Posted by: The Last Liberal Gwinnettian | August 11, 2009

Speak Out Against Useless Land Deals!

Gwinnett’s land-grabbing tendencies have made the papers again, this time regarding a vote on the purchase of 16 acres of land near Suwannee. The vote comes after an AJC exposé on Gwinnett’s shady land deals and a call by Gwinnett District Attorney Danny Porter for a grand jury investigation. The deal in question was put forth by Chairman Charles Bannister, and has been the target of heated debate.

This isn’t the first time Bannister has championed a ridiculous land deal. Earlier this year, the Board voted to purchase 33.2 acres of land south of Dacula. In that deal, the land owner applied to the Board to change the zoning of the land so that he could build a 91-home subdivision on it. The Board denied his request and allowed him to build only 33 homes. In response, the developer sued the county. The county initiated proceedings to purchase the land (which the county needs about as much as it needs a hole in the head – the land is intended to expand an adjacent 294-acre plot of undeveloped park land that has been sitting around for about eight years now). The county appraiser valued the land at just over a million dollars. Bannister decided that that figure was far too low and introduced a copy of the developer’s appraisal, which was based on 2006 land sales and valued the land at $2.29 million. Bannister claims that he believes the second appraisal to be the more accurate of the two. Thus the county, at the good Chairman’s behest, paid twice what the county appraisal said they should pay for a completely useless tract of unneeded, undeveloped land – all because the County Chairman was more concerned about the developer turning a profit on the sale than on saving the taxpayer’s dollars.

That, as we’ve discussed in a previous post, is not the only example of shady land deals in Gwinnett’s recent history. According to research by the AJC, Gwinnett County has paid politically connected developers inflated prices for parkland on AT LEAST four occasions in the last two years. Among the shady dealings in these purchases:

  • In arriving at its generous offers, the county did not follow established procedures in buying parkland. Commissioners said that they didn’t need to follow these procedures because the purchases were made to settle lawsuits. Judging by that explanation, this must be common practice, right? Wrong. Buying land to settle lawsuits is not common practice in other metro counties, including Cobb, DeKalb, and Cherokee. As Clayton County Chairman Eldrin Bell said, “Our attitude is not to turn around and buy their property, because we refuse to let them do whatever they want to do.” Only Gwinnett is in the practice of placating developers with hugely inflated land purchases.
  • The commissioners who championed the land deals acknowledge friendships or political affiliations with the developers who sold the land. Oddly, these same commissioners voted on the purchases rather than recusing themselves from the vote based on a conflict of interest. Hmm…
  • In interviews with the AJC, the county commissioners who pushed for the land buys either said they couldn’t remember how the county settled on the purchase prices or said they were not involved in the negotiations. However, the Board of Commissioners not only approves purchases, but it authorizes how high staffers can negotiate. In other words, either the commissioners are totally ignorant of their job descriptions, they all have Alzheimer’s, or they are lying. None of those make me feel very comfortable considering that these people hold the county’s checkbook in their hands.
  • Shadiest of all are the appraisals themselves. Two of the appraisals were done by Lawrenceville appraiser Ron Foster. He didn’t submit a bid, because the county didn’t ask for bids. He was just handed the job. (Wonder which commissioner he’s friends with, eh?) In his appraisals, he used improper zonings in order to inflate the value of the properties. A third appraisal was done using land values from 2006 – the peak of the housing market – even though the deal was made in 2009, when metro land prices had plummeted.

Following these deals is the one that was voted on earlier this week. The land in question has been involved in litigation for years.

A bit of background information from TalkGwinnett:

The land, owned by Ty Robinson and Old Peachtree Partners, LLC, lies in the path of the extension of McGinnis Ferry Road near Suwanee. While Lorraine Green was still the D-1 Commissioner, the county appraised, negotiated and agreed to buy approximately two acres, all that was needed for road right-of-way and a sewer force main.

Before the deal could be closed, the LLC partners backed out; a nearby tract had sold for a higher per acre value and they apparently decided that they could sell the entire 16 acres for a higher price.

The county sued to enforce the terms of the contract; in the alternative, it also proceeded with condemnation to gain clear title. The county has reportedly offered Robinson and the other partners the original, contracted price in the condemnation proceedings.

As land buys and condemnations go, this one was fairly cut and dried. The county sought only that property required to complete the extension. Robinson had agreed to sell at a fair price. When Robinson reneged, the county asked the court to enforce the terms of the contract. Regardless, the county could acquire the two acres through its exercise of eminent domain.

The county has proceeded in good faith and is under no further obligation to Robinson and Old Peachtree Partners, LLC. Inexplicably, however, Bannister brought before the Commission a proposal to purchase the entire 16 acres. Even worse, the purchase price that Bannister proposed is close to the seller’s asking price; approximately double the county’s own appraised value!

Luckily, the commission voted against the land purchase 4-0. However, one has to wonder what prompted this vote. Was it the recent negative media coverage? Was it the threat of a potentially explosive grand jury investigation? Or was it the several hundred emails that flooded county offices? One thing is for certain: It wasn’t because the commissioner’s recognized a bad deal when they saw one.

Charles Bannister championed the deal from the start. Sly guy that he is, he says, “Never before have I seen an issue become so twisted,” referring to news coverage on the deal. He claims such purchases are not unusual and that they involve controlling the cost of litigation. Problem with his reasoning: The deal he favors would cost well over $5 million…the original price for the 2.6 acres that the county actually needs is only $1.1 million. Is litigation on a simple condemnation and/or contract violation really going to exceed $4 million? Somehow I doubt it.

Commissioner Kevin Kenerly (who has championed a couple of the other shady land deals), expressed concern about allowing the lawsuit to go ahead, pointing out that the county had to pay higher than its appraised value in all 14 contested condemnations in the past decade. That’s true – in part. Yes, the county paid more than the COUNTY appraisal in all fourteen deals; however, in the vast majority of those cases, they paid well under independent appraisals.

Commissioner Shirley Lasseter brought forth the motion to kill the land deal. She says, “I think we need to be more prudent with tax money, if we want [residents] to believe and trust in us.” This is wonderful news! They want to be prudent with our money! Good to see that Ms. Lasseter has decided not to follow Charles Bannister on this one, despite generally aligning herself with him in the past.

The only Commissioner who really comes out smelling like roses on this one is Mike Beaudreau, the only commissioner who has not been implicated in any shady land deals. He had this to say about last week’s vote: “Let the courts decide. It seems to me to be a clear-cut case of seller’s remorse.”

So, it seems the courts will decide this land deal. Ideally, I’d like to see the county wind up paying $1.1 million for the original 2.6 acres. But the court case that I’m most interested in will be the grand jury hearing. If DA Danny Porter decides not to go through with this threat, I will be most disappointed. Let’s open the records and allow the tax payers and voters to see how crooked out Board of Commissioners really is. Let’s show Bannister and his cronies for the crooks they are. Let’s clean up Gwinnett’s leadership, and let’s spend tax money where it’s actually needed.

Advertisements

Responses

  1. This is a typical case where Gwinnett has spent money needlessly and quite possibly illegally but the leadership in the District Attorney’s office is too weal and political to do their job. When Danny Porter learned that the BOC had been buying property that we did not need and it looked as if we had been paying millions of dollars more than the properties were worth our DA reacted fast, like Superman. Not by starting an investigation or going after criminal activity like he likes to get on TV and brag about. He sent Bannister a curt email saying if he goes through with “another” one he will present it to a grand jury. At a time when I can’t imagine Porter embarrassing Gwinnett any more it happened again. And for millions of much needed dollars. I think he leaked the email thing to the press to have people pat him on the back like he likes. He didn’t plan on people asking why the heck send an email. I guess he’ll be sending curt emails to the drug dealers that are taking over our county next. Can you imagine the drug dealers running out of Gwinnett. When asked they simply say “we got the email”, we’re out of here. Thank God Al Gore invented the internet. We’d never curb crime around here.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

%d bloggers like this: