The tale of Hofmann

dbarkin@newsobserver.comOctober 30, 2013 

In Jay Price’s story today about the sale of Hofmann Forest by a foundation connected with N.C. State, there was this passage on Page 7A. It had to do with the intentions of the buyer of the 79,000-acre research forest, Walker Ag Group, of Danville, Ill.

It’s unclear what changes Walker is considering. A woman who answered the phone at Walker’s company, Walker Ag Group, said Tom Percival of Percival Land and Timber Consultants in Lumberton was its spokesman on the deal. Percival declined to talk about the company’s plans.

“We’ll just let the news release from N.C. State do our talking,” he said.

Public relations professionals would look at this and say, now, that’s not the way a substantial company that suddenly controls 79,000 acres should introduce itself to North Carolina.

Walker Ag should have anticipated that there would be questions about who they are, why they are buying this huge tract, and what they plan to do with it. They shouldn’t have punted the ball to some real estate broker in Lumberton who wasn’t prepared to comment.

This is what was in the N.C. State press release, quoting Jerry Walker, who runs the family business:

“Hofmann Forest is a wonderful property with a long and storied connection to the communities of Eastern North Carolina, and we are committed to preserving that legacy going forward,” said Walker. “We look forward to working with our military neighbors on a plan for maintaining the primary use of the land for timber and agriculture purposes.”

So there are a bunch of questions, some of which might have been addressed if Jerry Walker had taken phone calls yesterday or, maybe even, come to North Carolina.

1. The press release from N.C. State says a “working forest” will be maintained on the property. What portion of the 79,000 acres?

2. The press release says the Defense Department wants an easement that would cover about 70,000 acres. So does that mean 9,000 acres could be developed commercially, like along Highway 17 on the way to New Bern? Are we potentially looking at a doubling of the size of Jacksonville? What are the potential infrastructure costs associated with that? Something the state and locals may want to know about.

3. How much does Walker Ag want from the DOD for this easement? Two years ago, DOD paid two-thirds of a $2.5 million conservation easement on 1,584 acres near the Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort. So, looking at the scale of this property, maybe we’re talking about tens of millions of dollars for an easement. Are the mechanics of this deal that Walker Ag gets a big easement payment, then gets to harvest the timber for another big payout, and then gets to develop thousands of acres for yet another chunk of cash? If I were Kay Hagan or Richard Burr, I might want to know more about this easement, because it seems like it could be a key to this deal, and ultimately, the taxpayers would be on the hook.

So basically, this is not some little private deal, nothing to see here, move along. There are a bunch of stakeholders here besides N.C. State and Walker Ag. Some guy in Lumberton may think it’s OK to “let the news release from N.C. State do our talking,” but is that really the way you want to handle a big announcement like this?

There’s also the matter of the lawsuit. There was supposed to be a hearing on Nov. 12. A judge had denied a temporary restraining order to block the sale after, in the words of Price’s story, “lawyers from the state Attorney General’s Office argued late last month that the sale wasn’t imminent.” I suppose one can parse the meaning of the word “imminent.” I’m sure the judge who relied on the AG’s office was just thrilled to pick up the paper this morning.

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