The vision for Michelle Nunn and her business partners was rows of houses and condominiums on a tract of picturesque marshland near Brunswick.
It never happened and never will, now that the land is protected from future development as a conservation site. But the land deal is resurfacing in the Democrat’s campaign for the U.S. Senate as Republicans seek to highlight the web of political connections she has through her famous father, despite portraying herself as a Washington outsider.
In 2004, Nunn, her father, four-term Democratic U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, local builder Michael Wilson and two Washington lobbyists who were senior aides for Sam Nunn — Bob Hurt and Frank Norton — secured along with their spouses a $2 million loan to buy 850 acres of land in Glynn County.
At the end of 2008, the county approved a zoning change for a chunk of the property to “planned development,” with the lead owner listed as Ron Martin, Nunn’s husband. The plan was for 485 housing units, providing a projected boost of $147 million to the local economy.
But by then, the economy was in free fall, and development across the nation ground to a halt. In late 2010, the partners went forward with a much different vision: a conservation easement contract with a private land trust to forever ban development on the vast majority of the property.
The easement provided tens of thousands of dollars worth of tax benefits to the group, originally formed under the name Wisawee Partners, while preserving the environmentally sensitive area.
The Nunn campaign identified the deal as a potential political liability in December, according to internal memos that recently became public. The memos included “conservation easements” among a list of attacks Republicans could pursue, alongside other claims, such as Nunn is “a lightweight.”
The campaign of her Republican opponent, David Perdue, seized upon the land deal as evidence that Nunn is a creature of Washington and not the true outsider portrayed by her campaign.
“Michelle Nunn’s cozy relationships with Washington insiders undercut everything she is saying in her TV ads,” Perdue spokesman Derrick Dickey said. “They are not only funding her campaign to mislead Georgians about who she really is, but they are apparently funding her personal business deals as well.”
The Nunn campaign pointed out that conservation easements are common and a bipartisan cause. Former Gov. Sonny Perdue expanded easement tax credits and a portion of land he owns in Florida has an easement on it, with the accompanying property value write-down. David Perdue, a businessman who lives in Sea Island, is the former governor’s first cousin, and the two formed Perdue Partners as a joint business venture.
“It’s the highest hypocrisy for David Perdue to criticize a conservation program championed by his cousin and business partner, Governor Sonny Perdue,” said Nunn spokesman Nathan Click.
“Michelle, her husband, Senator Nunn and Colleen Nunn were able to protect beautiful land in Glynn County for future generations through a program supported not just by Governor Perdue but a broad swath of Georgia leaders including Senators Chambliss and Isakson.”
Hurt, Nunn’s chief of staff, and Norton, who worked for Nunn on the Armed Services Committee, formed the Hurt, Norton & Associates lobbying and consulting firm after Nunn retired. Norton died in 2009. Hurt, reached by phone this week, declined to comment.
Hurt, Norton and Sam Nunn all owned homes on St. Simons Island, and Wilson has several land holdings in the Brunswick area. The group borrowed $2 million from a bank in Blackshear for the $2.67 million land purchase from a timber company in July 2004, according to records reviewed by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
When a development plan was still in the works, the tax bill on the land came to $23,100, on a market value of $2.55 million. After Wisawee Partners obtained the easement, the tax bill on the slightly smaller portion of land dedicated to the easement was $3,502 and its market value assessed at $369,210.
The rest of the property was spun off into smaller parcels in separate holding companies. Subsequent easements reduced their values and tax bills as well.
In addition, the partnership would have been eligible for state tax credits and a charitable deduction on its federal return for the amount of the lost property value, which was in effect donated to the Georgia Land Trust. The land trust makes sure the land is protected and the easement conditions are followed.
Wisawee Partners still owns the land but cannot make improvements to it beyond those agreed to in the easement, which include building a small structure that cannot be used as a dwelling, no more than three docks and no more than five wooden crabbing piers.
Steffney Thompson, the executive director of the Oconee River Land Trust in Athens, was not familiar with the Nunn deal. But she said the tax breaks “can help lessen the sting” of the loss of property value and upfront costs to do an easement.
“There is a benefit short term,” Thompson said. But, she added, “I’ve never seen a landowner do a conservation easement just to make money, let’s just put it that way.”
As of 2004, Michelle Nunn and Ron Martin owned 17.1 percent of the partnership. In all, Nunn’s Senate campaign financial disclosure — which requires reporting only within a range of values — now shows Nunn and Martin’s stake in the six partnerships that own land in the area to be between $292,000 and $730,000.
Nunn’s financial disclosure also shows that Martin drew a salary from two of the partnerships, though the amount is not specified.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.