0

Developers, Lee officials at odds

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

LEESBURG, Ga. -- Albany developer Pace Burt has a theory.

After "having the coals poured to me" in an effort to gain approval to begin work on the second phase of his Marsh Landing development in Dougherty County, Burt said, "I think what you have now in this economy is people creating issues to justify their jobs."

Developer George McIntosh, managing partner of the Albany-based Highland and McIntosh Land Cos., recently had to sign a letter agreeing to increase a maintenance bond to $75,000 and make improvements on sewer lines installed at his McIntosh Farms development in southwest Lee County before he was granted approval to move forward with the 620-acre development.

Both the Lee County Commission and the Lee Utilities Authority called special meetings before McIntosh was allowed to move forward with the project.

"My engineer's report clearly showed there were no problems with the sewer lines at McIntosh Farms," the development's namesake said. "I was forced into signing that letter; it was definitely a one-sided deal. But once I get started on this project, I plan to go back and address the issues the county had and show them they were wrong.

"We do work in towns that bend over backwards to work with us. It's easier for us to work in Florida than it is here at home in Lee County ... the people in Phenix City (Alabama) fall all over themselves to work with us. I just think officials here in Lee County make a lot of decisions based on emotion."

McIntosh's son Jarrett, who is vice president of McIntosh Land Co., listens to his father's words and adds his own twist.

"Sometimes around here, it's almost like mob rule," Jarrett McIntosh says.

When McIntosh and Burt started developing the untapped jewel that was Lee County in the mid-1980s, there was a sense of playing-it-by-ear for officials who were dealing with such issues for the first time.

"Back then, the Lee County folks were having a hard time controlling the growth," Burt said. "Frankly, they weren't sure what to do because all these new issues were ones they'd never dealt with before. You had private utilities, roads ... all kinds of issues that were new to the county."

George McIntosh was one of the first to see the potential in Lee County. In the past 25 years, he's developed, built or sold some 3,000 lots in the county. That number, he says, is about equal to all the other developed lots in the county combined.

"For years and years, we were responsible for around 65 percent of all development in the county," McIntosh said.

Highland and McIntosh Land Co.s are responsible for the Hickory Grove, Brittany, Highland Crossing, North Highland Crossing, Twelve Oaks, Cedar Grove, Highland Oaks, Pine Lakes, Tall Pines and now McIntosh Farms developments in the county. Along the way, McIntosh says he's run into a number of unique circumstances that show the county's failure to look at the "big picture."

"In '04, the Oakland Partners group and I told the county we would put in a force main and run sewer lines out (State Highway) 82 to service planned developments there," he said. "The price we'd gotten was $900,000, and we told them we'd pay for the work if they'd let us collect tap fees until we recouped our investment. Then, we told them, we'd sign the rights over to the county.

"They said no, they didn't do that. Then they ended up spending around $5 million to run sewer lines out there, and that has generated very little return on the investment."

Jim Bacon, who works with the Oakland group, confirms that such an offer was extended to the county.

"We hired an Atlanta firm to do a master plan when we bought that land around '03-'04, and we knew we'd have to have sewer out there to attract commercial development," Bacon said. "We wanted to pursue all options, and one of those options was for us to provide the sewer and then deed it over to the county after we'd recouped our costs.

"The administrator at the time told us 'Lee County is looking at the bigger picture.' We didn't really make this approach in conjunction with George (McIntosh), but the offer was put out there."

Chris Boswell, the general manager of the Lee Utilities Authority who has been with the authority since 1995, said the numbers did not justify the developers' proposal.

"People have different opinions about what is best for the county, and the (sewer) proposal was discussed," Boswell said. "But really, the numbers we were given never justified their plan. Before we can do something like that, we've got to look at things like the number of lots being developed, the potential utilities customers in the future, things like that.

"We've got to look at what's in the best interest of our citizens."

McIntosh said there is some resentment toward him by some in county government because he was paid a considerable amount of money for private water systems he developed that were later purchased by the county.

"I told the county if they'd invest in a water system at one of our developments, we'd take care of running all the water lines," he said.

"Their cost would have been $100,000. They refused. Five years later they paid me $1.8 million for the water system."

Boswell again defends the move as "in the best interest of the county," noting that the county had already paid off bonds associated with that project that were originally due to be paid out through 2028.

"(Buying three water systems from McIntosh) turned out to be a good deal for the county," the Utilities Authority GM said. "Again, we ran the numbers and did the appropriate appraisals. We looked at the number of potential customers and the potential value and felt it was a good investment for the county.

"The state was happy that we tied those private systems into our water system, and the return we've gotten justifies the purchase."

With the lingering recession that slowed the flood of development in Lee County to a trickle only now showing signs of releasing its grip, area developers are looking at ways to rekick-start development in the community. Their efforts, some say, are slowed by certain actions of local officials.

Bacon notes that Commissioner Dennis Roland has used the Oakland Partners as a whipping boy to criticize Commission Chairman Ed Duffy.

"Every time he complains about some issue in the county, Dennis claims that Mr. Duffy is 'in Oakland's pocket,' and I find that offensive," Bacon said. "We're just like every other developer in Lee County; we're trying to work with the county to bring in quality development. Statements like (those made by Roland) do not help."

What officials must grasp, McIntosh said, is the value of continued development in the county.

"The county seems to think everything we do is propaganda," he said. "I wish I knew where that was coming from. What they don't seem to understand is that the homebuilding industry can create more jobs and bring in more immediate tax revenue than any other industry.

"We've fought a lot of battles with them over the years. At some point you would hope they'd realize that we'd serve the county better if we stopped fighting and worked together."