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Macon Telegraph: Federal Loan Could Preserve Oaky Woods

This article originally appeared in Macon Telegraph, Wednesday March 18, 2009

by S. Heather Duncan

For the first time, the state is including Oaky Woods in a list of Georgia projects eligible for federal loans to buy and protect land.

In a draft report it plans to submit to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, Georgia provided a rough cost estimate of $8 million for a potential loan to preserve 14,000 acres of the wildlife area in Houston County.

“We know enough to know that between local governments’ and private conservation groups’ interest, we decided we wanted to include Oaky Woods,” said Curt Soper, director of Georgia’s land conservation program.

A popular hunting and wildlife area, Oaky Woods was purchased in 2004 by a group of Houston County developers who plan to build 30,000 homes there.

Home to one of the state’s largest black bear populations, Oaky Woods has been a source of controversy for Gov. Sonny Perdue, who had declined the Nature Conservancy’s offer to help the state buy the land.

The state has been in talks with the owners of Oaky Woods periodically ever since. This year, the developers hired lobbyist Brad Alexander to press their case at the Capitol, but he said Tuesday that he isn’t representing them any more.

“They did have some preliminary discussions with the state this year and were not able to get to a place where the owners could make a deal,” he said. “They are not actively pursuing a conservation deal with the state at this point.”

Lauren Curry, spokesman for the state Department of Natural Resources, said the state remains interested in the entire 21,000 acres.

“We still think this land is very desirable, but we’re not currently negotiating on a specific price,” Curry said.

Soper said he wasn’t sure how the state arrived at its $8 million number, but the point was to get the project on record as a priority.

There is about $30 million available in the federal land conservation revolving loan fund, which is different from the state’s fund, Soper said. Since the federal program was created in 2005, about 10 projects around Georgia have received a total of $10 million to $15 million in loans from it, Soper said.

The money typically goes to local governments or nonprofits and is combined with other funding sources.

But it’s unclear who might apply for a federal loan this year.

The Houston County Commission had informally discussed the idea of holding a referendum asking taxpayers to pay an extra penny on the dollar toward purchasing the land, but commission Chairman Ned Sanders said that’s unlikely to advance this year.

“With the economy the way it is and constraints on us trying to get a 2010 budget together, it’s unlikely we’d go out and call for a referendum,” he said Tuesday. “I’m very doubtful there’d be any local match in the next few years. I’d like to say yes, but I can’t in good conscience.”

Sanders added that he continues to talk to the players about brokering a deal for the protection of Oaky Woods. Last week he answered a letter from a 6-year-old boy who pleaded for him to preserve it. Essentially, Sanders told the boy he’d try, but it would take a long time. However, Sanders said the recent slowdown in the construction industry has taken some of the pressure off.

And although the state and Oaky Woods owners have been unable to agree on a price, the gap between their numbers has been narrowing due to the economic downturn, said state Sen. Ross Tolleson, R-Perry. Tolleson has remained close to negotiations, which he said had continued as recently as last week.

He noted that the state can’t legally pay more than the land’s assessed value. Although the Nature Conservancy was pursuing Oaky Woods at one time, officials with the nonprofit indicated earlier this year that they haven’t been involved recently.

Georgia Environmental Facilities Authority’s priority list for projects to receive federal funding includes potential economic stimulus funds this year, but those funds can’t be used for land acquisition, Soper said.

The agency is holding a hearing today on its entire draft list of potential Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Fund projects, which total about $144 million.

The hearing will be at 10 a.m. in the GEFA board room on the ninth floor of Harris Tower, Suite 900, at 233 Peachtree Street in Atlanta.

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