A Columbia County official confirmed Friday that the county’s attorney also acted as the closing attorney for Martinez land on which an affordable housing development is under construction.
Facebook group “Say No to Magnolia Trace Housing Project” posted Thursday that Columbia County attorney Doug Batchelor worked on the deal to close the sale of the property on Old Ferry Road. It didn’t specify whether Batchelor worked for the seller or buyer.
“As far as I know, (Batchelor) did the land closing,” county Commission Chairman Ron Cross said. “I don’t know who he was working for.”
A message left Friday afternoon on Batchelor’s cellphone wasn’t returned.
County commissioners voted about five weeks ago to hire an outside attorney to seek a means to “interrupt” construction of the 15-acre development featuring 50 single-family rental homes. Later, Savannah lawyer Patrick T. O’Connor wrote to officials that they had no legal recourse to stop the project.
Commissioners endorsed Magnolia Trace with a June 2010 resolution on behalf of developer Affordable Equity Partners and sent to the state Department of Community Affairs. The Missouri-based company was seeking tax credits from the DCA to build the low-cost rental homes.
At that Dec. 6 meeting, in which hundreds of angry residents protested the commission’s endorsement of the project, Batchelor offered a lengthy description of the resolution and the county’s involvement with the property.
However, at no time during his speech did Batchelor say that he or his law firm, Hull Barrett, had a professional stake in the property.
“I don’t think it’s unusual for him to close land transactions that may or may not have some kind of connection to the county,” Cross said of Batchelor’s involvement. “People are just trying to put something out there when there is nothing really there. If he performed a service and got paid for it, I think that’s fine.”
Batchelor isn’t contracted by the county, Administrator Scott Johnson said. Instead, he is “engaged” by the county, earning $142.40 per hour for his services.
From 2008 to 2011, Hull Barrett earned about $830,000 paid from the county’s general fund. Johnson said Friday that he didn’t immediately have access to how much Batchelor and his firm might have earned from other county funds.
“Batchelor’s firm handles everything legally that can be handled,” Cross said. “That’s why we use them, because they’re a full-service firm. He does all of our real estate stuff.”
Also, Cross said, Hull Barrett’s rates are low compared with other firms of similar size.
Cross said theories about Magnolia Trace and county officials are unfounded.
“We don’t have anything to hide,” he said.