The Hofmann Forest sale needs a closer look

November 15, 2013 

Round and round it goes, and where the saga of Hofmann Forest will end, nobody knows.

As of now, the 79,000 acres around Jacksonville, fairly near the North Carolina coast, have been sold for $150 million to an Illinois-based, family-owned agribusiness company, and is under the ownership of an entity named Hofmann Forest LLC.

Prior to the sale, the private N.C. State University-connected foundation that oversaw the property talked breathlessly about all the benefits of a sale: it would bring millions in annual revenue for use by the university, including an endowment for the College of Natural Resources, and the right to use the forest as a research site would continue.

Many in the university community, specifically faculty members such as Fred Cubbage, a forestry professor, have objected to the sale and said the land might wind up being developed for commercial and residential property, and also would endanger three watersheds connected to the property and the habitats of a large black bear population, to cite one species.

But the deal was done.

Now, however some serious questions have arisen, and it may be that further legal action (there’s already an attempt to halt the sale) is necessary to examine the implications of a prospectus created by the buyer, apparently to get investors.

That prospectus, as reported in Friday’s News & Observer, talked about the potential to develop commercial and residential space including a golf community, and cutting down timber to use thousands of acres for farmland.

University officials, who had stood by assurances that the buyer intended to maintain the forest, say they knew nothing of the prospectus. They say they’ve been in touch with the buyer (Walker AG is the name of the Illinois company) and believe the agreement is sound and in the best interest of the forest and the university.

A spokesman for the company now says there is every intention to maintain the forest and make money by selling military bases the rights to continue to use the forest for low-level training flights. The prospectus was just reviewing the potential uses for the land.

Cubbage is skeptical. “This document,” he says, “confirms our absolute worst nightmares about what would be done to the forest. The development and farming it describes would be an unmitigated disaster for the environment, for the populations of animals and for the water quality in that whole area, which already is fragile.”

At the least, even if the company’s intentions are not to follow through on the thoughts in the prospectus, this episode is a reminder that for all the good intentions the university expressed regarding the forest preservation and the future of the property when it was proceeding with the sale, a deal is a deal. And once a sale is completed, the buyer, any buyer, can do as it wishes with property it owns.

This deal needs a thorough review, and it has not really gotten one.

The arrangement was done quickly, with little indulgence allowed for those who objected, even though they were substantial in number.

The university has an obligation to the public to conduct business openly, and to justify its actions in a way that will build credibility, not weaken it.

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