Will a 14,000-acre Bartow wildlife preserve stay wild or be developed?

Owner of Pine Log preserve could sell to the state, or someone else, if the price is right.
This is a photo of the Pine Log Wildlife Management Area in Bartow County, a massive property a private family leases to the state of Georgia's Department of Natural Resources.

Credit: Georgia Department of Economic Development

Credit: Georgia Department of Economic Development

This is a photo of the Pine Log Wildlife Management Area in Bartow County, a massive property a private family leases to the state of Georgia's Department of Natural Resources.

The family that owns the 14,000-acre Pine Log Wildlife Management Area in Bartow County is in talks to sell the property to the state, potentially preserving land that the owners have pitched for residential, commercial and industrial development over the next two decades.

Pine Log and thousands of additional acres in Bartow and Cherokee counties, about an hour northwest of Atlanta, have been on the market since last year. The Neel family, which amassed some 19,500 acres of land over the past century, contemplated selling their property for future development.

Negotiations with the state Department of Natural Resources, which has operated the Pine Log preserve for 46 years, are ongoing, the family’s lawyer told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. But the owners’ price — said to be in the hundreds of millions — has not been met.

“If DNR would come forward and say, ‘Hell, we’ll give you $400 million for this,’ they would sell it tomorrow,” Neel family attorney Jim Ramseur said.

Bartow County has become a prime spot for industrial projects as large companies search for swaths of undeveloped land within Atlanta’s orbit, and the Neel family land is among the biggest available tracts in the state. Multibillion-dollar solar panel and electric vehicle battery plants have been announced recently in the county, and the Neel family’s plans to sell their land to developers rankled residents.

“Ten years ago, they were still able to farm and move their combine equipment from their fields back and forth. And Bartow County had not exploded in growth,” Ramseur said. “It’s just time. They can no longer farm it effectively.”

Bob Neel, whose family owns more than 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

Talks with Georgia DNR were first reported by the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

The DNR in a statement said that it “is working hard to investigate all opportunities to provide public recreational access on this property into the future.”

A state purchase, however, isn’t a sure thing. The family is pursuing a development backup plan in case talks fall through.

A 20-year development plan for 16,500 contiguous acres owned by the Neels and outlined in a Development of Regional Impact filing calls for 16,500 residential units, about 16.5 million square feet of industrial space, 800 acres for commercial development and nearly 4,000 acres for mining and debris recycling. About 5,000 acres of would be preserved as greenspace.

The proposal is so massive it would involve rewriting Bartow County’s zoning code.

The possibility of no state deal has locals worried their beloved preserve could be lost to a development of unprecedented scale for Bartow County.

“Places like this, large contiguous wilderness areas, are disappearing rapidly, and if some of it is not preserved, one day we’re going to be in a real problem,” said Reece Monroe, who started a petition to urge the state to buy the property. It’s amassed more than 11,000 signatures.

11,095 signatures on the Save Pinelog Petition and growing!

Posted by Pinelog WMA Preservation Society on Sunday, February 19, 2023

Ramseur said the Neel family wants the Pine Log WMA to remain open to the public, which would not be guaranteed if the DNR negotiations fail. If the land is developed, the 5,000 acres of anticipated greenspace could become part of private, gated neighborhoods.

“The outcry from the citizens is, and I hate to say this, but they’ve been spoiled with a private property’s backyard that opened up 46 years ago,” he said. “So, what they want is 14,000 acres or more, what the DNR wants is 14,000 acres or more, and the family is perfectly contented with that providing that the fair market value was met.”

Explosive growth

The size of the Neel family’s properties is hard to imagine.

The entire 19,500-acre portfolio could hold the equivalent of eight Midtown Atlantas. The family created the Aubrey Corporation, which has 33 members as stakeholders, to manage the land.

Given the explosive industrial growth along I-75 near Cartersville, Ramseur said the family constantly turns down offers.

“They have, over the past five years, turned down one-off offers from every Tom, Dick and Harry because it just was not right,” he said. “…They’re passionate about it, and they just didn’t want to do it piecemeal.”

Since 2017, Bartow County has seen one industrial project after another.

Chick-fil-A built its first distribution center in Cartersville, which employs more than 220 workers. The county’s Anheuser-Busch plant announced an expansion in 2020. Duluth Training Company and WebstaurantStore announced distribution centers last year, which will combine for another 500 jobs.

But the county’s two largest economic development projects are still to come.

In December, South Korean conglomerates SK Innovation and Hyundai Motor Group announced a sprawling EV battery plant, which will create more than 3,500 jobs and ranks as the third-largest corporate investment in state history, according to Gov. Brian Kemp’s office. Weeks later, solar panel maker Qcells announced a $2.5 billion Georgia expansion that includes a Bartow County plant with 2,500 workers.

County leaders are grappling with how to provide housing and infrastructure for the influx of expected workers. Richard Osborne, the county’s zoning administrator, said the 16,500-acre contiguous property is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to plan for for this type of rapid growth. He said the county will not rush that process.

“These mega-regional developments take decades to complete,” he said.

Preserving nature

Once he learned the land could be sold to developers, Monroe said rallied local support with his petition to try to convince the DNR to prioritize buying the land.

“Some of my earliest memories were fishing on Stamp Creek, which runs through the heart of that Wildlife Management Area,” he said. “It’s always been a part of life for a large part of our community.”

Monroe said he knows change will come to Bartow County, given the number of economic development announcements. But he said he’s optimistic that growth can coincide with the preservation of the public wildlife area.

“There’s been a lot of new industrial, commercial growth, which is not always necessarily a bad thing,” Monroe said. “I’m not totally against that, but it shouldn’t be at the sake of our mountains and trout streams and watersheds.”

If the DNR buys the Pine Log land, there’s still more than 2,000 acres of the 16,500-acre tract that will likely be sold for industrial and residential development, Ramseur said. The Neel family is also marketing its remaining 3,000 acres in Cherokee.

Monroe said his priority right now is to preserve the Pine Log WMA and that other rezoning requests will warrant their own scrutiny.

“It’s loud and clear that Bartow County residents do not want more high-density housing,” he said.