Path to Rowen development land acquisitions littered with risks, dilemmas

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

The story of how one of Georgia’s largest economic development projects managed to acquire 2,000 acres of land in metro Atlanta begins almost two decades ago, when Charlotte Nash was Gwinnett County Administrator.

Just before retiring, Nash sat on the newly formed Georgia Bioscience Joint Development Authority, aiming to turn Ga. 316 into a bioscience corridor. Nash went on to become the Gwinnett commission chair, taking over from a predecessor who resigned amid a scandal involving insider land deals.

Now, the first road is being built for Rowen, a massive life sciences facility in east Gwinnett projected to create about 90,000 jobs this century and contribute billions to Georgia’s economy. It includes 9 acres bought from Nash’s brother-in-law and his family for more than double the appraised value, a transaction that an ethicist called “fraught” but not clearly wrong.

The potential conflict of interest was one of many dilemmas and risks that littered the path to Rowen’s recent groundbreaking.

“Hopefully I can sit back and view the good things that are going to happen as a result of it,” said Nash, who at the end of 2020 stepped down from the county commission. “It’s a bit of a quandary for someone like me that has lived in this part of the county for all my life. This is going to affect my friends and neighbors. It’s a big change for this part of Gwinnett.”

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Nash, 70, grew up 5 miles from the Rowen site, in a part of Gwinnett known as the Harbins community. She, like many of her neighbors, knew of the vast swath of land between Dacula and the Apalachee River, north of Ga. 316 and south of Route 8, mostly covered in loblolly pines for logging.

Two families — the Hintons and the Tanners — controlled most of the property. Everyone else wondered what they might plan to do with it.

Nash wanted a development that would create high-paying job opportunities for Gwinnett’s booming population. The joint development authority members hoped the private sector would take the lead. That never happened.

In 2010, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation revealed county commissioners overpaid for park land to benefit connected developers. The commission chairman at the time resigned in disgrace. Nash won a 2011 special election to replace him.

“I’m going to do the right thing,” she said.

“Please believe in Project X”

Tommy Hunter first won a seat on the county commission in 2012, serving District 3, which includes the Rowen area.

As a county public utilities coordinator, he had pushed for more sewer infrastructure in the Dacula and Harbins areas. He too knew about the land owned by the Hintons and other old-timer families.

As a commissioner, he got to thinking about that land when Nash commented about the possibility that Dacula or Auburn could annex it, to the detriment of Gwinnett’s tax base.

Ten years ago next month, Hunter drew a map of parcels that looks similar to today’s Rowen site. A hole in the middle labels land owned by Nash’s relatives, and others, as “OUT.” Hunter said he didn’t think they would sell.

“County acquire to develop high tech/research park and prevent annexation,” he wrote, and, “Sewer infrastructure.”

“Need ‘niche’ market,” he wrote. He drew a box around the acreage: 1,970.78

That was more than Nash realized, looking over the map Hunter excitedly brought her. But, she said, she was cautious from several angles.

She and Hunter both said she immediately brought up the land owned by her husband’s brother, nephew and their spouses.

“She knew the talk would be what it was,” Hunter said. “We’ve been in government and politics long enough.”

Nash also said the Hintons and Tanners hadn’t shown any interest in selling their land, which had been in their families for generations. And others in eastern Gwinnett, one of the dwindling rural areas of metro Atlanta, might oppose a large development.

Nash couldn’t recuse herself from the project altogether.

“You got a big old whopping project like this, my duty as commission chair was that I would need to be involved,” Nash said. “This project could be one of the biggest decisions made during my time in office.”

Hunter said he was willing to take the lead. His excitement for the project was unchecked, and he said he could shield Nash from appearing to push for something that would benefit her family.

Nash said Hunter brought useful expertise in engineering and development to the commission’s discussions.

“In retrospect, he has not been given sufficient credit publicly,” she said.

Nash wanted experts to evaluate whether such a development would be successful. County staff recommended Bob Hughes, principal of the planning and landscape architecture firm HGOR.

“What we engaged them to do was to tell us this was a bad idea,” Nash said. “We didn’t want to go down the road and find out too late that there wasn’t a chance of success.”

The first contract with HGOR, in 2016, asked the firm to plan “Project X,” a major research and development park that would be competitive throughout the Southeast.

The idea seemed easy to dismiss, but Hughes seized on the fact that most of the land was owned by two families and equidistant from Atlanta, Athens and Gainesville, metropolitan areas with thriving science and agriculture industries. There were a dozen research and educational facilities in the area. Current plans for the project model it after the renowned Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, which sits between Raleigh, Durham and the town of Chapel Hill.

“We were sitting there astounded, ourselves, once you put all the pieces of information together, by what the possibility could be,” Nash said. “It became even more of a big deal to be able to convince those two families to sell their property.”

Hughes subcontracted the brokerage firm Cushman & Wakefield to help negotiate. Matt Hawkins Jr., a partner, said he was skeptical of the assignment at first.

“There’s no way you’re going to get 2,000 acres in Gwinnett County,” he remembered thinking. “There’s just no way.”

The Hinton family owned about 1,000 acres dating back to the 1870s. The Tanner family owned more than 600 acres, some of which predated the Civil War.

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Hawkins, his partner Ron Willingham, Hughes and developer Tom Senkbeil began meeting with both families. Countless hours were spent at the Hintons’ kitchen table in Dacula, over a period of at least three years.

The research park didn’t have a name yet. The message, Hughes said, came down to: “Please believe in Project X.”

Representatives of the Hinton and Tanner families declined interviews but provided written statements about their decision to sell. Both families said they would have quickly turned down overtures for a residential subdivision. The pitch comparing Project X to Research Triangle Park was a clincher, said Bill Tanner, a Gwinnett-based attorney. The potential benefit to the region was key, the families said.

Nine Hinton family members were involved in discussions, said Caroline Hinton, 26. They were all powerfully attached to the land.

“It’s nearly impossible to explain how a love for land in its natural state can grip your heart so tightly it hurts, unless you’ve experienced that love yourself,” she said in her statement.

Nash said she participated in discussions with the Hintons. They felt strongly about the land’s future use and wanted assurances, she said. They helped develop the research park’s three focus areas: agriculture, the environment and medicine.

“Many of the things they were concerned about fit well with what we had in mind,” she said. “They didn’t want it to be just another mixed-use development, too.”

Every so often, Hunter said, Hughes briefed the county commission in closed session on negotiations — which moved at an agonizing pace.

“It was like pouring molasses in wintertime,” Hunter said. “The Hintons don’t do anything fast and they’re good people, but they don’t just trust you because you say you’re going to do everything right.”

Secrecy was key, and the negotiators ran the risk the Hintons or Tanners would publicize their intentions.

“The deal would have blown up,” Hughes said. “The land values would have gone through the roof.”

Going public

Meanwhile, the county was acquiring about 480 acres around the edges of the Hinton land, mostly from developers who couldn’t build there. The county commission approved its first Project X purchase in June 2017, when commissioners voted to buy 375 acres from GCIP Six LLC for the appraised value of about $3.9 million.

The county attorney at the time said the land, which straddles Route 8, would be used for “transportation improvements.” Even without the research park, upgrades were needed to accommodate population growth, Nash said.

Hunter alone abstained from the vote. He thought he was the only commissioner who knew the developers couldn’t use the land.

The Williams family had a “For Sale” sign on land they’d owned since 1894. They sold about 39 acres to the county for $1 million.

The Hintons eventually agreed to sell about 726 acres for more than $25 million and preserve about 250 acres. The Tanners sold about 509 acres for almost $20 million, keeping more than 100 acres, according to property records.

The research park was a go. And the Board of Commissioners would have to vote, in public, to buy almost 2,000 acres of land. It was time for the plan to come out.

A nonprofit foundation, initially funded by county loans, would buy the land and manage the project. Caroline Hinton’s father, Sam, would sit on the board of directors. Money for the loans would come from bonds issued by the Development Authority of Gwinnett County and a new economic development tax. The Rowen Foundation would have to repay the loans at 2% interest. HGOR hired Jackson Spalding for public relations.

Jackson Spalding executive Brian Brodrick, who is also the mayor of Watkinsville, came up with the name “Rowen,” a farming term for a second harvest or unexpected windfall.

A vote was set for August 2020. Hunter had thought an agreement could be years away, and he had reasons to be concerned for his legacy after blowback from his Facebook post calling then-Rep. John Lewis “a racist pig.”

Nash filed a public disclosure with the county clerk the day of the vote.

“While I have no conflict with the actions taken today related to the project known as ROWEN, I wish to provide notice that my husband has family members who reside on property they own in the vicinity of the project,” it read. “If acquisition of these properties is sought during my time in office, I will abstain from deliberation, discussion and voting on actions related to these properties.”

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She said she didn’t exhale until the initial Rowen purchase finished closing, the day before her last as county chair.

Rowen Foundation President Mason Ailstock said the organization waited until Nash left office to approach her in-laws about selling their land. Hunter and District 2 Commissioner Ben Ku, the only current board member who overlapped with Nash, said he does not recall that purchase being discussed until she was off the board.

Nash’s brother-in-law, Robert Nash Sr., and his wife, Anita, owned more than 6 acres with a three-bedroom house and outbuildings. His son, Robert Nash Jr., and his wife Jacqueline, owned more than 1 acre with another three-bedroom house.

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

As of Jan. 1, 2021, the county appraised the larger parcel at $216,900 and the smaller one at $165,300, property records show. In late March, both couples signed contracts to sell their property for more than double the appraised values, totaling more than $900,000.

Neither of the couples returned messages seeking comment.

By the time the Nashes were approached, everyone knew what the land was for and property owners were disregarding appraised values, Hughes said. The highest cost per acre went to the Sims family, which sold three acres at the entrance to the property for $726,000.

The Rowen Foundation to date has spent more than $68 million on land. Ailstock and Hughes said they were comfortable with the overall average of $34,000 per acre.

The Nash property is slated for low-density research facilities. They can continue living there until the homes need to be demolished, likely years from now.

Charlotte Nash said her in-laws like where they live and she worried they would be unhappy about the research park. She said she never spoke to them about the negotiations.

Edward Queen, a professor at the Emory Center for Ethics, said there’s no clear answer as to how long governmental bodies should wait to take actions involving former members.

“She can’t be blamed for things that happened after the fact, but the fact that these questions are being asked illustrates the fraught nature of the situation,” Queen said.

The county commission in December approved a new zoning district for the Rowen land that requires development to comply with the Rowen Foundation’s design guidelines, which include environmental practices such as preserving native plants and green space.

The Georgia Department of Economic Development is helping to recruit the first company or companies that would become Rowen’s founding partners, Ailstock has said.

As of last year, Gwinnett County has loaned almost $83 million to the Rowen Foundation through the development authority. Debt service on the bonds will add another $13 million over 20 years, according to a county spokesperson.

“Is it a big swing?” Hughes said. “Yeah, it’s a big swing. It’s a big, bold thing, but boy, the benefit is worth the swing.”