State land deal struck in 2005, value examined

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Tennessee may have paid market value for nearly 400 acres in a deal closed three months ago, but a question's been asked if the state needs all that land.

"This acquisition closed late last year," according to Meg Lockhart, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, "but it was approved by the Building Commission in 2005 and was funded in fiscal year 2005-2006.

County property record show that the most recent property appraisal for tax purposes valued the land at $1,161,200.

"But," Property Assessor Linda Haislip said on Friday, "of course it's tax exempt because it's owned by the state."

That appraisal is lower than the $1,177,000 value assigned before the sale, she said, explaining that at that time the land was in four tracts and that property that's divided into smaller units typically appreciates. Conversely, when the parcels were assembled into one tract, the value dropped.

Market conditions were also explained by Haislip.

In 2002, the county assessor conducted a reappraisal of properties and concluded the four tracts then had a combined value of $586,800, Haislip said. The value increased some 40 percent from that appraisal to the $1,177,000 value, she said.

The state Building Commission's approval of the purchase was one year before a periodic reappraisal.

The deed at Register of Deeds Dorris Wayne Weaver's office lists Dr. Hardy Fields as the majority owner of the land deal closed in November and recorded on Nov. 16. Apparently, Fields' estate owned 53 percent of the property. The other owner was Jim Austin.

Those two or their associates used a notary public in Dallas, Texas, to verify Fields' transaction signature on Sept. 18, the deed shows.

"Fields was the owner and passed away," Lockhart said. "I understand the acquisition was finalized with his heirs."

Lockhart also said the land "surrounds the Henry Horton campground that will now remain protected and will maintain the integrity of the campground experience."

The property borders land owned by Isaac Zimmerle, a county developer who said the land is mostly forest on rocky land.

Lockhart said the main campground is south of River Road. While the road bisects the campground area, there are trails, under developed campsites and some park buildings north of the road.

"We have recreational use of that section of the river," Lockhart said. "This additional river frontage gives ... rangers better access to respond to ... river emergencies... We get quite a bit of traffic on the river throughout the year. Since there is no public access to the river below the park in case of emergencies, this area allows rangers to put in below the park access but above the Milltown dam.

Zimmerle told of his experience about the land.

"I met a representative for the property at a Chapel Hill Planning Commission when they realized how expensive it would be to develop it," Zimmerle said. "It was around the time they were having budget problems before...

"The man had no personal interest in the land," Zimmerle said. Developers "would have to run water from U.S. 31-A... I think they decided that it wasn't feasible [and] apparently so because they ended up selling it to the state."

Commenting on land values, he said that waterfront property is normally more valuable except when it's in a flood plain.

Land at the southern part of the tract appears to be low near the river.

As for the purchase price of $2,500 per acre, Zimmerle said, "If they offered me that much per acre for that large a parcel, I'd probably sell."

The state's spokeswoman said, "There is also potential for educational and living history programming on the property."