Tax records indicate a piece of property in Bay Minette’s Canterbury subdivision made its way from a company tied to Mayor Bob Will’s family to the city’s public utility board before it was later sold to the city’s attorney for $15,000.The parcel, located on Cate Court, is currently a residential property owned by Scott Lewis, who serves as the attorney for the city of Bay Minette and the board of North Baldwin Utilities. In 2011, though, it was one of several vacant lots owned by the F & M Land Company.
According to the Alabama Secretary of State’s website, F & M is co-owned by Wills’ brother-in-law T. E. Mitchell and James H. Faulkner Jr. As mayor, Wills holds a seat on the NBU board, though he didn’t at the time of the purchase because he was not elected until 2012.
However, because of the connections to his wife’s family, Lagniappe reached out to Wills who said via email that he couldn’t comment on the situation because he was “totally unaware of any land transaction between NBU and F & M Land Company in 2011 for the lot and had no knowledge of it.”
Since taking a seat on the NBU board, Wills has abstained from voting to approve at least two other properties acquired from a trust held by the Mitchell family to avoid any conflict of interest. Lagniappe has previously reported on two houses purchased by NBU in Loxley’s Steelewood subdivision the board claimed were for economic development purposes.At the time of the purchase, the Baldwin County Revenue Commission listed the Cate Court property’s value at $27,760. However, when NBU needed to extend water lines through the area, the utility decided purchasing the property for $35,000 would still be cheaper than running lines through other private properties that weren’t for sale at the time.
General Manager Jason Padgett said purchasing the property at Cate Court allowed NBU to install 800 feet of water line. An alternative option, according to Padgett, would have been far more costly because it would have required more additional water lines as well as an easement from a private property owner.
“NBU estimated the cost of installation for option 1 at $12,000 and option 2 at $98,000,” Padgett wrote in an email. “Even factoring in the cost of acquiring the lot at Cate Court at a cost of $35,000, option 1 was clearly the most cost-effective method to extend the water line, not even taking into account that there would have been additional expense to NBU to acquire the easement that would have been necessary for option 2.”
Minutes from an NBU meeting in October 2011 show the $35,000 purchase was approved as a “water and gas expansion,” but while there is mention of “a discussion,” there is no indication the purchase was considered one of multiple options.
Baldwin County Probate records indicate NBU granted a permanent easement on the property to itself on May 22, 2012. That easement — as well as others previously established on the property — was then passed onto Lewis when he and his wife purchased the property from NBU a year later.
According to Padgett, NBU had “no further need for the lot” after the easement was established and the water and gas lines had been installed. At a special-called meeting in August 2013, the board authorized the sale of the lot with “easement stipulations to [the] appraisal value.”
Padgett said that meant “the lot would be sold for less than the NBU purchase price taking into consideration that the lot was encumbered by the easement and as-built utilities.” Padgett also reiterated Lewis was not the NBU attorney at the time of the sale.
“NBU placed a ‘for sale by owner’ sign on the lot, and Mr. Lewis, through a real estate agent, made an offer to purchase the lot for $15,000,” Padgett wrote. “In addition to the purchase price of $15,000, Mr. Lewis was also responsible for the closing costs, including deed preparation and all real estate agent fees.”
The deed, according to probate court records, was prepared by Lewis himself. Appraisal records also indicate the home located on the property wasn’t constructed until 2014.
With the revenue from the resale included, Padgett said the $47,000 spent buying the parcel and running the extended water lines created “a minimum savings of $66,000” when compared to the second option.
Lagniappe reached out to a Baldwin County realtor for comment on comparable land sales in the Canterbury area but did not receive a response prior to this publication’s deadline. However, a review of 2013 tax records indicate parcels without homes in the same area were valued anywhere from $29,000 to $33,000.
Lewis confirmed neither he nor his law firm were employed by the NBU at the time of the purchase, though he was serving as the city’s legal counsel.