With the April 15 deadline approaching to make a final decision on purchasing the old Parker Meadows property to develop a Recreation Complex, Macon County commissioners found themselves split on how to proceed.
As clarified by commissioners, the board has already voted to enter into a purchase agreement to move forward with acquiring the property. To finalize the purchase agreement, commissioners must complete the due diligence period, which will determine if the property can be used for its intended purpose, in this case, a recreational complex.
After a lengthy debate, both County Commissioners Paul Higdon and Ron Haven informed the board that they would not and could not support the purchasing of the Parker Meadows property for a recreation complex. While Higdon and Haven cited different reasons for objecting to the project, the board agreed to table discussion until Friday, April 12, at 6 p.m. to allow a few unanswered questions to be further explained before a final decision is made.
Paul Webb of TRC Garrow Associates, Inc. presented findings of the archaeological study performed on the proposed Parker Meadows Recreational Park. Because the property is located along a creekbed, it was likely that the area was once occupied by Native Americans. In order for a government entity to purchase the property, they must first complete a study known as Phase I. The study, which cost more than $40,000 to complete, surveyed the property over a period of 60 days in search of archaeological remains.
Webb reported to the board Tuesday night that the Phase I study found four significant areas on the property that were identified as being former Native American territories. “We started by getting a history of the area and then completed a series of 530 small shovel tests in 30-60 feet areas across the entire property,” said Webb. “After that, we did some top soil stripping and began to find small artifacts that showed us Native Americans did, in fact, inhabit this area.”
The four archaeological sites on the property had pieces of Cherokee pottery and other artifacts that date back to the 1800s. The survey also found post holes and pit features that suggest the property was likely the site of buildings or structures.
Despite locating Cherokee artifacts on the property, according to Webb, the county's current layout for a recreation park would not interfere with the four archaeological sites and the property could be developed for the county's intended use. Webb also told the board that he has informed the state and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians of the findings, and they agree that the project plans would not disturb the site and a recreation complex could still be constructed on the property. “It is very feasible to use this property as a recreation park,” said Webb.
County Manager Jack Horton told the board that with Webb's presentation, the county had completed the due diligence portion of the project and could entertain a motion to continue moving forward with purchasing the property. Horton said that a decision had to be made on or before April 15 in order to close on the property on or before April 30.
Higdon opened the board's discussion on the matter. “I have not voted to purchase this property,” said Higdon. “That was done before I was elected to this board. When I ran for office, I said that I would stop the spending and that is what I intend to do.”
Higdon began by saying that the argument behind the need for the recreation facility is to support the children of Macon County. While the county does stand to receive a substantial return for their money, according to an economic impact study done by Macon County Economic Director Tommy Jenkins, potentially $6 million a year would be generated for the local economy, Higdon says the main focus on the proposed recreational facility should be to provide something for the children.
“We keep saying this is for the children, this is for the children, well let's get serious about doing something for the children,” said Higdon. “We need little league fields for the children, we don't need adult softball fields. I don't care about the adults.”
Higdon also informed the board that he believed the $5.1 million total price tag for the project was too high. County Commissioner Kevin Corbin argued that the board is in no way voting to spend $5.1 million. The $5.1 million total price tag Higdon referenced was done by the engineering firm who had to create an overall plan for the project to submit to the state in order to be eligible for a Parks and Recreation Trust Fund grant (PARTF).
The Master Plan, done by Mike LoVoy with Alliance Consulting, was ordered to fulfill requirements of the PARTF grant and included no end time frame of completion. The plan included tennis courts, a walking track, and an abundance of other amenities to show the overall recreational potential of the proposed property.
“No one is talking about spending $5.1 million,” said Corbin. “We are not voting on $5.1 million or building tennis courts or anything else. I wouldn't be in favor of that, but that is not even what we are talking about here. I don't think it will cost close to that and it is ridiculous to keep talking about $5.1 million because the only thing we have before us is whether or not we are going to buy the 48 acres for some ball fields.”
Higdon also pointed out the county's past commitments to the children of Macon County. He noted that the county has spent $45 million in recent years to construct schools for the children, and last year spent $1.5 million for technology needs. “This county is committed to our children,” said Higdon. “I agree we need new ballfields. I see the kids playing in the ones we have and they are a pig sty and are unsafe to play on, but I am opposed to purchasing this property until we look at other options.”
Higdon suggested the county look at other property already owned by the county that could possibly serve the same purpose. County Commissioner Ronnie Beale, informed
Higdon that the process to develop a recreation complex has been a lengthy one and the county and Recreation Director Seth Adams have searched for years for the right property for the project.
Haven said that although originally he voted to purchase the property in November, he now opposed it because he did not believe the property was worth the appraisal price.
“From conversations I have had with my friends in real estate, the property is not worth half of the asking price,” said Haven.
The last appraisal for the property was done on July 5, 2011, which put the property at $733,500. Both Haven and Higdon informed the board that they thought that was too much.
“I spoke with Guy Duvall who did the last appraisal and asked him if he thought the value of the property had significantly decreased since 2011 and he suggested to me that he did not think it had,” said Corbin. “And I have asked this board if they did not agree with the last appraisal and if you thought we should get another one and I never got a motion to that effect.”
Although the appraisal was set at nearly $800,000, Macon Bank, who currently owns the property, offered to sell the property to the county for $550,000. The asking price of $550,000 could be cut in half with the approval of the PARTF grant from the state, making the county's commitment to the property just $250,000.
Higdon also informed the board that he did not believe that the Parker Meadows property could be developed into a recreation complex. “Because the property is in the flood plain, it can not be developed and used for ball fields,” said Higdon.
Beale said that before commissioners voted to buy the property last November, the very first thing they did was determine if the property could be used for the ball fields despite some areas of the 48 acres being located within in the flood plain. “That is the first questions we asked,” said Beale. “Our county planner and the engineer who developed the plans both informed us that even with the county's current flood plain ordinance, we could use the property to build a rec park.”
Higdon argued that the county's flood plain ordinance prohibits importing dirt into the flood plain for development, which would stop the project. Both Beale and Corbin informed Higdon that according to the current plans for the park, less than half of the development would be in the flood plain, and the areas that were either did not need fill dirt or dirt could be shifted from other areas on the property, which the ordinance allows.
Horton read a letter dated Jan. 2 from County Planner Matt Mason stating that the county could in fact develop the property in accordance with the flood plain ordinance.
“The property is located within a Special Flood Hazard Area, but the proposed design will not locate the principle structures within any flood zone,” wrote County Planner Matt Mason. “There will be some secondary structures, such as picnic shelters that are located in the floodplain. The proposed design will keep the existing floodway intact and it will remain undeveloped. In summary, the proposed recreation park at Parker Farms will be in full compliance with all of the existing land use ordinances that are in effect for the citizens of Macon County.”
Despite the letter stating the property was suitable and the project would be in compliance with the ordinance, commissioners argued on the interpretation of the flood plain ordinance, and without Mason present to answer questions, were not comfortable making a decision on the property.
Although Higdon had made a motion to not purchase the property, and the motion was seconded by Haven, both commissioners withdrew the motion and agreed to allow until Friday to clarify the flood plain ordinance and the possibility of developing the property as is. Commissioners will meet at 6 p.m. on Friday to make a final decision regarding the property.