Royce Cornelison of P&C Construction is the developer the Georgia Land Trust proposes to sell its Johnson Crook acreage to. Cornelison already has 2300 acres under conservation easement, knows how private-sector conservation works, and would "a good steward of the land," says the trust.
It is true that the Georgia Land Trust is negotiating to sell the 1800-odd acres it owns in Rising Fawn’s Johnson’s Crook to a developer, and it is also true the developer will likely build houses there.
But not enough houses to amount to what is called a subdivision – much less a development – and in any case not in such a way as to offend either the land trust’s environmental requirements or the sensibilities of the neighbors.
That was the message at a June 4  meeting conducted by Katherine Eddins, GLT’s executive director, at what was once the Mill Creek Clubhouse of failed development The Preserve at Rising Fawn. Invited were the press, politicos and neighbors who had watched the Preserve morph from local land boom to interstate bank fraud, as well as the few individual landowners who retained property at the Preserve when the smoke had cleared.
“You can still protect the land and have a few houses,” Ms. Eddins told these assembled concerned parties at the Thursday meeting.
Ms. Eddins had called the meeting amid consternation about GLT’s rumored intention to sell the scenic Crook land, which it had acquired from Tennessee firm Southern Group, whose attempts to develop it had culminated in scandal and jail time, to yet another developer.
Ms. Eddins identified the new developer as Royce Cornelison, founder and president of P&C Construction, and she confirmed that the land trust is in fact negotiating with him on a deal whereby he would buy the Crook acreage.
But she specified that Cornelison will be subject to a conservation contract that would require him to keep most of the acquisition in a rural condition. “Our interest in the land is to make sure the land is not developed,” said Ms. Eddins.
She specified that so far no such deal has been finalized. “There’s no sale pending,” she said. “We don’t have a contract yet. We’re hoping to but we don’t have one yet.”
Cornelison was on hand at the meeting to answer questions, and he confirmed that he had already bought a smaller property at the former Preserve including a standing horse barn and the ruins of a larger clubhouse that was never completed, which he said he and his outdoorsy sons intended for private use. “We’ll probably fix it up as a retreat, for the family, and to lease it.”
As for new development, Cornelison said plans are still hazy but that he may consider building replacement homes where such had already been started. “We may [or] we may not sell some lots there and build some houses there,” he said.
Limited building, confirmed Cornelison and Ms. Eddins, would not violate the terms of the proposed conservation agreement.
But for the most part, said Cornelison: “What you see is what you get.” Not much would change.
“Primarily, we like it like it is,” he said. “I like nature. My boys like nature.”
The family would use the land for hunting and fishing, and possibly for cattle, he said.
Questioned after the meeting, Cornelison said that’s what he does with the approximate 2300 acres he already has in conservancy with the land trust at other locations. “We farm it. We have cattle. We do timbering some, but we don’t clear-cut unless it’s a property that like the tornado’s damaged,” he said.
Ms. Eddins had earlier explained that limited timbering is also permitted under the terms of a typical conservation easement, subject to no-harvest zones in sensitive areas such as creek banks.
And she explained that such conservation easements with landowners are GLT’s primary tools in its preservation work. “We specialize in helping the private sector protect land,” she said.
Ms. Eddins said that the federal government grants substantial tax breaks to landowners for giving up the right to develop their acreage. “It’s a way to incentivize the private sector,” she said.
Asked about that incentive, Cornelison said that the conservancy benefit was a long-term and complicated one to claim but that he isn’t going into the red with the Angus cattle operation he runs on his other easements. “It don’t make a fortune by any stretch of the imagination but it does make a little money,” he said.
Ms. Eddins said that her group had discussed gifting the Crook acres to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources but that DNR had declined because it didn’t have the budget to maintain the land. Neither, she said, does the land trust. In fact, she said, GLT needs funds from the proposed Cornelison sale to pay off a loan of more than a million dollars it took out to facilitate its conservation work.
She did not disclose what price, if any, is being discussed for the acreage.
Ms. Eddins said GLT couldn’t afford simply to donate the land to some other preservation group such as the Southeastern Cave Conservancy Inc. (SCCI), which she said her group is still working closely with to protect the myriad caves that lie beneath the Crook. “Anybody we gifted it to, we’d need to get some foundation money from,” she said.
That would have been a consideration even with the DNR, she added.
Anyway, she said: “We want whoever ends up with this property to be a good steward.”
That would knock out groups like the SCCI, she said, because: “They don’t have deep pockets. They can’t step up to pay $5000 to fix a dam.”
Ms. Eddins said she felt Cornelison would be a good steward. “He’s here because I called him and asked him, would you please consider helping us out,” she said.
Dade Executive Chairman Ted Rumley, present at the meeting along with the county’s district commissioners, questioned whether selling the land might incur repercussions from the banks that had donated foreclosed Preserve lots to the conservancy.
Ms. Eddins said probably not; that though the trust was deeply grateful to the banks, their donations had been mutually beneficial.
“When they gave us the land, it wasn’t a total gift,” she said. “We accepted all the liability, and the liability was more than the value of the land.”
Now, she said, her group had solved liability problems well enough to obtain title insurance and was actively working on acquiring other Preserve parcels, as well as on fixing another potential legal issue, the Preserve’s currently inactive property owners association.
Attending the meeting additionally was Frank Hughes, a representative of Chattanooga’s Cornerstone Community Bank. Cornerstone, like other banks, foreclosed on multiple Preserve lots after the housing market crash of 2008-9 revealed the on-paper-only nature of what had looked like robust sales there.
But Hughes clarified that Cornerstone was not one of the banks that donated land to the conservancy. Cornerstone still retains 80 to 90 Crook acres, he said, and: “We’re going to sell it.”
Hughes said his bank was entitled to sell to any interested buyer for any purpose but that he was here to support Ms. Eddins and the land trust. “Anything that she does helps the area and helps the market,” he said.
Also supporting Ms. Eddins were the Lookout Mountain neighbors who had earlier watched doings at the Preserve with worry. “I have total faith that Katherine is going to do the right thing,” said Lookout’s Nona Martini. “Everybody’s happy that what they look down is not going to turn into some subdivision.”
But Dade Executive Ted Rumley, questioned after the meeting, said that the future of the Crook now seems solidly residential. “They will build houses,” he said. “There’s no doubt. That’s what they do.”
Dade County Executive Ted Rumley pauses after the meeting at the Johnson's Crook grave of Eugene Johnson. The Crook's latest contretemps started when Johnson sold the Crook to developer Southern Group. setting off a chain of events that ended in an FBI investigation, bankruptcies and a federal trial. Johnson himself died in the middle of the scandal, of injuries sustained in single-vehicle automobile crash.
But he said the number of houses must necessarily be limited – 50 to 75, say – by the difficulty of percolating septic tanks in the Crook. “This is not an unknown place to the Environmental Division of the State of Georgia,” he said.
Tax-wise, said Rumley, those houses will be a boon to the county, as will the return of the 1800 acres to the tax rolls, even under a conservancy reduction. “It’s better than zero,” he said.
Nevertheless, said Rumley, he had had high hopes of earlier talk of public access, and a foot trail that would link the Crook to Cloudland Canyon State Park “Personally, not speaking as a government official, I would like to see where everyone could enjoy it,” he said.