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Appraisal bills total $24K
County keeps looking at site of golf course
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Forsyth County News

Breakdown of appraisals

* June 13, 2008: Pendley & Pendley Appraisals, $2,000

* March 27, 2009: Ronald S. Foster & Co., $8,500

* March 27, 2009: Ronald S. Foster & Co., $6,000

* May 6, 2009: Ronald S. Foster & Co., $6,000

* June 8, 2009: Pendley & Pendley Appraisals, $1,200

Source: Forsyth County records

In the past year, Forsyth County has spent nearly $24,000 on multiple appraisals of Lanier Golf Course, a controversial site that officials have not publicly admitted they were interested in acquiring.

County documents obtained by the Forsyth County News under the state open records law show that the 170-acre property off Buford Dam Road, which the county is also involved in litigation over, has been appraised five times since June 2008.

County records show invoices paid to two different surveyors -- Pendley & Pendley Appraisals in Cumming and Ronald S. Foster & Co. in Lawrenceville -- totaling $23,700 between June 2008 and 2009.

It's an an issue one commissioner said he has "serious reservations" about.

"I have voiced those reservations many times to fellow board members, that it could appear we were appraisal shopping," Commissioner Patrick Bell said Friday.

"It's a lot of appraisals, and it's an awful lot of money to spend on appraisals for a project that was not part of the [parks and recreation] master plan, was not part of the parks and recreation bond, was not part of anything," Bell said. "It doesn't make sense to me."

It makes sense to Commissioner Jim Boff, whose District 5 includes the golf course east of Cumming.

Boff described the course as "a property which potentially could bring in some revenue for the county."

He said the commission's authorization of many appraisals was "a method for the commissioners, who were supposed to have the entire county's interest at heart, to confuse and therefore prevent an offer coming in on Lanier Golf Course."

"I think the board has been interested in delaying and not buying it," Boff said. "They're delaying by asking for more appraisals."

He added that these actions stem from an effort to "make sure District 5 gets nothing" from the $100 million parks, recreation and green space bond.

"District 5 has gotten nothing," he said. "District 2 has gotten tons and District 4 has gotten tons. It's hard for people in District 5 to be desirable of paying taxes to help all the other districts, especially since all the districts appear to be dead-set against helping District 5."

To date, the county has acquired five properties totaling some 600 acres with funds from the $100 million parks and recreation bond.

The purchases, all of which are in south or north Forsyth, total about $33 million of the $36 million set aside to acquire green space.
Districts 1 and 3, which cover central and southwestern Forsyth, also have not been represented in the acquisitions.

Some of the five properties include opportunities that could reimburse money, leaving officials to estimate that there's about $10 million that could still be used to buy green space.

Funds taken in through active recreation, such as sports fields, go back into the fund, as does revenue from green space property sold to other entities like the library system.

Attempts to obtain the appraisals of the golf course site, which have not yet become public record, have not been successful.

Bell said he is opposed to buying the golf course site because he has "an issue with trying to do this when the public's not involved."

While board discussion of the golf course has not reached a regular meeting, executive session -- or closed session -- discussions have prompted the five appraisals.

"Votes cannot be taken in executive session," Bell said. "It's more of a consensus or discussion, an opinion -- not a formal vote."

State law allows elected bodies to meet behind closed doors to discuss, among other items, potential litigation, land acquisition and personnel matters.

The documents show that the property was appraised several different ways: low-density residential; golf course; and "highest and best use."

Commissioner Jim Harrell said the board "buy[s] everything based on highest and best use."

"I know why people wanted appraisals on the golf course," he said. "They can lower whatever we might eventually offer the folks that have the land there."

Harrell sees a potential purchase of the property as a plus.

"I think it would be a money maker," he said. "A lot of people play golf here, and it would be a nice recreation [area] to have, and the folks over there want to preserve that space."

But does the county want to preserve the space or operate a golf course?

Some residents have said they don't consider a golf course to fit the description of "green space."

And it would appear that if the county bought the course using funds earmarked to acquire green space, the site could be used only as green space.

If money from active recreation was used, however, the site could possibly be operated as a course. But a breakdown of the county's bond-funded projects does not show any funding from active recreation for a golf course.

Bell said those that live nearby want the county to "bail them out."

"There's people there that would love to have their property values protected," Bell said. "I'm sorry, that's not my job.

"I'm so tired of getting sidetracked with this kind of stuff. We've got more serious things we need to look at. Like the budget."

The county faces a projected $7.2 million shortfall in its preliminary 2010 budget.

At the same time, sales tax revenues -- both special purpose and local option levies -- are down about 18 percent from last year's numbers.

To cover much of the budget shortfall, the commission has proposed raising the county's maintenance and operations levy, as well as hiking the fire fund millage rate.

Doing so would mean the owner of a house assessed at $200,000 could see a tax hike of about $53 per year.

Commissioners have discussed making up the remaining deficit through countywide furloughs, unpaid holidays, layoffs and employee health care cuts.

Commissioner Brian Tam declined to comment on the golf course matter, citing its litigation status.

Jack Manton and George Bagley Jr., who own the course, sued the county in October 2007 after the commission denied a request to rezone the course from agricultural to a master planned district.

The men had plans to sell the course, contingent upon its rezoning, to development company Wellstone, which wanted to build a 772-unit residential development that included a 300-unit continuing care retirement community on the golf course site.

That lawsuit remains in its preliminary stages, though Wellstone withdrew from the case and abandoned its plans for the site earlier this year when the company relocated to Texas.  

Included in the complaint against the county are arguments that the commission's denial of the rezoning was unconstitutional and was "in order for Forsyth County to purchase the property at less than its fair market value."

In a separate legal matter, a request from residents living near the course seeking class-action status to stop development of the site is in legal limbo.

In a June ruling, the State Appellate Court said a judge's decision denying the request must be sent back because the order was based only on the merits of the request for class-action status.

The decision, the court said, failed to address whether each factor of Georgia’s class-action statute had been met.

Senior Superior Court Judge Albert Pickett of Augusta, who was assigned the case after both local Superior Court judges recused themselves, made the original ruling in September.

But the state has since suspended its practice of using senior judges to help clear court calendars and preside over trials.