In casual conversation, Tommy Sheffield, the facilities director for Mobile County Schools, will refer to roughly 15,000 acres of school board public property as “his land,” but that’s probably because overseeing more than 40 parcels keeps his staff out of the office more often than not.
Those parcels are non-campus properties owned by the board that are commonly leased out to businesses, community groups and private individuals for myriad uses. Last year, the school system took in over $2 million from the leases, which Sheffield said is on the low side of average.
“These sections predate [Alabama’s] constitution, as far as land goes, and it’s a very good business for the school board,” Sheffield said. “Besides the income, we’ve got good tenants that keep an eye on our property. There’s a lot of room for mischief in large sections of the woods, so our tenants are really a plus.”
Those sections are “16th section of lands,” of which the school board claims more than 30 throughout Mobile County, lands given by the federal government to Alabama upon its becoming a state in 1819. The public school system and the University of South Alabama were later awarded those lands by the state legislature in 1969 and 1973, respectively.
Today, those properties make up a significant portion of the system’s 22,000 total acres. They are occupied by various tenants such as hunters and farmers, and also by oil, sewer and utility companies leasing the parcels for their business endeavors.
According to Sheffield, each lease is typically written for a five-year period, but as the landowner, the school system approves each use yearly. He also said the system could “cancel any lease at any time without cause.”
All of the money generated from the land leases is pumped back into the district’s capital accounts, which is mostly used to address critical and immediate needs at the district’s schools, though some also is used to maintain the properties themselves.
In 2015, the most profitable individual lease was to a Citronelle-based oil and gas company, worth $981,000 alone.
“These are actually production wells for natural gas and crude oil that are leased based on a percentage of their volume, which we’re paid annually for,” Sheffield said. “They find it, tap it and sell it. For us, it’s all dependent on how the market is doing.”
Those leases are typically profitable when oil or gas is discovered, but even selling the rights to explore the property has been good for the school system. Last year, J-Brex of Alabama LLC submitted a bid to explore the same property in the Citronelle area to the tune of $159 per acre, and the deal benefited the system to the tune of $101,000.
Another profitable endeavor is the sale of timber, which earned the system more than $924,000 this year. Regions Bank manages the system’s day-to-day timber operations, which Sheffield explained in a previous Lagniappe story as valued at around $20 million.
According to Sheffield, the system is very conscious about conservation and sustainability of the timber, which is why they typically only harvest about 5 percent of the timber each year.
“If I cut 5 percent a year, I’ll have a sustainable resource for life,” Sheffield said. “The growth factor is around 5 percent, so if I cut 5 percent and plant 5 percent, I’ll never run out.”
Of this year’s timber revenue, more than $200,000 was returned to the operation itself, money used to plant new pine saplings and finance controlled burns necessary to promote growth.
Though timber and oil leases generate the most money for the system per acre, the largest area of property is actually reserved for hunting — accounting for 32 of the school system’s 100 leases. This year, hunting leases have brought in more than $70,000.
Recently, however, one hunting lease caused some concern among parents at two local elementary schools. A 640-acre section of land between Collier and Taylor-White schools is authorized for hunting, and has some parents worried about its proximity to children.
But according to Sheffield, there is a buffer of utilities leases around the property and the section authorized for hunting is in the center, at least a half mile from either school. Additionally, the lessee is only authorized for bow hunting.
“If you’re hunting and you get in a dense forest, a bow and arrow is no danger to students that far from the school,” Sheffield said. “Historically, this area of the county was all woods. We didn’t even have these schools out there back in the day.”
Others have questioned the school system’s practice of maintaining and establishing trails on properties leased by hunters, but Sheffield said it’s a program geared toward the system’s lucrative timber operation.
“Most of the roads, or trails, on these sections are logging roads,” Sheffield said. “We maintain these properties year round, but there’s no maintenance that directly lends a hand to a hunter at all. In other words, if someone wants a gate up to keep trespassers out, that hunter is going to put it up.”
Another responsibility of the leaseholder is to work with the school system on wildlife conservation. Sheffield said deer, foxes, coyotes, turkeys, rabbits, squirrels and other animals inhabit the lands, and all hunters are encouraged to use effective game management.
According to Sheffield, those practices, as well as long-term leases, keep hunters from overhunting an area during the limited time they’re allowed to access it. Proper management, he said, can actually increase the deer population on the properties.
“We keep a very good relationship with our local game warden. We update him yearly on the properties, and he has full access to all of our sections,” Sheffield said. “We also make it very clear to our hunters that safety and our resources are the top two priorities, and your hunting is way down there at third.”
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