Gwinnett pays more for land than it's worth

Site will be used as an adjunct to still-undeveloped park

When it buys land, Gwinnett County usually sticks close to the price recommended by its commissioned appraisal.

That wasn't the case earlier this month, when county commissioners voted 3-1 to buy a 33-acre tract for $2.3 million — more than twice what the county's appraisal said it was worth.

The commissioner who cast the dissenting vote calls the purchase, at $69,000 per acre, inexcusable.

The appraiser calls it incomprehensible.

"I don't understand this," said Larry Singleton of Singleton Real Estate in Woodstock. "I couldn't sell that [property] for $69,000 an acre."

Singleton, who has been approved as an appraiser by the state Department of Transportation, says he arrived at a price of $33,104 per acre for the property near Lawrenceville by comparing it with six sales in 2006 of similarly zoned parcels in the northern and eastern sections of the county. Reflecting current depressed conditions, the former Cherokee County commissioner then adjusted the value downward by 20 percent for the site Gwinnett plans to use as an adjunct to the still-undeveloped Palm Creek Park.

Jim Clower, who appraised the same property at $73,000 per acre for the contract purchaser, Falcon Investments LLC, also used 2006 sales to arrive at his value. Clower, who has been appraising property for 42 years, compared the sales of three separate parcels within three miles of the site, then adjusted the price downward by 15 percent. One factor that added to the site's worth, he said, was its proximity to a park.

County Commissioner Kevin Kenerly, who voted in favor of the purchase along with Commissioner Bert Nasuti and Commission Chairman Charles Bannister, said land appraisals for the entire area were "all over the board."

Several plots east of the site were garnering $60,000 an acre, Kenerly said, and they did not have roadside frontage like the property the county purchased.

Commissioner Mike Beaudreau, whose district includes the purchased property, said the wide range in appraisals should have convinced the commission that further study of the site was required.

The property had been the subject of a lawsuit filed last year after the county denied a request to rezone it for higher-density residential housing. A developer, Majors Management, had wanted to divide the property into 91 lots. It was zoned for 33.

As part of the deal, the suit was dismissed.

Court records show the deadline for motions in the case was July 30.

Like Kenerly, Banister said he had studied appraisals for properties near the site and found them inconsistent. He said the proposal had been sitting around for months while the county faced the lawsuit. He added Gwinnett always has taken the lead in park development, and the decision was in the best interest of the county.

For the county, the purchase represents at least an aberration.

A study of major land purchases during the past year shows Gwinnett usually toes the line on its commissioned appraisals.

Outside of right-of-way acquisitions, which normally involve small properties and a price influenced by the county's power of eminent domain, Gwinnett has purchased eight properties — other than the site in question — since last June. Records show the county never paid more than 15 percent over its own appraisal in seven of those acquisitions. The eighth, a February purchase of 2.1 acres for $705,000, has not closed, making appraisal records unavailable.

Before the May 5 purchase, the most the county paid in excess of its appraisal was a Feb. 17 purchase of 8.27 acres from Elite Land Development for $1,161,500. The county appraisal put the value at $1,010,000. In its favor, the county apparently made a great deal on Feb. 3, when it paid half its appraised value of $2,155,000 for 53.8 acres owned by Roddy Sturdivant and Braden Partners LP.

On May 5, in response to Beaudreau's objections to the purchase, Bannister called into question an acquisition Beaudreau had backed in January 2007 for 37 acres near Beaver Ruin Road and I-85 at a cost of $4.6 million.

Bannister, who opposed that deal, called the property landlocked and virtually useless.

But records show the cost to the county matched the property's appraised value.