Queensborough National Bank & Trust Co.’s strategy for saving Pendleton King Park involves a land swap and potentially large tax benefits for the homebuilder under contract to buy the park, and bank officials said Friday it just might work.
The bank is one of three trustees designated in the will of Henry Barclay King to oversee land left by King in 1931 for use as a public park and memorial to his son, John Pendleton King II, in perpetuity. The city has leased the 64-acre park for $1 a year for almost 60 years.
On Oct. 25, however, Queensborough Vice President and Trust Officer Troy Breitmann and fellow park trustee Clarence Barinowski inked a sales contract with Evans-based Winchester Homebuilders, agreeing to sell the park for $1.2 million. Park users were outraged to learn the property was being sold, and Barinowski put blame on the city, saying officials had refused to work with him on a sale or new lease.
At the time, Winchester claimed it had been working with the city on a deal “to provide a park that the city and residents of Augusta will be proud of,” though it’s unclear who Winchester was working with. Augusta commissioners and Mayor Hardie Davis denied knowledge of any discussions beyond their refusal to pay Barinowski’s asking price.
City planning and other departments also denied knowledge, although Augusta-Richmond County Land Bank Authority Chairman and Deputy Tax Commissioner Chris Johnson said last week he had seen a sketch of housing development at the park. Homesites occupied currently wooded areas while cultivated areas, the playground and ball courts were left intact.
While the sales contract makes no mention of other alternatives, Breitmann said Friday the housing development was an “initial thought” as trustees brainstormed ways to resolve the trust’s issues, which include management of another tract that King’s will said was intended for veteran housing.
“When it became apparent that the (Pendleton) disc golf course is very popular and very well used,” Breitmann said the parties decided, “we need to come up with a solution that’s going to protect all of the park.”
District Attorney Natalie Paine launched an investigation last month into how the trustees could sell the park for housing, in apparent violation of King’s will. As of Friday no response to her request for an injunction blocking the sale and other relief was on file with the court.
Breitmann said Friday he did not recall precisely when housing was dropped from the plan. He first detailed the new scenario in a guest column last week in The Augusta Chronicle.
In the plan, Winchester buys the park from the trustees but does not develop it and instead, donates it to the city with a binding restriction such as a conservation easement, he said.
A conservation easement protects a portion of the land from development and enhances its value. Donating the easement to a government or entity such as a land trust can provide the donor with a significant income tax deduction that lasts many years.
Details of a land swap possibly involving the land bank – Winchester will “receive property of similar value suitable for new development” – were less clear and questions about which property it would be were referred to the city, which did not respond.
Augusta Land Bank owns hundreds of tiny lots, many abandoned by owners, but little contiguous property of any size. The land bank can also be used as a vehicle through which developers assemble privately owned properties for later development.
Queensborough Executive Vice President Bill Thompson said the plan, though complex, “has elements that make sense for every party” and will generate resources for the trust, including the creation of a “perpetual endowment” for the park.
“The transaction here is complicated and it may not work,” he said. “We hope when it’s all said and done we’ve been part of a good solution. We regret the way this happened caused concern.”
Breitmann said the bank has strived since becoming trustee just last year to leave the trust in better shape than it has been.
“We knew it was going to be difficult and we knew there were going to be a lot of interested parties,” he said. “The easy thing to do would be sign another 25- or 30-year lease and kick the can down the road.”