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Counties may trade land with US Forest Service
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CLAYTON — In a complicated land swap involving five Georgia counties, the U.S. Forest Service has proposed to give up 323 acres of the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest in exchange for receiving 758 acres of privately owned property.

Dave Jensen, chief ranger for the forest’s Chattooga River District, said swapping land is the only way for the federal agency to acquire property it needs.

"Land acquisition money is very slim right now," he said.

Though it may sound as if the Forest Service is getting more than twice as much land as it’s giving away, Jensen said it’s an equitable deal.

"The exchange is value for value, not acre for acre," he said. "Land in Rabun County is very expensive. Land on the Oconee (south of Athens) is cheaper."

Under the proposal, the Forest Service will divest itself of six tracts of land, all in Rabun County. Three tiny parcels will go to Larry Cooper, a private landowner in Rabun.

"When U.S. 441 was widened and reconstructed, we had three small pieces (of the Chattahoochee National Forest) on the other side of the highway that are now just slivers," said Jensen. "They are unattached to the rest of the national forest and are unusable for the public."

Cooper, who owns land adjacent to one of the isolated parcels, approached the Forest Service a couple years ago about buying it, Jensen said.

"We told him if you want one, you have to buy all three. He agreed," Jensen said.

Technically, Cooper won’t buy the land directly. The Forest Service will convey it to him, and in exchange, he will have to purchase for them one of the tracts elsewhere that they want to acquire.

If the deal goes through, Cooper would get about 16 acres. The Rabun County Board of Education would get two tracts, totaling about 237 acres, on which to expand its school system.

Jensen said the school board has special sales tax revenue that it will use to purchase land to exchange with the Forest Service.

And the Rabun County government will get about 70 acres to help solve an ongoing environmental problem.

"Leakage from the Rabun landfill has migrated onto national forest land, which puts them out of compliance with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division," Jensen said. "Once they become sole owner of the property, it will become much easier for them to start mitigation. They can’t do anything on Forest Service land without a lengthy environmental review and public comment process."

Rabun County administrator Jim Bleckley said the landfill is an old one that has been closed since 1993.

It was built before there were regulations requiring landfills to have leakproof liners, and now some garbage-tainted water has leached into the soil.

"The contamination is slight," he said. "We’ve tested nearby streams and wells, and they’re fine. But the EPD tells us their rules don’t allow leakage to go off the property, so we need to acquire some buffer."

Bleckley said it will cost anywhere from $400,000 to $1 million to mitigate the problems with the landfill. And that doesn’t include the estimated $800,000 that Rabun will have to spend to purchase land in another county and exchange it with the Forest Service.

While he hates having to spend that money, Bleckley said it’s the best possible solution. "It works for everybody," he said.

Of the seven tracts the Forest Service wants to acquire, the smallest is a 12-acre parcel near Dalton, where the agency wants to build a new office for its Conasauga District headquarters.

In recent years, the Chattahoochee-Oconee has been trying to cut expenses by eliminating and consolidating district offices. The forest now has only three districts: the Conasauga, on the western side; Blue Ridge, near Blairsville; and Chattooga River, based in Clayton.

But the Chattooga district won’t be in Clayton much longer. "We’re going to be building a new office at Tallulah Falls, then selling our property in Clarkesville and also moving out of our rented office space in Clayton," Jensen said. "We’ll start taking bids on the new office in January, and hope to occupy it by February 2009."

The forest already owns 10 acres on the east side of U.S. 441, about a mile north of Tallulah Falls. Jensen said Georgia Power donated the site to the federal agency about a year ago.

Now, the Forest Service wants to acquire another 39 acres between the new office site and a proposed helicopter landing base. Jensen said Georgia Power deeded that property over to the Rabun County Board of Education, which in turn is expected to give it to the Forest Service.

Also in Rabun, the Forest Service wants to acquire about 49 acres in the Cliff Creek watershed.

"It’s a really desirable tract," Jensen said. "It’s one of the prettiest pieces of property still available (for federal acquisition), and it would protect the headwaters of Cliff Creek, a tributary of the Chattooga River."

The agency also wants 19.5 acres beneath of the rock face of Mount Yonah in White County.

"We really, really wanted the Yonah tract," Jensen said. "It’s the last inholding, a privately owned piece of land surrounded by national forest."

He said the land, a vital element of Yonah’s scenic viewshed, is currently owned by a real estate broker in Rabun.

Lastly, the Forest Service wants to add three large parcels, totaling about 638 acres, to the Oconee National Forest in Putnam and Jasper counties.

Public comments on the entire proposal will be accepted until Jan. 22. Jensen said it usually takes about two years to complete a transaction this complicated.

"But in the end, this land exchange will benefit all parties, including the public," he said.

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