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Costly land deal presents conflict of interest for Hall school board
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Hall County Board of Education work session meeting

What: Discussion on land purchase for World Language Academy

When: 5 p.m. tonight

Where: Hall County School District central office, 711 Green St. in Gainesville

The Hall County Board of Education failed to disclose an apparent conflict of interest for one of its members last month when it approved the purchase of land for the World Language Academy campus on Winder Highway in Flowery Branch, and agreed on a price about three times the county’s assessed value on the property.

School officials have said the land deal was simply a matter of remedying a property line dispute.

“We did a survey and found out we don’t even own the land some of our driveways are on, and really have no access to our own playgrounds,” Superintendent Will Schofield said in December. “We found a way to clean that up.”

School officials approved the purchase of 1.2 acres from B H Enterprises, a company owned by Bobby Benefield, at a cost of about $96,000. Funding for the land acquisition comes from special purpose local option sales tax.

According to county property records, Benefield owns 12.77 acres next to the school. The county has assessed a total value on 10.36 of those acres at about $294,000.

The board, however, has agreed to pay about $80,000 an acre, which would value Benefield’s property at around $1 million.

The school district has not conducted its own appraisal.

Schofield said the Board of Education would review and discuss the land deal at its meeting today, but defended the decision to purchase the land at $80,000 an acre. The board has not yet closed on the purchase.

“It’s a little bit high,” board member Brian Sloan said of the price, before denying his involvement in the deal. “I didn’t have any part in this thing.”

Sloan did vote in support of the deal as the school board vote was unanimous. Yet Sloan did not publicly disclose his ties to the landowner’s family.

Benefield’s son, Jeff, is chairman of the Hall County Board of Tax Assessors, the government body that presides over property value assessments. He has served as the treasurer of Sloan’s campaign for the Board of Education, according to state records. He also is senior pastor at Chestnut Mountain Church, where Sloan also works.

The church is just down the street from the school. The Benefields own other property nearby.

“I don’t have anything to do with the land,” the younger Benefield said. “It’s something I am totally uninvolved in.”

Attempts to contact Bobby Benefield were unsuccessful. The younger Benefield said his father would not be in a position to discuss the matter due to health reasons.

Sloan said he did not feel there was a conflict of interest because only the elder Benefield was involved in the land deal, adding he likely would have abstained from voting had the younger Benefield directly owned the property.

“I personally had nothing to do with the pricing of that land,” Sloan said. “I was never involved in the negotiations. There was nothing undue, nothing unethical.”

Board member Sam Chapman defended Sloan, but said he had no knowledge of the Benefields’ connection to the land.

Schofield said the connection did not play a role in the board’s decision.

“Quite honestly, it didn’t matter who owns that property,” he added. “We’ve got a problem over there when you find out we’ve got an inaccessible playground. It’s a piece of land that we’ve got to have.”

School board officials said the county’s assessed value does not accurately reflect the market value of the property, which could be sold for commercial uses and is worth more with possible access to sewer infrastructure.

“I wouldn’t sell my farm for what it’s assessed by the county,” Chapman said.

Schofield said he would present information at today’s meeting from a local commercial real estate broker who values land in the area at between $65,000 and $200,000 an acre, depending on whether sewer is available.

But while land for sale is valued at its highest use, taxpayers would be on the hook for developing sewer infrastructure and, therefore, responsible for increases in the land’s commercial value. Such an increase is tied to taxpayers’ future investment in sewer value, and this proposed deal asks taxpayers to pay now for that increased value.

The county assesses land based on sales prices of properties in the area. But if the county is undervaluing the land, it is then losing out on potential property tax revenue, which could help recoup the expense for the purchase of the 1.2 acres.

The Benefields’ land is currently zoned only for residential and agricultural uses, meaning it pays taxes on a significantly lower value than what the land is being marketed for.

“Even the zoning would have some kind of impact” on the land’s value, the younger Benefield said.

Deputy Superintendent Lee Lovett said he negotiated the deal, but acknowledged he never addressed the county’s assessed value on the property with the owners.

Lovett said he has known that a portion of the school’s property, including the playground, was located on the Benefields’ land for many years, long before the recent survey and purchase agreement.

The younger Benefield said his father is now trying to sell the undeveloped land.

“I think his plan is to try to get a million dollars for the whole thing,” Lovett said of the deal. “If we had bought the whole thing they might have sold it to us for a little less (per acre), I guess. But to break out a piece, he wanted that much for it.”

It is unclear whether school officials have discussed other options for access, which includes a small driveway and steps to a ballfield that would be restricted without purchasing the land. It’s reasonable to consider another path could be constructed on land the school owns to access the affected ballfield.

Access to a playground with swings and another ballfield of equal size is not affected.

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