What's Happening at Johnson's Crook? Revisiting The Preserve at Rising Fawn Bank Fraud and M

The Waterfall House at Johnson's Crook, from a previous Preserve story.

There was a time when Rising Fawn locals would scratch their heads in puzzlement at what on earth was happening in Johnson’s Crook. A developer had put in some gates and a barn and some No Trespassing signs and very little else, but out-of-town buyers were snapping up building lots for jaw-dropping sums. They were paying $175,000 to $250,000 for a couple of wooded acres on the mountainside without water, electricity or roads. Now why, wondered the locals, were they doing a tom-fool thing like that?

The answer that emerged eventually was: They weren’t. They were just pretending to, to get money out of the banks. The developer was faking sales to exaggerate land values so that the next series of loans for fake sales would go through. The lot buyers were not really buyers but had just leant their names and credit histories to the developer, in exchange sometimes for a cash payment and sometimes for the promise the developer would buy the lot back for much more. The developer supplied the down payment and then made the monthly loan payments, with proceeds from the ongoing fake sales.

But then came the housing market crash of 2008-09. The banks slowed lending, lot “sales” stalled and the developer stopped making the loan payments. The fake borrowers couldn’t make them either, had never intended to make them, and bankruptcy after bankruptcy resulted. The Federal Bureau of Investigation got interested. There was a trial in 2013. People went to prison.

The Dade Planet during its original avatar as a blog ran a June 2014 article (now available under this site’s Archive tab) on the fate of Johnson’s Crook. At that point, the lion’s share of the acreage had been acquired by the Georgia Land Trust. The trust had bought 1200 acres still held by the developer out of bankruptcy, and 400 more acres had been donated to the conservancy by banks that had foreclosed on individual lots. But now the land trust, which had amassed the Crook to preserve it, was causing yet more local head-scratching by negotiating to sell it to a new developer.

What happened next? For such head-scratchers as yearn to know the rest of the story, here is an update on the ongoing saga of Johnson’s Crook, known briefly and bitterly as The Preserve at Rising Fawn.

The deal goes pfft

First of all, the Georgia Land Trust—now properly called, by the way, the Georgia-Alabama Land Trust—retains its ownership of an approximate 1600 of the 2000-plus Preserve at Rising Fawn acres. The trust did not in fact sell the property, as discussed in 2014, to developer Royce Cornelison of P&C Construction.

The plan then had been to sell the acreage to Cornelison subject to a contract requiring him to preserve its rural condition. Katherine Eddins, executive director of the Georgia-Alabama Land Trust, explained at the time that such agreements with private landowners are the trust’s primary tool in conserving land. Cornelison was one of the conservancy’s “angels,” an investor who had already obliged it by purchasing other acreage to preserve. The agreement would have allowed him to sell some lots at the Crook and do some building and some timbering there subject to certain restrictions. “You can still protect the land and have a few houses,” said Ms. Eddins then.

So Cornelison seemed poised to take over and for a certain time Rising Fawn head-scratchers saw signs in the Crook proclaiming it “Majestic Lake” property. Then, not so much, and in a recent phone interview Ms. Eddins confirmed those had been Cornelison’s signs but now, she said, Cornelison was no longer part of the Johnson’s Crook story. She didn’t say why but she confirmed the purchase never went through. “It really didn’t work out for either party,” she said.

Now the land trust is doing some work in the Crook itself, she said, working on restoring the creeksides and planting 50 acres in native hardwoods and shortleaf pines. But for the bulk of the acreage, the trust last August reached an understanding with the Southeastern Cave Conservancy Inc (SCCI), and in October, the two organizations signed an agreement granting SCCI stewardship of 1300 cave-rich acres. SCCI named the property the “Charles B. Henson Cave Preserve at Johnson Crook” in honor of the late Chuck Henson, who before his 2013 death was already buying up cave property to donate to the SCCI.

Patty Springer, widow of Chuck Henson, who bought Preserve land containing caves to donate to the cave preserve Southeastern Cave Conservancy Inc. (SCCI), poses during a caver cleanup of Johnson's Crook in March.

A Cave Preserve

The Dade Planet caught up with Patty Springer, Henson’s widow, at a March 19 cleanup of the Crook acres by caver volunteers. She said she and her husband had owned property on the brow and planned to build a home there before he became ill. “He got interested in the Crook, specifically the land under development here, because as a builder he didn’t understand what was happening, the pre-selling of the lots and no infrastructure and all the rest, and he predicted that it was going to fail,” she said. “He was worried about Johnson’s Crook Cave and he was worried about Lost Canyon and a number of other caves in the region, that they would be bulldozed shut and the water table would be destroyed. So he quietly started buying lots that came available.”

Henson bought and donated to the SCCI the Preserve lot that contained Lost Canyon. Now his widow says the interest he managed to stir up about the Crook among the conservation-minded helped spur the eventual purchase of the rest of the cave acreage by the Georgia-Alabama Land Trust, which has now culminated in the SCCI’s stewardship of it. “I can’t tell you how grateful the SCCI is to manage something as nice as this,” she said.

Back in 2014, the land trust’s Katherine Eddins ruled out giving the Crook to the SCCI. “They don’t have deep pockets,” she said then. “They can’t step up to pay $5000 to fix a dam.” Besides, she said, the land trust had financial obligations of its own and couldn’t afford to just give the property away.

But that appears to be what has happened now. Ms. Springer described the SCCI’s arrangement with the land trust as a lease-to-purchase agreement—“ They will give ownership to us eventually”—but said no cash is changing hands. “The purchase price for this amount of property, that is beyond us,” she said.

Instead, the SCCI’s obligation is to maintain the property, and it was some very heavy maintenance indeed that the volunteers were up to on March 19 on Newsome Gap Road, the main county road running through the Crook, rigging rope systems down the mountainside to haul up truckload after truckload of discarded tires and other garbage.

Caver Maureen Handler of the SERA Karst Task Force (SKTF) loads discarded tires on a flatbed during the March 19 volunteer cleanup in Johnson's Crook.

Ms. Springer said the volunteers were willing to give up their Saturday for the cleanup because the Crook is such an important caving destination for them. She wanted Dade County to know that and to realize how much tourism the Crook brings in. “There’s no tax base up here, so Dade County has no interest or impetus to do anything along this road to maintain it, because they’re not making any money,” she said. In point of fact, she said, cavers eat at Dade restaurants, buy supplies at Dade grocery stores and fill their tanks at Dade gas stations. “I think that that’s a very important element,” she said.

Ms. Springer said SCCI had not yet worked out a formal management plan for the Crook but affirmed its general intention was to preserve and protect the 30 caves there and to keep them available to cavers, who are supposed to register before visiting them at the SCCI website for White Nose Syndrome protocols and other usage guidelines.

Besides caving, other eventual uses for the land might include hiking, she hinted: “There are a number of roads that are already in here that with a little bit of effort we could keep clean, which would give us five to seven miles of walking trails,” said Ms. Springer. “That’s a goal we have.”

SCCI’s 1300-acre area of responsibility is strictly the cave land, she pointed out, mostly along the bench in the mountainside though it also includes some valley-floor acres that contain caves. Ms. Eddins of the Alabama-Georgia Land Trust said other volunteers similarly maintain the rest. “Just people from the community help us keep the place nice,” she said.

The Private Sector

People from the community? Yes, and that brings us to the next point: The Crook now really does house a small but definite community of residents, individual homeowners and cabin renters alike who live in what used to be the Preserve. Patty Springer estimates there about 40 homes currently occupied, easily 75 percent of them full-time. Ms. Springer, who still owns three Preserve lots she describes as unbuildable, was chairman of the property owners association there until elections in January, she said.

“We’ve actually got two homeowners associations,” clarified Trenton’s Nathan Wooten, who bought several Preserve properties out of bankruptcy. Wooten reserved one lakeside cabin for personal use and rents out four small hillside cabins as well as four apartments in what he calls a ‘quadplex” at the Preserve. His tenants live there full-time, he said.

Then, he said, there are a couple of owners who use their properties for nightly rentals, a few who own their homes and live in them full-time and a number of others who own their homes or cabins but only occupy them on weekends.

Wooten said Katherine Eddins now chairs the main Preserve homeowners association and that he is himself chairman of the other one, a breakaway association for owners in the old “Fishing Village” section of the failed development, which has its own set of problems for the association to deal with.

“The roads inside the Fishing Village are breaking down, because they’re so old and weren’t built real well,” he said. Those are gravel, but the asphalt road inside the main entrance is also going south and will have to be dealt with sooner or later, said Wooten. For now, the association has gotten by with patching it.

Wooten and some others went in together and revamped the septic system for five cabins, he said, and more field lines had to be added to another system last summer. But the main problem at the Fishing Village is water.

An old two-inch main meant to serve no more than seven cabins now serves 28, said Wooten, and the Dade Water Authority won’t service it past the meter. The association has applied for a license to operate its own water system. “If the EPD approves us on that, then a couple of us are going to have to go get trained on how to manage water,” said Wooten.

Roads, water and sanitation, as well as other basics like electricity, were Preserve issues back in the day. The developers’ persistent failure to do anything about any of them provided, if not clues to their intentions, at least abundant head-scratching fodder for the locals.

Cavers back then worried about what hundreds of new septic systems would do to the cave water system and Lookout Mountain brow residents worried about what hundreds of new homes would do to their view. But after the FBI investigation and the 2013 trial, it appears clear that all that worry was pointless, that the intention had never been so much to build anything as to acquire loans to build it.

The Crook is a beautiful area and Wooten says that despite the infrastructure problems people love living there. He knows one couple who recently finished building their dream home there and thinks others will down the road. “You may see more of that,” he said. “But I don’t think you’re going to see any big construction going on there.”

Wooten said he and the other recent buyers acquired their properties there quite affordably after the crash. “But when I go back and look at what people bought them for way back when, I can see why those two guys went to prison,” he concluded.

What happened to the perps

Which brings us to our final point, the fate of the developers. Josh Dobson, partner in the Southern Group, the Marion County, Tenn. development firm behind The Preserve, and his loan originator buddy, Paul Gott III, were found guilty in the spring of 2013 of multiple federal fraud and conspiracy counts. They appealed their convictions unsuccessfully and finally reported for incarceration in the summer of 2014.

Dobson was sentenced to 10 and a half years and is serving them at a low-security facility in Arkansas. Gott was given six years which he is spending at a medium-security prison in Atlanta.

The other two Southern Group partners, Josh’s father, Tommy Dobson, and brother-in-law, Travis Shields, were not indicted. Shields’ holding company, TAS Properties, is in fact still listed on the tax rolls as the owner of one of the Preserve’s lakeside cabins.

Paul Gott is also still on the tax rolls as co-owner of two Preserve lots with Dade Magistrate Judge Joel McCormick, erstwhile Preserve promoter and Southern Group property manager.

Otherwise, a glance at the tax map shows the Georgia-Alabama Land Trust as by far the majority landowner at what used to be the Preserve, and banks that foreclosed on the lots not far behind. But there are still lots here and there listed as belonging to the original 2008 purchaser who paid $175,000 with the notation Fair Market Value (Vacant Land).

Other foreclosed lots have been acquired by realty companies, 33 of them by Lookout Mountain Holdings II LLC, the registered agent of which is Don Cavin, the Preserve property manager from the development’s troubled latter days.

The land goes nowhere

A house commenced then abandoned to decay gently into the landscape serves as an apt symbol of the blip of the Crook's history that was the Preserve at Rising Fawn.

Realtors like to say that lots are “flying off the shelf” and that you had better buy now before they are “all gone.” The truth of the matter is that it is land’s nature to stay put. That’s what has happened with Johnson’s Crook. After the smoke has cleared and the courts have decreed, the Crook is still there, largely undeveloped and not too affected by all that has gone on in its name.

The real head-scratcher back in 2008 was that there was this frenzy of buying and selling, this skyrocketing of land values and this feverish financial activity, when in fact to the naked eye nothing much ever seemed to be happening in Rising Fawn.

Take your naked eye back there on any spring day now, with the wildflowers blooming and the streams tinkling, and it will tell you that nothing still is.

#RobinFordWallace #DadeCountyNewspaperGa #DadeCountynewspaperGeorgia #DadeCounty #joelmccormick #joshdobson #paulgott #johnsoncrook #scci #georgialandtrust #georgiaalabamalandtrust #cavers #pattyspringer #risingfawn

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