Reprinted from the Tideland News in Swansboro
MAYSVILLE — Opponents of N.C. State University’s planned sale of the 79,000-acre Hofmann Forest in Onslow and Jones counties still don’t have any indication when the state Court of Appeals will rule on whether the school will have to complete an environmental assessment on the potential effects of the transfer of the property to two private companies.
Attorney Jim Conner, who represents a coalition of conservationists, foresters and landowners, said last week that another batch of appeals court rulings is due within a week to 10 days, but he doesn’t have any idea whether those will include the Hofmann case.
“We could be in that batch, or it could be another month or two,” Conner said. “We’re just keeping our fingers crossed.”
Instead of selling the entire forest to an Illinois agribusiness owner, the university announced in early September that it will instead sell 56,000 acres to Alabama-based Resource Management Service, a company that invests in timber and is known for sustainable commercial forestry, and 23,000 acres to Hofmann Forest LLC, the Illinois business. The dual sale is to close by Nov. 17, more than three months after the original June 30 closing date.
The university is to receive as much as $140 million: $131 million from the sale and $9 million more if the buyers are able to negotiate a deal to sell training rights on and over the forest to the military or to sell protection rights to a conservation group. The original sales price was $150 million.
In her announcement of the new sale terms on Sept. 9, Mary Watzin, dean of the school’s College of Natural Resources, said the Hofmann Forest name would remain, and that each of the two buyers will buy about 2,000 acres southeast of U.S. 17 for potential development.
Watzin said she was pleased with the new sale “as the inclusion of RMS reinforces our commitment to work with a buyer that will sustainably manage the property as a working forest.” The buyers, she said, would continue to provide access to the property for N.C. State students and researchers.
“This new agreement provides for the sustainability of the land while creating the resources needed to invest in programs that will enhance academic programs and research opportunities for the College of Natural Resources,” Watzin said.
But the new terms did not convince sale opponents to end their court case.
Ron Sutherland, a conservation scientist for the Wildlands Network, is a lead plaintiff in the case, along with Fred Cubbage, who is a forestry professor at N.C. State, and John Eddy, a Jones County landowner and conservationist. A Wake County Superior Court judge dismissed the plaintiffs’ case earlier this year, but Cubbage and the others appealed and are awaiting a decision after submitting written briefs and waiving oral arguments.
The involvement of the timber group is appreciated, Sutherland said. “However, Hofmann Forest is public land now, and the public will be losing a major forest asset if Hofmann is sold to any for-profit buyer, including RMS,” he said
He said he also expects the agribusiness investors to quickly pursue uses of their 23,000 acres that would return the highest yields.
The university has contended that the land is not public and thus not subject to the environmental assessment requirement under the State Environmental Policy Act, but Sutherland and the others have noted that the university has never paid property taxes on the land and that the state attorney general, Roy Cooper, has said he was obligated to handle the case for the university.
The university also faces a pending investigation by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which is examining findings by the Army Corps of Engineers that illegal wetlands ditching and draining may have has taken place in the forest.
Meanwhile, Sutherland said he continues to deliver “Save Hofmann Forest” signs to places all across the state, including, recently, Winston-Salem and Greensboro. He also noted that Gov. Pat McCrory got involved in the debate two weeks ago when he visited the area.
“We think the governor and other political leaders are right to be concerned about the impact of losing Hofmann Forest on the future of Camp Lejeune,” he said. “But the best thing they can do about it now is not to go begging the new buyers to play nicely down the road. No, they should use their influence to stop the sale altogether and find ways for NCSU to continue to hold the land as a forest.”
For example, Sutherland said, McCrory, the state’s legislative leaders and Congressional delegation could work together and find money to reimburse the university for a conservation easement that would protect all of Hofmann as a working forest. “Then NCSU could have its cake and eat it, too, by keeping the land, and our concerns about the future of the forest and the military base would be alleviated,” he said
After a meeting on Sept. 16 of the state Military Affairs Commission at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point in Havelock, McCrory said he sent letters to the two buyers asking that the military continue to have access to the land for training.
Hofmann LLC and RMS each have said that they told the Department of Defense that they would be open to negotiating easements for airspace, blackout rights and other military activities on some of the 70,000 acres northwest of U.S. 17 for training.
The forest was bought in the 1930s for research and to provide income for N.C. State’s forestry program. University officials have said that they want to sell the land because it hasn’t generated enough revenue and isn’t used very much anymore for research.
While the university and Hofmann Forest LLC, the original buyers, have contended that the forest would be protected under the original sale, opponents have said there was nothing firm about that in the sale agreement and have pointed to leaked prospectus circulated by Hofmann LLC to attract investors.
The prospectus mentioned the possibility of up to 2 million square feet of commercial development, possible construction of up to 10,500 residential units and the high-quality soils that would be conducive to farming if the trees were removed. The school and the LLC disavowed that prospectus.
“We would certainly rather see RMS end up with the entire tract of land than have the new agreement,” Sutherland said. “But RMS is still a business and they will answer to their investors first and foremost, not the citizens of North Carolina, when making their decisions about what parts of the forest to resell to others who may develop, farm, mine or otherwise disturb the land.”
Nothing in the new sale agreement appears to prevent RMS from merely turning around and selling their share of the forest back to Hofmann Forest LLC to pursue the large-scale agricultural plans that were outlined in the leaked prospectus, Sutherland noted. The sale agreement also allows Hofmann LLC to buy the entire forest if the timber investors back out, he said.
The issue is important to conservationists because the forest is in the headlands of three significant rivers, the White Oak, New and Trent, and is habitat to numerous bear, deer and other wildlife. It serves as a kind of sponge, soaking up potentially harmful stormwater runoff that would otherwise flow into the streams and carry pollutants to coastal waters.