Development plan continues for Bartow’s 14,000-acre ‘Yellowstone’

State continues negotiations to buy Pine Log preserve, but public access will end May 15
This lake is in the Pine Log Wildlife Management Area, part of 19,000 acres  that a family is selling. They are negotiating to sell much of that land to the state.

Credit: Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

This lake is in the Pine Log Wildlife Management Area, part of 19,000 acres that a family is selling. They are negotiating to sell much of that land to the state.

Hikers, hunters and nature enthusiasts may soon lose access to a massive wildlife preserve about 55 miles northwest of downtown Atlanta.

The state is considering buying the privately-owned Pine Log Wildlife Management Area in Bartow County, a 14,000-acre plot of untouched land that’s been leased to the Department of Natural Resources for nearly half a century. But the family that owns the property said public access will end May 15 due to languishing negotiations with the state.

Simultaneously, the family is hedging their bets by pursuing a rezoning effort to pave the way for a 20-year development plan, which includes transforming the untamed wild into thousands of housing units and expansive swaths of industry. The Bartow County Planning Commission endorsed the rezoning plan earlier this week, despite hours of pushback from residents who worry development will change their county’s character.

“We have too much high-density development. We do not have responsible development,” resident David McKalip said to applause from other attendees during Monday’s 5-hour meeting. “... We’re heading to becoming Cobb County. We want to keep Bartow beautiful.”

The Neel family, which owns the Pine Log property, accumulated more than 19,500 acres in Bartow and Cherokee counties over the past century. Their representative told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution the family decided to sell because of the area’s rapid growth, which includes multibillion-dollar solar panel and electric vehicle battery plant announcements.

Jim Ramseur, a broker representing the family, said the outcome all parties want to see is for the state to buy the land, but the Neels expect a fair deal.

“We are hopeful that the state will come forward and be in a position to pay fair market value for a large portion of greenspace that can remain the way it’s been for 50 years,” Ramseur said. He previously said the family expects hundreds of millions of dollars for the land.

Scott Drexler, one of the residents behind a 12,000-plus-signature petition to urge state leaders to buy the land, pleaded with the planning commission that, “This is our Yellowstone.”

Commission Chairman Bill Hix clarified that, “This is the Neels’ Yellowstone. It’s really not ours.”

Trading greenspace for development

Yellowstone may be 157 times larger than Pine Log but Pine Log is part of one of the state’s largest pieces of contiguous property with a sole owner.

That presents a rare opportunity where county officials can design a long-term development plan without having to wrangle approval from multiple landowners.

The 20-year development plan, which was outlined in a recent Development of Regional Impact filing, prompted a new overlay zoning district to be created. Jeff Haymore, another broker representing the Neels, said adopting the new zoning would not change the land’s underlying zoning or spark any immediate development.

The development plan has been adjusted to take into account community feedback, such as reducing the number of proposed residential units, cutting the planned commercial space in half and removing a proposal for a debris recycling facility. Haymore said the plan include at least 5,000 acres of dedicated greenspace.

“It is true that under current zoning, some of the property could not be developed in the manner that we’re proposing in the revised concept plan,” he said. “But it is also true that under current zoning, this property owner would have no obligation to preserve substantial greenspace other than modest open spaces required by current county code.”

Bob Neel, whose family owns 19,000 acres in north Georgia, including more than 14,000 acres that is the Pine Log Wildlife Management Area, is negotiating to sell much of that land to the state.

Credit: Bill Torpy

icon to expand image

Credit: Bill Torpy

Haymore said the current plan also includes 5,000 acres of single-family homes, 1,000 acres of high-density housing, 400 acres of commercial space, 1,600 acres of industrial space and a 3,500-acre mineral reserve area — only 500 acres of which can be used for actual mining activity. Several residents voiced concerns about environmental impacts to the land’s waterways.

“There’s no ifs, ands or buts about it, the watershed will be damaged forever,” resident Lisa Lipscomb said.

The ‘big enchilada’

Ramseur said the state has presented four options to buy most of the Neels’ land, with proposals varying from 10,700 to 16,000 acres. He estimated it will take another six to nine months to finalize a deal.

“The state has their appraisers currently looking at the property... that process is ongoing,” he said. “I wish that process was a 30- or 60-day process, but it’s a lengthy, tedious process.”

The DNR told the AJC it’s “investigating all opportunities to provide public recreational access on this property into the future.”

Resident John Forni said he and his neighbors made it clear during other rezoning requests for much smaller pieces of land that they oppose high-density projects.

“We talked about an acre earlier today, and now we’re talking about 16,000 acres,” he said. “That’s the difference between an hors d’oeuvres and Golden Corral’s all-you-can-eat (buffet). We’re talking a big enchilada here.”

This is a screenshot of live stream for Bartow County Planning Commission's March 27 meeting.

Credit: Bartow County Planning Commission

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Credit: Bartow County Planning Commission

The planning commission, a recommendation board that can’t rezone properties, voted 5-2 to give the overlay zoning its blessing. County Commissioner Steve Taylor will get the final say on whether to apply the overlay zoning.

Haymore said the rezoning is the first of many steps they’ll have to pursue to develop the entire property if negotiations with the state fall apart.

“I want to be very crystal clear. This is not a blank check to engage in any development just because on a map there’s a color that says mining or residential,” he said. “All the applicable standards must be met.”