SoCo likely to OK Turner Tract plan

Published 10:01 am Friday, January 22, 2010

COURTLAND—Most of the Southampton County Board of Supervisors say they will vote at their meeting Monday to approve entering into a partnership with Bunrootis LLC for development of the Turner Tract industrial site.

If approved, Bunrootis — a standalone investment company allied with Acadia Capital Group of Dallas — will help the county transform 492 acres on Rose Valley Road south of the CSX railroad into an industrial park bordered by restored wetlands.

“This is the best deal for the county,” board chairman Dallas Jones, who represents the Drewryville District, said Thursday. “We’ve been working on this thing for almost four years and have just about finished the deal. Why try to start it all over again?”

The proposed partnership between Southampton and Bunrootis is two-fold.

Wetland, stream credits worth $9.5M

Under the first aspect of the plan, Bunrootis will spend $2.5 million of its own money to take the lower 240.9 acres of the Turner Tract property and turn it into a compensatory wetland and stream mitigation bank.

According to the Timmons Group — a Richmond-based engineering, planning and design firm — the Turner Tract has been farmed for more than 100 years, producing soybeans, peanuts, and cotton.

“In the late 1930s, the on-site streams were straightened (and) wetland areas were drained by outfitting the site with a series of ditches and drainage tiles so the site would be more suitable for crop production,” Timmons reported. “Improvements to streams and wetlands within the (mitigation) bank will greatly enhance the existing drainage basin and the quality of water flowing to the Nottoway River.”

The restored wetlands — which will officially be called the Cheroenhaka Wetland and Stream Mitigation Bank — are expected to yield 50.88 marketable wetland credits and between 12,739 and 14,427 stream credits. Collectively the credits currently have a market value of more than $9.5 million.

Southampton and Bunrootis will share revenue generated from the sale of the credits, with the county guaranteed 28 percent of the profits. Private developers and the Virginia Department of Transportation often buy wetland credits from banks to avoid having to create or restore a wetland or mitigate the project on site.

County would be lessor to mitigation banker

Bunrootis will then lease the mitigation property from the owner, the Southampton County Industrial Development Authority (IDA), for a period of 15 years and serve as the mitigation banker.

Under the terms of the lease, Bunrootis will pay Southampton $100,000 a year in base rent beginning with the fourth year of the lease, 2013. The base rent will rise in two-year increments for the next 10 years, increasing to $150,000 in 2015, $175,000 in 2017, $200,000 in 2019 and finally $250,000 in 2021.

Although no base rent would be paid for the first three and final two years of the lease, which expires Jan. 31, 2025, the county is guaranteed an additional $1.75 million over the last 10 years of the lease in rent compensation.

Bunrootis projects the company could earn about $4.9 million plus $1.2 million in commissions, Johnson said.

Southampton will pay $2.9M to develop park

Under the second aspect of the partnership, Southampton will pay Bunrootis $2,947,835 to prepare the remaining 251.3 acres of the Turner Tract site for its eventual transformation into an industrial park. The money will come from bond proceeds from 2006.

Southampton County Administrator Michael Johnson said Thursday that Bunrootis would be doing several things to get the property ready for business.

“They’re going to be constructing the landscape berm along the perimeter of the property,” Johnson said. “They will strip the topsoil and do the cut-and-fill activities to achieve pad-ready status on 81 acres in the industrial park. They will then raise the final grade so that the site is completely ready for a new business or industry to come in and start construction without having to do any major site work.”

Bunrootis will also demolish a farmhouse and barns on the site, and will build two small storm water basins and a portion of a third, larger basin.

Johnson estimates that the future industrial park could host 2.175 million square feet for light industry or distribution centers.

“A project like this is not an area of expertise of county government or a core function of government,” Johnson said. “This is simply an opportunity to partner with the private sector to take maximum utilization of the site.”

Supervisors leaning

toward approval

Most of the county board, which continued their Dec. 21 meeting until Jan. 14 to consider the partnership with Bunrootis, said they have had time to think about the proposal and are now in favor of it.

“Nobody has come up with anything better,” Jones said. “I don’t see any reason to go back on anything, and I don’t see anywhere we are losing any money.”

Jones added that he appreciated Johnson’s efforts on the project.

“I trust Mike,” Jones said. “I feel that he has worked out the best deal for us. And we are going along with him because we trust him to do what is right for the county. He’s done the best that he can do by us, and I don’t think he would guide us in the wrong way.”

On Thursday, Boykins-Branchville District Supervisor Carl Faison said, “I’ll make my decision on Monday, but right now I am positive about it.”

“I think it’s an opportunity that we have to accomplish some things that we really need for the county,” Faison added. “We have to be mindful of attracting industry into the county, and the only way we can do it is if we prepare a place for them. This gives us an opportunity to start toward that.”

Capron District Supervisor Moses Wyche echoed that sentiment.

“I plan to vote for it,” Wyche said Thursday. “We definitely need to get something going. The industrial park is something that we need and the county doesn’t have to put up any money (to build it). Right now we don’t have anything to offer (to prospective industrial businesses). We need to go ahead and move forward on it.”

Said Newsoms District Supervisor Walt Brown on Thursday: “I think it’s a win-win situation for the county. And we need it, especially in light of today’s economy. We have a lot of negative economic factors coming at us now. We need to look at every means necessary by which we can bring additional industry, extra dollars and especially jobs into this county.”

Supervisors Ronald West and Walter Young Jr., who represent the Berlin-Ivor and Franklin districts, respectively, also said Friday that they support the proposal.

“We need this industrial park,” West said. “We need the employment. We need to have some industrial base here that’s strong. I think this is the surest and best way to get there. I feel that these people can sell these credits, so I’m going to vote for it.”

Added Young, “I think it’s a good deal. Local people need work and (Bunrootis) is going to use as much local help as they can. They have already said they need operators, heavy equipment operators and common laborers. So I think it’s definitely a good thing.”

Jerusalem District Supervisor Anita Felts said she has not yet decided how she will vote Monday.

“I really can’t say right at this point which way I’m leaning,” Felts said Thursday. “We’ve done a lot of research and gone through the process like we’re supposed to. I’m just reviewing everything to make sure I make the final decision that is going to be best for the county as a whole.”

Some in county opposed

Hunter Darden Jr., a forestry consultant and a resident of Sedley, thinks the county should nix the Bunrootis proposal.

“I don’t have a problem with them wanting to do the industrial park,” Darden said Friday. “I just think the way they’re going about using (the mitigation bank) to subsidize the industrial park is the wrong thing for the county to do, especially if they have to go back and buy our own wetland credits back from the bank that we’re helping create. I don’t think that’s right.”

Darden also took issue with the type of forest that would be protected.

“They will put 140 acres of woodlands, which are growing a renewable resource, into a conservation easement for perpetuity. They’re going to be taking it out of management and just left there to either grow old and die or fall over.”

He added, “There’s nothing out there to look at or for somebody to go out there and say ‘I’m glad they saved this because you don’t see this anymore.’ It’s just a regular pine plantation, probably 25 to 30 years old. It doesn’t have any historic value like a cypress swamp. They’re taking a working forest out of production, and they’re using taxpayer money to do it.”

Darden said he figures that the timber tract, if managed properly and to maturity, would fetch between $1,000 and $2,000 per acre.

“We might be in a little bit of a downturn right now with timber prices, but if you’re looking at $500 an acre that’s at least $70,000, and to be sure it’s got to be worth that. The previous owners probably got $300 an acre when they thinned it. If you wait five or six more years it would at least double in price.”

Changing from pulpwood to chip-and-saw, or even to saw timber, Darden said, would double or triple the money that could be made, respectively.

“So I estimate that at the next harvest that the county is throwing away $150,000,” Darden said.

On the timber issue, Young said he didn’t think the value of the timber tract had increased much from when the county had purchased it, which he said was in 2006 or 2007.

“I think there are some misgivings in there somewhere, but I’m not sure where,” Young said.

Stream credits were another concern.

“I’m just a little bit disappointed in our supervisors,” Darden said. “If any of them had called and checked on these stream credits, they would find out that in the Chowan River Basin there is no market for them and there never has been. And that’s over $5 million of the project. The other wetland credits will sell over time, but the stream bank credits — no one in the county will live long enough to see them sold.”

Darden also took issue with the paperwork detailing the project, saying information available to him last Tuesday had changed two days later, the day the Board of Supervisors met to discuss the proposal.

“I don’t know how in the world a supervisor can vote on anything when they can’t even get the paperwork straight in time for them to vote,” Darden said.

Newsoms farmer Glen Updike said he was disappointed that the county was working with a Texas company.

“My concern is sending money out of the county when we definitely need it in Southeast Virginia,” he said.

Updike said he has dealt with many companies who subcontract work out.

“Every time it goes through another company, they’re going to take off service charges,” he said. “They’re not doing it on charity. They’re going to take cuts out of it and we’re going to pay the total bill on construction. I’d rather have a straight line of business.”

Spelling lesson

West acknowledged Friday that some in the county have criticized the proposal.

“There are some grievances with the wetlands,” he said. “And people have said that the county could have bought a whole lot better land, or we could have done this or that.”

But two things did bother West about the proposal.

“I have not felt comfortable that no one from Bunrootis has showed up (to the meetings),” he said. “From the very beginning, they haven’t been here. Their advocate has been Timmons, and that has been good. But I haven’t seen these (Bunrootis) people, and it looks to me like if they want to do business with us that they would at least come out here.

“And spell our name right.”