Categories: General Date: Jan 26, 2008 Title: Macon Telegraph: New Hope for Oaky Woods
By Wayne Crenshaw
This article originally appeared on the front page of the Macon Telegraph, Sunday Jan. 20, 2008
A year ago, John Trussell didn't have a lot of hope that Oaky
Woods Wildlife Management Area, where he has hunted since he was 15,
could be saved from development.
But now he thinks things have changed.
The political climate has improved, the state is in better financial shape and a slowing housing market might make owners of the 20,000-acre tract more willing to sell it, Trussell said.
He also wonders how many people will actually want to live in an area where black bears might become backyard visitors.
And perhaps most encouraging is a recent example of how the commitment of local residents can spur the state to invest in land preservation.
On Dec. 5, Gov. Sonny Perdue announced the $45.8 million purchase of 6,865 acres for the Paulding Forest Wildlife Management Area. Like Oaky Woods, the property had previously been leased by the state. The purchase deal included $15 million that Paulding County raised through a bond referendum in which voters, by a 2-1 ratio, agreed to a property tax increase to fund acquisition of the land.
Trussell thinks the same thing could happen in Houston County with Oaky Woods. He is heading a group called Save Oaky Woods that aims for a similar deal.
The group has a Web site, www.saveoakywoods.com, and it is selling bumper stickers to raise money for the cause. It's the first organized effort to save the popular nature area, which has been open to the public for more than three decades.
Trussell said he believes voters would support a bond referendum.
"The key is to make it affordable to the average person," he said.
The Paulding County deal included $15.2 million from the Georgia Land Conservation Program, $7.7 million in federal funds and $7.8 million from private foundations and conservation organizations.
The Paulding referendum called for up to 1 mill in additional taxes each year for 20 years, said county clerk Beverly Cochran, but that could fluctuate depending on other factors, such as residential growth. In fact, she said, this year the tax rate is not going up at all.
The county also estimates that land deal would cost the owner of a $200,000 home less than $23 per year.
Exactly what the cost might be for Houston County can't be determined until an agreement is reached on a price. Federal, state and private contributions would also have to be factored in before calculating how much Houston County taxpayers would need to kick in to preserve Oaky Woods.
But both local and state officials said that what happened in Paulding could happen with Oaky Woods, which makes up part of the habitat of a population of about 300 black bears.
Houston County Commission Chairman Ned Sanders said there have been no formal talks about calling for a bond referendum, but he said he intends to explore the idea.
A key, he said, is the county's property tax cap. Sanders said he would need to determine whether an increase from a bond referendum would have to be counted toward the tax cap.
Whether such a referendum would pass in Houston County is tough to say, according to Sanders. A lot of questions about the cost are still to be answered.
"I can't say with any degree of certainty, but I think it would receive reasonable public support," the chairman said.
State Sen. Ross Tolleson, R-Perry, said a Paulding-type deal could be done for Oaky Woods. Tolleson, who chairs the Senate's Department of Natural Resources Committee, said more land conservation funds will be included in the budget for the next fiscal year, but he wasn't sure how much.
A bond referendum would be an important step, he said, because the state would require a local contribution before committing funds to buy the property. The local money would have to come either from a bond referendum or a direct contribution from the county.
Tolleson said there has been "a constant dialogue" toward the purchase of Oaky Woods. He declined to comment on whether the state is any closer now than it has been in the past, but he said he is optimistic that a deal can eventually be reached.
"I think we are moving forward," Tolleson said. "I look forward to a good, balanced resolution to this where really the environment wins and business wins."
While the citizens group is looking to save Oaky Woods, the property's owners are moving forward with plans to create a massive housing development of up 30,000 homes over the next 30 years. The tract, however, is still listed for sale.
Four local developers - Charlie McGlamry, Charles Ayer, Scott Free and Art Williams Jr. - bought the property in 2004 from timber giant Weyerhaeuser for $32 million, or $1,600 an acre. Their asking price to sell it has been as much as $14,000 per acre, or $280 million for the total tract. The county has the land valued at $16.9 million.
Oaky Woods became an issue in Perdue's re-election bid after opponents criticized him for failing to have the state purchase the tract when Weyerhaeuser put it up for sale. Perdue has said the state government was too financially strapped to make the purchase at that time.
Questions also were raised about Perdue's purchase of 101 acres located between his family home in Bonaire and the Oaky Woods tract.
In July, the Oaky Woods owners for the first time sought a zoning change in connection with their development plans. That request remains in limbo.
The group, which now calls itself Winding River Development, applied for a variance that would allow for construction of a wastewater treatment plant on 18 acres of the property. County officials determined the request would require a regional impact study by the Middle Georgia Regional Development Center. The RDC would make an advisory determination of whether the project is in the best interest of the region in the state.
That determination has been delayed while the property owners talk with the city of Warner Robins about whether the city should provide sewer service to the area. Sanders said he attended a meeting at City Hall in December at the request of the RDC. The developers, RDC officials and city officials discussed the matter, but did not reach an agreement, he said.
The county commission chairman said Warner Robins is objecting to the variance request because the development would be in the city's service delivery area, and therefore the city could provide the sewer service. At the request of the developers, Sanders said, he asked for and got a 30-day extension of the impact study, to give more time to try to work out the issue with the city.
Once the RDC issues a recommendation, the Board of Zoning Appeals would have a hearing on the matter, which would set up the first public showdown over Oaky Woods.
RESIDENTS INVITED TO
TOUR OAKY WOODS
Trussell and three other members of the Save Oaky Woods group spent a recent afternoon giving The Telegraph a tour of the property, which is located south of Kathleen. The entrance is a dirt road next to the Frito-Lay plant.
The first destination was a wooded valley where the state's largest swamp chestnut oak resides. Tree expert Danny Hamsley, who previously worked for Weyerhaeuser, estimated the tree is at least 150 years old.
Hamsley said the tract is home to some rare and endangered plants, and it is the site of one of the state's few black belt prairies.
In another part of the tract, Trussell led the party through thick woods to a deep valley and a limestone ridge on a hill. The cliff, he said, was lapped by the Atlantic Ocean about 65 million years ago, and he picked up a couple of sand dollars under the ridge.
Nearby, he pointed out piles of rocks in the trees that some hunters have mistaken for Indian graves. In fact, Trussell said, the rocks were put there by pioneers who were clearing the land to farm it for cotton. The rock piles, he said, mark the edges of the cotton fields.
The valleys and hills in the areas in places look more similar to mountain foothill areas than Houston County, which is largely flat.
Trussell said the Save Oaky Woods group will give tours to anyone who wants to see what they are trying to preserve. People can request tours by going to the group's Web site.
The Save Oaky Woods group includes some prominent citizens, including several retired DNR supervisors, former Houston Medical Center administrator Art Christie, Rolling Stones keyboardist and Middle Georgia conservationist Chuck Leavell and Houston County Chief Magistrate Bob Turner.
Turner, who went along on the tour, said he believes Houston County voters would approve a bond referendum to save the land.
"At first glance it's not spectacular like the Grand Canyon, but when you get down here and realize how quiet it is, it's special," he said.