State talks at impasse to buy 14,000-are Bartow wildlife area

Landowner’s representative says they’re pursuing other sale options, including a massive development plan
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.

After a year of negotiations, the family that owns the 14,000-acre Pine Log Wildlife Management Area in Bartow County told the state it’s time to “fish or cut bait.”

The Neel family, which has leased the land to the Department of Natural Resources for the past 46 years, set June 1 as a deadline for the state to either pay millions of dollars to preserve the land’s public use or walk away, clearing the path for the site to be developed for residential, commercial and industrial purposes.

Jim Ramseur, the Neel family’s representative, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution those negotiations hit an impasse, with the state’s final offer being millions of dollars shy from what his clients would accept.

“The Neel family is saddened by this,” Ramseur said. “We tried to work with the state for the past year and just cannot come to terms.”

Coinciding with the negotiation deadline, public access to Pine Log ended this week, cutting off prime fishing, hunting and hiking land about 55 miles northwest of downtown Atlanta. Pine Log’s main entrance off Stamp Creek Road northeast of Cartersville is now locked, a DNR spokesperson confirmed to the AJC.

The DNR will remove all equipment from the property by mid-June and will no longer stock Stamp Creek with trout following the failed negotiations, which included three written offers from the state to buy the property. Ramseur said the Neel family have more than 20 offers from developers and other conservation groups that vastly surpass the state’s final offer.

“Even though we have offers from other groups, we did not want to move on those until we gave the state every ounce of time to make a decision,” Ramseur said, adding that the Neel family’s final offer was $30 million dollars less than they could get elsewhere. He said the Pine Log property could fetch hundreds of millions of dollars in total if sold to private companies or nonprofits.

Pine Log’s closure, combined with the potential development slated for the property, has longtime outdoorsmen hoping they haven’t already visited the area’s hiking trails and fishing holes for the last time.

Andrew Price posted on Facebook that he visited Pine Log on Wednesday for one final day of trout fishing before the gates were locked.

“It’s a part of my childhood,” the 23-year-old told the AJC. “It kind of sucks to know that if (negotiations) fall through and the state doesn’t get it, that it’s just over with.”

The Neel family placed Pine Log and thousands of additional acres in Bartow and Cherokee counties for sale last summer. Ramseur said the family decided to sell because of the area’s rapid growth, which includes multibillion-dollar solar panel and electric vehicle battery plant announcements.

Due to the drawn-out state negotiations, the family hedged their bets by pursuing a back-up development plan that would transform Pine Log into thousands of housing units and land for industrial companies and commercial uses over the next 20 years.

Bartow County’s sole commissioner, Steve Taylor, rezoned the land in April after hearing hours of critical comments from residents who worry development will change their county’s character and destroy pristine land. The county committed last month to pitching in $5 million to help the state buy the land.

Discussions around the property have centered around the public want to preserve what some residents call their “Yellowstone” versus the property owners’ right to do what they wish. A petition to “Save Pine Log” has amassed more than 13,000 signatures.

If the 20-year development plan comes to fruition, at least 5,000 acres of greenspace will be preserved, but it’s not guaranteed that land will remain open to the public. Instead, it could be included within private developments, which as currently proposed include 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.

Price said he and many of his neighbors don’t think the development will serve existing residents.

“The last five years, (Bartow) has just absolutely exploded,” he said. “I’m sure it’s going to be more useless apartments that nobody around here can afford.”

The development plan, which was first outlined in a Development of Regional Impact filing in March, prompted a new overlay zoning district to be created. The project’s details have been adjusted to take into account community feedback, such as reducing the number of proposed residences, cutting the planned commercial space in half and removing a proposal for a debris recycling facility.

“Unless the state can find a way to... bridge the gap, we have to move on to the developer path,” Ramseur said, adding that he expects to be under contract with some buyer or buyers by the end of June.