The school has an access driveway and steps on property currently owned by Bobby Benefield of B H Enterprises and his brother. The board approved a value of up to $100,000 to purchase the 1.2 acres of land in question at its December meeting.
Superintendent Will Schofield said the board discussed the details of the purchase in an executive session in December, as is customary for the board when purchasing land.
“Let me be the first to state this is not the way for a public entity to buy a property,” Schofield said. “We want to be open, we want to be fair, but you don’t start making a big deal out of the fact that you need to purchase some property.”
Approximately 10.36 acres of the land owned by Benefield have been assessed by the county for a value of about $294,000. However, the board agreed to pay nearly three times that price per acre.
In the interest of being open with the public, Schofield summarized the history of the property in question.
The adjacent land for the school activity field and septic drain field were acquired in the 1970s, according to Schofield. When the driveway and steps were constructed, the participating individuals knew the property did not belong to the school. However, it would have been cost-prohibitive to build the driveway on existing school property due to topography issues. A “gentlemen’s agreement” led to the construction on the land.
Last year, Benefield decided to sell the entire tract of land and approached the district about purchasing it. The board agreed during the executive session that the system did not need to purchase the entire tract, only the 1.2 acres.
Lee Lovett, deputy superintendent, met with Benefield last year, at which time he offered to sell only the 1.2 acres at a price of $80,000 per acre, or approximately $96,000 for the piece of land.
Lovett reportedly asked Benefield if he would be willing to sell at a lower price.
“The answer was that it’s pretty firm,” Schofield said.
Schofield and the board discussed other options, including building a new driveway on their own property. He said the same topography issues would make such actions far more expensive.
Another option would be to have the property condemned.
“In the history of this school district, we can’t find a time when we’ve ever treated a neighboring property owner as anything other than a neighbor,” he said.
Schofield said the district could have its own appraisal done, but runs the risk of finding the cost higher than the current offer.
He said the property is in a commercial corridor and sewer accessible, both of which could significantly increase the value over the county’s estimation.
“It really doesn’t matter, in our estimation, what it’s on the county tax books for,” he said.
The final option for the land would be to do nothing and hope the new owners Benefield sells to are as amenable to their current arrangement, something Schofield said he did not recommend.
“I thought we had a pretty good solution in terms of, ‘let’s get in there and let’s be fair,’” he said.
School board member Brian Sloan said he had no part in the negotiations for the land, though he is acquainted with the Benefield family. Benefield’s son, Jeff, was treasurer of Sloan’s campaign for the school board and is senior pastor at Chestnut Mountain Church, where Sloan works.
Sloan called any implications he had a hand in the negotiations “absolutely false,” but chose to recuse himself from further votes on the subject.
Board Chairman Nath Morris said the land in question is a valuable asset to the school, and his primary interest was in doing the best thing for schools and students.
Board member Bill Thompson agreed.
“I think we have done all of this in good faith,” he said. “I have absolutely no reservations whatsoever about purchasing this property for the price we agreed to.”
Thompson moved to continue with the purchase as originally planned, and all board members agreed, with Sloan abstaining.
Schofield said the ordeal was a “very unusual way of looking at purchasing a piece of property.”
“We buy and sell land on a regular basis,” he said. “We keep a pulse on what land is worth. It isn’t any big secret that land on (Ga.) Highway 53 with access to sewer is valuable property.”