BE SPARED
One of the smaller items on the chopping block for the coming year was the state welcome center in Plains, birthplace and home of former President Jimmy Carter.
The center got the ax in the governor’s proposed fiscal 2010 budget, but it looks like it will get a reprieve.
There’s a state law that actually requires the state to fund a welcome center near the home of any Georgia citizen who becomes president of the United States, according to state Sen. George Hooks, who represents Plains and the surrounding area.
“I don’t know how you’re going to staff it or what you’re going to do, but you’ve got to open it,” Hooks, D-Americus, told Georgia Department of Economic Development Commissioner Ken Stewart on Thursday during the department’s budget hearing.
“I was not aware of this,” Stewart said. “I now know, and we’ll certainly go look at our options.”
The cut would have saved the department $186,407, according to the 2010 budget document. It was part of more than $8.6 million in cuts for the department, including a $3.8 million hit in tourism programs.
MAYORS HEADED TO ATLANTA
Mayors, city council members and other city officials from around the state will descend Monday upon the state Capitol to lobby the state Legislature.
According to the Georgia Municipal Association which coordinates the lobbying day, contingents from numerous Middle Georgia cities, including Macon, Warner Robins, Perry, Centerville, Forsyth, Byron, Fort Valley, Roberta, Dublin and Milledgeville, are expected to attend.
Macon Mayor Robert Reichert “looks forward to working with other city leaders from all over the state of Georgia during this year’s Mayors’ Day,” his spokesman, Andrew Blascovich, said.