By DOTTY NIST
Walton County commissioners have agreed to move forward with putting new written procedures in place to govern the purchase of property by the county.
This was decided at the Nov. 22 Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) regular meeting at the Walton County Courthouse in DeFuniak Springs.
The decision followed a discussion of the independent report on the county’s purchase of a half-acre parcel at the southwestern corner of the Chat Holley Road/U.S. 331 intersection. In September, after questions and issues have arisen about the transaction, including the purchase procedure, the commissioners had voted to enlist independent counsel to conduct a review of the purchase. The transaction had taken place approximately one year earlier for the purpose of a road improvement project at the intersection.
The independent review document, produced by William Graham and George Gwynn, had been provided on Oct. 25, but the BCC had put off discussing it until their November second Tuesday meeting. Graham and Gwynn made a presentation on the report at the Nov. 22 meeting. Their presentation included an addendum to the report dated Nov. 20. The addendum did not result in any change in Graham and Gwynn’s findings.
Gwynn spoke of “a history of survey problems” in the area of the parcel due to the lack of a government marker on the northeast corner of the section line directly north of the property. He noted that, due to uncertainty with the northern boundary of the northwest quarter-section of Section 29, the section line directly north of the property, there were possible boundary overlaps or gaps. The independent counsel recommended that the county seek an agreement with adjoining property owners to establish boundaries—or a judicial determination if such an agreement were unsuccessful.
Graham and Gwynn’s report indicated that the road improvement project on Chat Holley Road has ceased along the quarter-mile section on the eastern end of the roadway due to boundary uncertainties.
Gwynn continued to maintain that apparently there had been “no proper review” of documents associated with the parcel purchase by the county prior to the Oct. 8, 2010 closing. The situation, he explained, was caused by the county not having procedures in place for such transactions—or for the retaining of special legal counsel, as was done in this instance. “It was unclear who was in charge during this process,” Gwynn commented.
A defining of tasks is needed, along with written procedures for property acquisition and a very detailed outline for each real estate transaction, he added.
Gwynn saw a problem with the warranty deed by which the county had acquired the property. This involved a deed restriction. The restriction, Gwynn explained, states that the parcel may only be used for right-of-way and road improvements. He indicated that it would have been to Walton County’s benefit for this restriction not to been imposed, leaving options open for the property. He recommended either an agreement with the seller on the meaning of the provision or, if that were not possible, seeking a judicial determination on its exact meaning.
Gwynn noted that two design plans were created for the intersection project, one creating a perpendicular intersection and one just providing additional right-of-way. Typically the state does require perpendicular intersections, he said. For the plan that would have retained the same intersection angle, he noted, not all of the property that the county purchased would have been needed. He characterized the purchasing process as having proceeded too far in advance of the county knowing what the state’s requirement would be in this instance.
With proper procedures for identifying and ranking capital projects, to include input from county staff, vetting and control of projects, problems of this kind may be avoided, Gwynn urged.
He also advocated registration of anyone lobbying the BCC on any matter as a lobbyist to “protect all sides.”
County Commission Chairman Scott Brannon was concerned about any potential precedents that might have been set by the parcel purchase. Graham responded that the circumstances of the transaction, including the use of proportionate share account funds for the purchase, are such that do not present themselves often. His opinion was that a precedent had not been created.
District 5 Commissioner Cecilia Jones motioned for the suspension of any further “land deals” until written procedures,as recommended by Graham and Gwynn, were in place.
Brannon attempted to second the motion but remembered that as chairman he could not second motions. District 2 Commissioner Kenneth Pridgen then seconded and the motion carried unanimously.
District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander motioned to have Graham and Gwynn prepare the written procedures per their recommendations as language to be brought before the BCC for consideration. This is to include the best management practices suggested in the independent counsel’s report along with the two other recommendations regarding the real estate acquisition.
The motion was approved unanimously
Graham and Gwynn agreed to proceed as requested.