Sonny the land mogul
A 19,000-acre tract in Middle Georgia - described by
experts as one of the richest nature preserves and hunting
grounds in the Southeast - may shortly be filled with 17,000
homes and become a closed private city.
You can thank Gov. Sonny Perdue for making it happen -
and for making himself richer.
In 2004, Perdue effectively blocked a $25 million offer
from the national Nature Conservancy to buy for Georgia's
public use the Oaky Woods property in Houston County. Oaky
Woods was envisioned as a permanent natural area similar to
Sapelo Island on the coast and the Smithgall Woods
Conservation Area in Northeast Georgia. The Oaky Woods land
would have been set aside for the use of Georgia hunters.
Perdue refused to issue a letter to the conservancy to
declare that the state had an interest in acquiring Oaky
Woods for conservation purposes at an unspecified date,
perhaps years in the future. Perdue's refusal resulted in
the conservancy withdrawing its offer to lend the Georgia
chapter of the Nature Conservancy $25 million to buy the
property for public use.
Instead, Perdue acquired for himself 100 acres adjacent
to Oaky Woods for slightly more than $300,000, the value of
which has soared to more than $750,000 in a mere 18 months.
A group of Middle Georgia developers, led by politically
plugged-in Charles McGlamary, purchased the
wildlife-management preserve from Weyerhaeuser Co. The
Houston County Board of Education reports in official
minutes that the Oaky Woods property will be used to
accommodate 17,000 houses.
The investors have said they hope to turn the giant
subdivision into a so-called private city in which
developers are allowed to levy taxes and operate utilities
in a special government entity exempted from Georgia's
Earlier this year, the Georgia Legislature scuttled a
bill to permit private cities (similar to ones in Florida),
but Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson has promised to
reintroduce the legislation next year.
The Oaky Woods deal emerged in February 2004 when
conservation-minded Weyerhaeuser announced plans to sell off
huge tracts throughout Georgia and suggested the state might
be interested in having Oaky Woods.
The Georgia chapter of the Nature Conservancy immediately
began negotiations to secure Oaky Woods, said to be one of
the largest black-bear habitats in the South. Officials of
the state Natural Resources Department declared that Oaky
Woods could become one of most important conservation
acquisitions in Georgia's history.
The national Nature Conservancy shared the enthusiasm and
offered to put up the money for the property for Georgia -
if Gov. Perdue would just assert in writing that Georgia
government had an interest in buying it one of these days.
Perdue said no.
The governor's involvement in the Oaky Woods transaction
is the latest revelation regarding Sonny and his land/tax
deals. Other arrangements involved multimillion-dollar sales
in Houston County and an acquisition near Disney World in
Florida - plus a special $100,000 backdated tax break on one
of the Georgia deals.
State Rep. Larry O'Neal, Perdue's lawyer and tax adviser,
counseled the governor on these transactions and shepherded
passage of the tax exemption. O'Neal is chairman of the
state House Ways and Means Committee, which writes tax laws.
In addition, O'Neal sits on the board of the Columbus Bank &
Trust Co., which provided a $23 million loan for the Oaky
Woods development. CB&T executives are hefty contributors to
Perdue's political kitty.
When Perdue won election in 2002, he declined to place
his business interests in a private trust, as his
predecessors had done. He said he needed to tend personally
to his private businesses. Hardly anybody at the time
dreamed those interests included becoming a real estate
Perdue is expected to be re-elected governor without much
trouble on Nov. 7. No one has again mentioned the
possibility of a blind trust to protect the governor in his
second term from the appearance of conflicts of interest
between his public duties and his private businesses. In
fact, such an idea in the current atmosphere is laughable.
You can reach Bill Shipp at P.O. Box 440755, Kennesaw,
Ga., 30160, or e-mail: