By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter
“It’s been a
long war,” said Bobby Davenport on Thursday.
conservancy activist, was commenting on last week’s hearing in the TAS
Properties bankruptcy case, at which the tap of Judge John C. Cook’s gavel
allowed the sale of much of Rising Fawn’s scenic Johnson’s Crook – formerly
known as the Preserve, a luxury second-home development, and also briefly
called Wild Moon Resort and Ranch – to the Georgia Land Trust. Closing should be in about three weeks, says
bankruptcy trustee Richard Jahn.
“long war,” he presumably meant the months since January 2012, when he bought,
or attempted to buy, much of the same acreage at a special auction Dade County
conducted to recoup back real estate taxes owed by Southern Group, the
Preserve’s developer. That sale was invalidated the next week, and Davenport’s
check returned, when Dade confirmed that Southern Group had deeded the Crook
land to TAS Properties, a sister corporation with the same ownership. TAS had
declared Chapter 11 a few days before the auction, protecting the property from
Dade’s collection attempts, and bankruptcy proceedings have dragged on since
But efforts to
conserve the beautiful Crook land go further back than that, to 1992, when the
Georgia Department of Natural Resources nominated the Crook for conservation with
combined federal and state funds. That attempt failed as the government agency
bid on only parts of the Crook, and the then-owner did not wish to divide the
It is divided
today. Of the 2,000-plus acres of Crook land originally slated to be developed
as the Preserve, Judge Cook’s Oct. 3 ruling permits the sale of 1225 to the
Georgia Land Trust for $1.2 million. The
conservancy has four months to come up with another $60,000 to buy an
additional few acres containing what was meant to be the Preserve’s amenity
Eddins, executive director of the Georgia and Alabama Trusts, says the
conservancy desires the parcel – it is a beautiful area, and close to a cave
entrance – but the decision whether or not to exercise its option to buy depends
on funding. “We stretched to come up with the money to buy the big piece,” she
had already owned 405 acres donated over the past year or so by lending
institution that had foreclosed on them, and Ms. Eddins said the conservancy
continues to solicit land donations from other banks that own bits and pieces
of the Crook.
Crook land abounded after the 2009 collapse of the 100-percent financing scheme
Southern Group used to market Preserve building lots, typically to
on-paper-only buyers who planned to “flip” them, selling them back to the
developer at a promised profit. These “straw buyers” – as several testified at
a criminal fraud trial in April, after the Preserve scheme drew the attention
of the Federal Bureau of Investigation – had never planned to make payments on
the massive loans procured on the lots in their names, depending on the
developer to do so. But Southern Group stopped making the loan payments when
Preserve sales slowed after the 2008 real estate market crash.
At the April
trial, two Preserve players, Josh Dobson and Paul Gott III, were found guilty
on fraud and money laundering charges. They continue to await sentencing, which
has twice been delayed at their attorneys’ request, and is currently scheduled
said those phases of the Johnson’s Crook saga are part of what he meant by the
war – the bits where federal agents investigated, lawyers battled in
courtrooms, creditors scrambled for their share of what was left, and investors
faced financial ruin while developers contemplated futures behind bars. Now, he
said, is peacetime, with creditors coming to terms, Dade County at long length
collecting its fugitive tax dollars, and the Georgia Land Trust hatching plans
on how best to use the acres it will acquire when the deal closes.
Executive Chairman Ted Rumley said at the county commission meeting later on
Thursday that the county’s share of the sale dollars will be about $630,000, a
third of which will be disbursed to the county government and the remainder to
the Dade Board of Education. “We’re glad that’s behind us because we
desperately need the money,” he said.
Eddins said the Georgia Land Trust is also happy to get the Crook acres, but
she says so far the conservancy is still discussing what precisely to do with
them. “We don’t have any immediate plans
to open any of it up to the public but, funding permitting, we might be able to
construct a trail at some point in the future that could connect the land to
Cloudland Canyon,” she told the Sentinel after the hearing.
She was quick
to add that planning was still hazy, and that she did not wish to alarm
landowners in between with fears the land trust was looking acquisitively at
their property. But a trail, she said, is one of the options the conservancy
will consider when it forms a master management plan for the Crook acquisition.
As for other
considerations, Ms. Eddins said the emphasis will be on conservation of the
Crook’s natural assets. “Our plan is to protect the caves – that’s the no. 1
priority – and protect any sensitive areas,” she said.
Johnson’s Crook contains the highest concentration of caves in the Southeastern
United States, and that the Georgia Land Trust will partner with the
Southeastern Cave Conservancy, Inc. (SCCI) on how to protect them. Meanwhile,
she said: “There will be some access [to cavers] through the partnership with
the cave conservancy.”
She said her
group will also partner with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR)
on protecting rare or endangered plants in the Crook. According to a land trust
newsletter, a preliminary survey in May by DNR’s Tom Patrick and botanist Max
Medley revealed the presence in the Crook of, among other flora rare in general
or at least rare in Georgia: broadleaf phlox, pink thoroughwort, western
Gromwell, black stem spleewort, purple cliff-brake, glade larkspur, shaggy
rosinweed, cutleaf prairie dock and Ozark bunchflower.
partnership the land trust is considering is with private landowners through
“perpetual easements.” “Let’s say you wanted a 200-acre piece of land for
recreation and to get away,” said Ms. Eddins. “We might sell easements to
commission meeting, Ted Rumley said that that kind of “mini-farm” arrangement
would have the benefit to the county of putting at least some of the Crook
acreage back on the tax rolls.
already a handful of private owners at the Crook, Ms. Eddins said, two or three
of whom actually live on the land.
trustee Richard Jahn still controls and will shortly offer for sale through a
real estate agent a half-dozens houses that had been completed at the Preserve
and were included in the TAS bankruptcy.
buyers can acquire these houses without fear of future claims by a
pre-exisiting property owners association. After a bankruptcy sale, he
explained, any ensuing claim must be made against the money the property
brought as opposed to the property itself.