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Landowner, Hall County struggle over property key to inland port
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Gov. Nathan Deal speaks at Lee Gilmer Memorial Airport Monday Dec. 3, 2018, to announce the coming inland port to be built at Gateway Industrial Centre off Ga. 365 in Hall County. - photo by Scott Rogers

Over the past few years, Kevin Coley’s family has been asked by real estate developers, county officials and local businessmen what it would take for him to sell his 4-acre property that runs along both sides of White Sulphur Road, adjacent to Hillcrest Drive.

“It’s a nice piece of real estate, and for years, we were not interested in selling no matter how many calls we were getting,” said Coley, who noted that the property has been in his family for 100 years. “For a long time, it felt like the property wasn’t even mine to sell; it was my dad’s and he entrusted it to me.”

For Hall County, that property is a vital piece of the Northeast Georgia Inland Port project.

Set to open in 2023, according to an economic report by the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, the 104-acre inland port in the Gateway Centre Industrial Park adjacent to Ga. Highway 365 is a rail terminal that aims to provide a direct link to the Port of Savannah’s Garden City Terminal via Norfolk Southern. 

According to county documents, Coley’s property would be used as an entranceway to the inland port on White Sulphur Road.

At the Feb. 8 Board of Commissioners work session, attorney Van Stephens said the county would take the necessary steps to acquire Coley’s property in a “timely fashion” by either negotiation or condemnation.

The county said it plans to use the property for transportation purposes but declined to comment on the matter with The Times, citing “pending litigation.”

During the meeting, District 3 Commissioner Shelly Echols said the county’s attempts to acquire the property are in compliance with a request from the state.

“This is one of these deals where the state has told us to do this,” Echols said during the meeting. “We’re just doing what the state is asking us to do.”

The commissioners nor Stephens clarified if there was a specific request from the Georgia Ports Authority to acquire the property. The county, not the Georgia Ports Authority, has initiated the transaction process.

Attempts to reach Georgia Ports Authority officials for comment were unsuccessful.

Hall County commissioners held a special closed meeting to discuss details regarding land acquisition, but neither party has disclosed the details of the meeting. Officials are allowed to meet behind closed doors for a few reasons in Georgia, including discussion of real estate.

However, Coley said the county has yet to approach him with a “reasonable offer.”

“This land is for sale and it’s pivotal for the inland port project, but the county doesn’t want to pay what it’s worth.”

He estimates the property, which was endowed to him and his sister Neva Latty through an irrevocable trust in 2018, is worth nearly $1 million and is currently awaiting an independent appraisal.

“We’re trying to get an appraisal done on the property so we can set a fair price, but we’ve been rushed through this process by the county,” he said. The county first approached him in August 2019, offering $40,000 to acquire the parcel or face condemnation.

Coley said the county’s appraisal of his property was not “complete,” noting several pages of appraisal documents were “missing.” 

The property includes several parcels with appraised tax values of $84,566, $18,700, $5,500, $2,400 and $2,100. Tax values often do not align with the market value of a property, which can fluctuate more frequently. 

Coley said he isn’t asking for the full amount but noted that other nearby property he estimated between 2 to 3 acres had been acquired in the neighborhood of $400,000.

The ports authority acquired the bulk of the property, 108 acres, in 2018 from the Hall County Development Authority for $5.6 million. That’s $51,851 per acre. That property’s 2020 tax value is listed at just over $2 million. Previous sales were not available in the county’s online records.

“I think the county is under the impression that we were desperate to sell it, and we’re not,” he said. “We are not going to devalue a $1 million property just because they want it.”

According to Coley, the county sent offers of $150,000 and $360,000 to Coley’s attorney and have rushed his legal team to make a counteroffer.

County documents state that there is a deadline for when the property needs to be acquired to align with the timeline of the inland port construction, however, county officials declined to comment on what the timeline is.

Coley said the treatment from the county has been a major source of stalled negotiations.

“I think they had planned on us being a nobody in this situation and they were going to take what they want from us,” he said. “Their attitude from the beginning has been you’re going to sell or else.”

Landowners in the state have certain protections under the Landowner’s Bill of Rights but are not protected from eminent domain situations, as long as the exercising party notifies the landowner if they are using it for public use.

And Coley said he’s not trying to get in the way of the inland port project. He wants to ensure there’s equity in land acquisition matters between property owners and county governments in future disputes.

“The inland port is coming and the county will have this property, but it’s the way they have gone about it since they reached out with their first offer,” he said.