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SC Board of Commissioners discusses quitclaim deed with Land Bank Authority at Work Session

AMERICUS – At its October Work Session on Tuesday, October 13, the Sumter County Board of Commissioners (BOC) discussed a possible quitclaim deed between the county and the Americus-Sumter County Land Bank Authority (LBA). The work session was held virtually via a Zoom conference call instead of at the Sumter County Courthouse due to concerns regarding COVID-19.

The quitclaim deed had to do with property that is located at 809 Oak Avenue, right across the street from Thomas Bell Stadium next to Americus-Sumter High School. The land on that property was once the headquarters for the Americus-Sumter County Parks and Recreation Authority and an old shed, along with a playground, still exists on that property today.

Herschel Smith, the Chairman of the LBA, explained to the BOC that when the LBA conducted a title search, there was a restriction on the use of the land. Smith stated that before the LBA acquired the land from the county, they wanted to make sure that they could dispose of it. “We have arranged for two different buyers of the five acres,” said Smith. “Unfortunately, our title search shows that we cannot use the land for anything other than public recreation purposes. I don’t think that the county commissioners were aware of that at the time, but we haven’t been able to come up with one yet,” continued Smith.

Robert Murray Jr., the Executive Director of the LBA, also took part in the meeting and told the BOC that they have invited Attorney Levi Barner to explain the situation, being that he was hired by the LBA to do the title search.

Barner stated that the park was developed in the early 1980s using federal financing under the Land and Water Conservation Grant. “In exchange for that federal financing, a restriction was placed on it that requires it to be used for public outdoor recreational use permanently,” said Barner. “And if there’s an attempt to sell the property, then under the terms of the original grant agreement, it has to be replaced by equivalent, fair market-value property for public outdoor recreation use.” Barner went on to say that he had spoken with a representative from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (GDNR), who is responsible for overseeing this particular grant. “She was able to confirm that the restriction is still in effect,” said Barner. He went on to explain that the original agreement was between the federal government and the City of Americus and therefore, the language of the agreement specifies that the City of Americus would be responsible for coming up with an alternative property to replace the 809 Oak Avenue property. However, Barner added that since the property has been transferred back and forth between the county, the City of Americus and the Sumter County Parks and Recreation Department (SCPRD), he could not get an answer as to who would be responsible for actually coming up with the replacement property. “Because of that, I really couldn’t advise the Land Bank to take it on without knowing who would be responsible for developing another permanent outdoor recreational use,” said Barner. “What they said is that if the private sale wants to go forward, then they would need to be in communication with the city and then eventually, probably the county, to figure out who would be responsible for honoring the terms of the original grant,” continued Barner.

This is the Americus-Sumter High School tennis facility. Back when the original LWCF grant was made for the property at 809 Oak Avenue, the property that the tennis facility sits on was once a Pony League baseball field and it was a part of the five-acre property that the county is trying to deed over to the Americus-Sumter County Land Bank Authority.
Photo by Ken Gustafson

He went on to say that if he were looking at the situation from the BOC’s perspective, he would like to know whether or not the City of Americus ever discussed this liability when it was handed off to the county. “I’m not aware of any of those discussions, but at this time, it’s not clear whether the county or the city would be responsible for coming up with a replacement property if the sale were to go through,” said Barner.

BOC Chairman Clay Jones asked Barner if the ownership of the property is in question. Barner replied that the ownership in the title search shows that the property is clearly in the county’s name at this point, but added that the question is who has the obligation to come up with a replacement and whether that falls under the original grantee, which was the City of Americus, or whether that obligation was transferred to the county when the county took ownership of the property.

“They couldn’t tell me one way or the other because they hadn’t been aware that it had changed hands,” said Barner. “They weren’t able to tell me who would ultimately be responsible for it.”

Commissioner George Torbert commented that the county will sometimes take property to the LBA to extinguish any taxes or clean up the deed or title work on it. Torbert asked Barner if taxes would be extinguished and if the title search would be cleaned up if the county were to transfer the property to the LBA. “My understanding is no,” said Barner. “The grant, being that it was from a federal agency and it was tied to the Land and Water Conservation Act of 1965, my understanding is that it’s separate from the Land Bank Authority’s legal authority, which is under Georgia Code. I haven’t been shown a clear way to get rid of this without an alternative property being developed.”

County Attorney Kimberly Reid commented that the LBA can wipe out taxes, but it doesn’t have the authority to correct any deficiencies in the title, or to remove any restrictions that go with the property. Reid added that this situation is very similar to a previous situation that the county recently encountered with the SCPRD, which involved replacing a piece of property to put up a fire station out at the SCPRD recreation complex on US Highway 19. “Bare in mind, if it is that same situation, it’s not just a matter of having something that’s equivalent of acreage,” said Reid. “There is an involved process where you have to go through a required appraisal procedure, get appraisals of both the old property and the new one and go through different steps of approval through different federal and state government entities.”

Barner agreed with Reid’s interpretation and stated that he had heard the same thing stated to him from someone at the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (GDNR).

“If they are put on notice that there is an intent to sell the property, than first, they go through the process of figuring out who the grant obligation falls on in the first place,” said Barner. “Then they have to go through a separate appraisal process to determine that it is truly an equivalent swap.”

Smith commented that he was hoping that there would be some kind of time restriction or limitation on a grant rather than it just continue in perpetuity.

Reid replied by stating that she can try to get a copy of the original grant documents, but added that she has encountered other documents for similar recreational purposes that were in perpetuity that did not expire after a certain number of years.

“There’s no way to know until we actually see the actual documents,” said Reid.

Reid asked Barner if the original title of the deed referenced any limitations in terms of number of years. Barner replied that it was a generic perpetuity restriction and added that when he spoke to his contact at the GDNR, she told him that it is a perpetual encumbrance that doesn’t have an expiration date on it.

Hearing Barner’s response, Smith stated that, in his opinion, the LBA would not be able to help the county concerning this situation. Jones asked Smith if the buyer of the property would be able to use the property to create jobs. Smith replied that the five-acre property has two buyers. “One buyer wants to take two acres and another buyer wants to take three acres,” said Smith. Smith went on to say that the buyer of the two-acre property would use it to build an adult recreation center and, therefore, would have employees working there and would be paying taxes. Smith added that the buyer of the three-acre property wants to use it as a residential property on which three to five houses or town houses would be built. “Both would be bringing in tax revenue, which is what our goal is for the Land Bank Authority,” said Smith.

Sumter County Public Works Director Jim Littlefield asked Smith if the acreages of the two properties could be cumulative and not all adjacent with lots in different locations that could be turned into green spaces. Smith replied that he liked Littlefield’s idea and stated that the LBA has several pieces of property that would be vacant in neighborhoods that would add up to five acres. However, Barner replied that it is his understanding that it doesn’t just have to do with the total number of acreage, but also whether or not the property is set up and equipped to accomplish the same outdoor recreational public purposes that it was intended for under the original grant. He also stated that in order for the process to move forward, both the county and the LBA would need to work with the GDNR and go through its appraisal process to find something that is equivalent, both in terms of fair market value and also in terms of the practical purpose that it can be used for. “From my perspective, if I were trying to suggest how this would move forward, I would suggest that the first step would be for Miss Reid to get with Mr. Skipper (Americus’s City Attorney Jimmy Skipper) and figure out, under the original language of the grant agreement, along with the representative from the Georgia DNR, exactly who would end up having the responsibility to do all of this and what that process and timeline would look like,” said Barner.

Attorney Reid agreed with Barner that any exchanged property must still meet the use purposes of the original grant. She went on to suggest to the BOC that it should consider whether or not it wants to move forward with this process of approving a quitclaim deed with the LBA involving the 809 Oak Avenue property before any attorney fees are incurred. Reid reminded the BOC that, in the case of parks and recreation, the county and the City of Americus at one time had separate departments. She added that there was a recreation authority, but that everything involving parks and recreation in Americus was eventually deeded over to the county. “I would be shocked if the burden did not, at this point, fall on the county since we accepted ownership of that property subject to those restrictions,” said Reid. “We can certainly check in that regard, but I suspect that the burden would still fall on the county, as opposed to the city and if the burden fell on the city, as opposed to the county, I don’t know that that would change the outcome in terms of how y’all wanted to proceed,” continued Reid.

Reid went on by encouraging the BOC to give some though as to whether or not it wants to proceed with the process of disposing of the 809 Oak Avenue property.

Jones responded by saying that his opinion is to get this issue cleared up because otherwise, the county would have to continue maintaining the property.

Barner added that he was told that there are people coming to pick up some of the playground equipment on the property and that the outdoor swimming pool on the property is no longer in use. “The description of the program that I was given suggests that they (GDNR) conduct semi-frequent inspections of parcels that are covered by this grant,” said Barner. Reid asked Barner if he had been able to have a discussion with the grant representative about the county planning to remove the playground equipment. Barner replied that he did not have that discussion, but instead, had received information that had been given to him regarding the situation.

Reid stated that depending on how the original grant involving the property was written, the removal of the playground equipment from the 809 Oak Avenue property might not be a violation if the property is still available for recreational purposes and not for anything else. However, she added that according to the grant, the property couldn’t be converted into anything else other than recreational property.

Reid did add that, to her recollection, the grant might allow for green space to be declared as recreational to the extent that people can walk their pets or kids can play ball on it.

Barner stated that the last time the GDNR did an inspection for this particular grant was in 2013 and that the GDNR representative stated that some facilities were in good repair and some were not. “I believe they’re looking at more than just this five-acre parcel as subject to the original grant,” said Barner.   “As Miss Reid says, it may or may not cause an issue later down the line.”

Near the close of the discussion, Jones asked the BOC if it wanted to continue pursuing the process of deeding this property to the LBA. Commissioner George Torbert stated that the GDNR can have it back and that the property should be foreclosed on if the GDNR wants to repossess it. “It’s just one of those things that we see time and time again on this and others where it sounds good right then, but 15 to 20 years down the road, it becomes an issue,” said Torbert. “ I guess that it’s another reminder why we’ve got to read the fine print on a lot of these grants,” he continued.

Jones asked Reid whether or not the River Valley Regional Commission (RVRC) could assist the county and the LBA in solving this dilemma. Reid responded that she is certain that the RVRC has encountered this type of issue before and also stated that she has had clients that have had similar issues as well. However, Reid added that she is not certain that the RVRC can do anything in terms of changing the legal obligation that is tied to the property. “I certainly don’t think it would hurt to touch base with them (RVRC),” said Reid. “That’s certainly not a bad thing to do. Then they have someone who has experience and could help the county, from an administrative standpoint, move forward if it decides to pursue the appraisal process because it is a fairly involved process not just on the legal side, but even more so with the person at the administrative level who coordinates all of this and keeps track of it and has these different meetings with the federal and state agencies that have to approve the exchange,” continued Reid. However, Reid went on to say that she doesn’t think that the RVRC can change the legal obligation under the original grant involving the property.

Sumter County Parks and Recreation (SCPRD) Director Tim Estes, who also took part in the work session, stated that the original grant was done 39 years ago and that it pre-dated his time here in Sumter County. “I was not aware of this until they brought it to my attention last week,” said Estes. “As Herschel said, it’s the five acres there on the corner of Bell and Oak, as well as what use to be the Pony League ball field. It’s now the Americus-Sumter High School tennis facility, but all of that is wrapped up into this same LWCF (Land and Water Conservation Fund) grant.”

Estes went on to say that where a lot of costs are incurred is when a “Yellow Book” appraisal is required. He stated that at the time when an appraisal had to be done on a fire station that was located on the grounds of the Sumter County recreational ball fields, there was no one in Sumter County available and qualified to do that type of an appraisal. He added that the appraisal is extremely costly and that it would cost in the neighborhood of $12,000.00 to $15,000.00. “When you’re talking about a normal $200 or $300 appraisal that you would do on a house, this is much more extensive than that,” said Estes. “We would have to find a piece of land that’s the same fair market value. It could be a half acre as long as it was the same fair market value as that five-acre piece of property”, continued Estes. He went on to say that two of the commissioners forwarded him applications for the current LWCF grant that is going on and has had talks with County General Operations Administrator Rayetta Volley about it. “This is why I personally am opposed to LWCF grant funding,” said Estes. “Yes it’s good up front. It gives you federal dollars to help with your project. The match is not very much and you can use those SPLOST dollars to match it, but it makes you have to have that piece of property outdoor recreation for the life of that property and I think that hurts our kids and grand kids in the long run.”

Jones asked if either public recreation or private recreation is supposed to take place on the property and Estes replied that it has to be public recreation.

Estes suggested that Reid and the attorney for the LBA should get together to hammer out the details because, in his opinion, it’s not impossible to find a solution to the problem, but it will require a good deal of work and a very clear plan.

Jones asked the commissioners if they thought it is worth pursuing a solution to legally deed the 809 Oak Avenue property over to the LBA. While no official approval was voted on, the BOC agreed in principle that a solution to legally deed the 809 Oak Avenue property over to the LBA is worth pursuing.