A long-awaited green light is expected this week from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as the Mobile County Commission closes on a $3.1 million land purchase for a $40 million soccer and aquatic complex in the Interstate 65 corridor.
Discussed and debated for years, the project was delayed last October after 60-year-old milk bottles found on the property forced the county to conduct a $55,000 cultural resources study to obtain proper permitting from the Corps.
Now — more than a year after applying — a construction permit is expected “any day now,” according to county attorney Jay Ross. However, with wetlands making up 40 percent of the roughly 200-acre property, Ross said it’s likely “some conditions” may apply.
“The historical commission did not object to [the permit], and I’ve seen emails that attest to that,” Ross said last Friday. “There may be some conditions with that. What conditions? I don’t know, but I anticipate something.”
The news comes two months ahead of a July deadline for the county’s third $10,000 extension on an agreement to purchase the property.
Land agreement shows campaign connections
The $3.1 million price tag on the land seems straightforward but is actually the result of two legal agreements between 13 individuals and companies — many with ties to White-Spunner Realty Inc. (WSR), the corporation brokering this deal.
State campaign finance records show some of those same individuals made contributions to the campaigns of two county commissioners last year.
John White-Spunner made two separate $2,000 contributions to commissioners Jerry Carl and Connie Hudson, and at around the same time, Blacksher White-Spunner made a $10,000 contribution to the COMPAC political action committee.
COMPAC, which is overseen by WSR employee J. Benson O’Connor III, put $5,000 of that into Hudson’s bid for re-election the same day it was received and made a $250 contribution to Carl the following month.
According to records, those three transfers are COMPAC’s only activity in 2015.
‘Somebody’s opinion as to fair market value’
The group listed in one of the purchasing agreements includes the WSR affiliates listed above as well as six additional companies and individuals.
Referred to as “The Ansley Group,” the 12-member collective has agreed to sell 75 acres of land to Mobile County for $2.2 million. The second agreement is with Mary Lou Berg, of Texas, who is asking $761,000 for 37 acres adjacent to the other properties.
Minus brokerage fees, the price of both agreements adds up to $2.9 million, or $25,000 an acre.
The $36,000 the county has already spent to secure the purchasing options will be deducted from the price. Both sellers are also “donating” additional land in their agreements that together make up the 80 acres of “wetland area” slated for walking trails on the property.
That said, both agreements are contingent on those “donations,” though Ross said the county would also be identifying a value for the parcels so the sellers could “maximize any tax benefit.”
“That will likely include our recognition of somebody’s opinion as to the fair market value, but I don’t know that number is going to be, yet,” Ross said. “I do know that I’ve seen many of these before, and it’s almost always required the governmental entity recognize the value of the donation.”
While the agreements list the property in four parcels, online records show seven in the same area with fair market values ranging from $15,000 for 1.5 acres to $345,000 for 46. Together, those seven parcels add up to $1.2 million, or $4,500 to $12,000 per acre, but even at the highest price per acre, those only combine for $2.4 million and that includes the 80-acre “donation.”
Details of these parcels and their assessments — made public through the city of Mobile — are available in the photo gallery below.
Edmond G. Eslava III, who operates a real estate appraisal company in Mobile, said he couldn’t comment on this deal without researching it, but in general, he said, fair market value can vary for many reasons.
“Market value is just its worth in the market relative to other, similar properties, but the price is affected by how much you want to buy it and the immediate demands of the seller or buyer,” Eslava said. “When you start comparing sales, it’s an appraiser’s responsibility to determine whether the price paid represents market value and what might have affected it.”
When asked, Hudson said the property was appraised, adding and said the commission “can’t make any purchases without an appraisal.”
According to Ross, the current price is in line with the appraised value.
“There was an appraisal done of the large track. The 80-acre parcel they’re going to give us, I don’t know that we’ve seen that appraised because it’s not part of the ‘purchase price,’” he added.
The agreements require the commission to have the “cash” on hand to purchase the property within 30 days of exercising the purchasing options.The Mobile City Council has allocated $1.5 million from last year’s parks and recreation budget to assist with the land purchase, and Ross said the rest will come from District 2 monies Hudson set aside from a 2012 bond issue.
“We divide up money in a bond issue per district to do park improvements and roads projects, just like we did in this latest bond issue,” Hudson said. “This money is money that I put aside for the soccer complex. So, in that respect, it is district funding.”
Ross said the county has been working with WSR and is preparing to exercise its purchasing options by the time the County Commission meets on May 23. As for the $40 million needed to construct the facility, Ross said there have been efforts to recruit private industry partners.
However, he said, it’s too early to say exactly who, adding the county’s focus has been to “get through the Corps” first.