Opponents of Hofmann Forest sale will continue fight

jprice@newsobserver.comDecember 2, 2013 


A stand of loblolly pines wait to be harvested Tuesday, October 29, 2013, in the Hofmann Forest near Jacksonville. Trustees of N.C. State University’s Endowment Fund have agreed to sell the 79,000-acre research forest to an Illinois-based agribusiness company for $150 million.

TRAVIS LONG — tlong@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

— Opponents of the $150 million deal to sell N.C. State University’s vast Hofmann Forest said Monday that they plan to appeal a judge’s decision to dismiss their lawsuit seeking to block the sale.

Wake County Superior Court Judge Shannon R. Joseph tossed out the suit Nov. 22, saying that the law didn’t support the group’s claims that the land is state owned and that state law automatically requires an environmental review of the deal since it inevitably would lead to significant environmental impacts.

The plaintiffs are a group of five men that includes conservationists, forestry professors and an owner of land near the forest. One plaintiff, conservation scientist Ron Sutherland of Durham, said they didn’t feel that Joseph had considered the case carefully enough.

“We think our legal arguments stand pretty strong, and the judge didn’t give them a very thorough hearing,” Sutherland said.

NCSU announced in October that the 79,000-acre forest, near Jacksonville, would be sold to a company headed by a large-scale farmer from Illinois.

The opponents say that company, Hofmann LLC, will likely develop thousands of acres for homes and businesses, and that much of the rest would be cleared of trees and used for cropland. They cite a leaked prospectus that had been developed by the company earlier this year to attract investors to the deal. It says several thousands of acres could be developed, and much of the rest could be put in crops.

A company spokesman said that its plans had changed and that it intends to leave the current timber farming operation in place and make the deal work by selling off rights to the military for training on and over the land, something the Marines from nearby Camp Lejeune have been doing for decades.

The prospectus also mentions the prospect of military easements and suggests that the Pentagon is willing to pay about $50 million for a 50-year lease.

Hofmann is named for the founder of the N.C. State forestry program, Julius “Doc” Hofmann. He started buying the land for it in the mid-1930s for research and to provide income for the forestry program mainly through timber harvesting. The land was owned for decades by a private foundation, which gifted it to the university’s endowment fund. There, it continued to generate revenue from timber sales for the College of Natural Resources.

University officials said they wanted to sell Hofmann because little research was being done there and that it mainly had become a source of income. It had been producing about $2 million a year, but last year that dipped to $861,000, they said.

When university officials announced the deal, they said that investing the proceeds would yield about $6 million annually. Such income from endowments is becoming ever more critical for universities in the public system because of almost annual cuts in state funding in recent years.

Chancellor Randy Woodson said that Hofmann LLC was picked not only because it made a large offer, but because it intended to keep a working forest at Hofmann, continue to allow NCSU research there, and maintain ties to the legacy of “Doc” Hofmann.

Last week in a meeting with reporters and editors at The News & Observer, Woodson said that the university never had a proper chance to cut its own deal with the military for easements because the Defense Department apparently had seen little reason to pay for something it was already getting for free.

Only after NCSU had a buyer lined up did the military seem to get serious about negotiating, he said.

The forest isn’t a pristine parcel, but environmentalists say it is important for a number of reasons. It has a large population of black bears and is home to the rare eastern diamondback rattlesnake – the largest venomous snake on the continent – as well as other important species. Also, it’s in the watersheds of three environmentally sensitive rivers.

In her brief written decision to dismiss the case, Joseph alluded to the public controversy over the sale but gave little detail about what was wrong with the lawsuit.

“The role of this Court is not to decide whether the sale of Hofmann Forest is wise or ill-advised,” she wrote. “Rather, this Court must decide whether the North Carolina law on which the Plaintiffs rely would entitle them to relief assuming their allegations are true. In this case it would not.”

Sutherland said that Joseph hadn’t had much case law to go on regarding the state law. But a similar federal law had been interpreted to include the sale of land, and he said that should set the standard.

“We think we will prevail, and that if we are able to do that it will establish a precedent that sale of state land does require a review, which is important because it could protect other important land,” he said.

Price: 919-829-4526

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