In addition to bringing in cash for the state, the sales would return the property to local tax rolls and generate income for cities, counties and school boards as well.
While that option isn’t open to most segments of government, the Department of Transportation routinely acquires land as part of its mission to build roads. Often, property owners will insist on the department buying their whole tract as the only way to avoid a costly court battle. In other cases, the department must buy acreage near roads or bridges to serve as staging areas during construction.
“We don’t simply go out and buy property for the fun of it,” said Phil Copeland, DOT’s right-of-way administrator.
Over the decades, that surplus land begins to add up, not to mention abandoned road beds and rights of way held for projects that never get built.
The department recently spent $2.7 million on a consulting firm that looked in the files for 34 urban counties surrounding cities like Atlanta, Athens, Savannah and Augusta. It found 9,268 unneeded parcels, some that included 100 or more acres. The consultants concluded that 1,686 would be attractive to buyers while others were either oddly shaped, cut off from road access or wetland.
The marketable tracts may be especially attractive since they’re obviously close to highways, many at busy interchanges surrounded by development.
For example, 2.7 acres in Gwinnett County is near the Braves’ minor-league stadium and hotel complex. Another 2.5 acres is on Interstate 85 at Riverdale Road near Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. A 21-acre site on I-75 was to have been a rest area, and a small lot bought in 1966 for Atlanta’s never-finished Freedom Parkway is surrounded by $300,000 homes.
Of Georgia’s remaining 125 counties that are mostly rural and along 13,000 miles of state roads, there are an estimated 3,500 additional, surplus parcels, according to Copeland.
DOT has never made a comprehensive study of leftover land. One challenge was determining that the department owned it in the first place, since the agency’s name has changed over the decades and some parcels are simply titled to the state of Georgia.
Next was ensuring that the property truly was never going to be needed, which required getting the signoff of district engineers and road planners.
This is also the first effort the department has made to unload its inventory, according to Copeland.
“We’ve always operated on a reactive approach,” he said, noting that it typically sells about $1 million in land yearly to people who come seeking it.
Thursday, Copeland briefed the State Transportation Board about what’s been done so far. The consulting firm compiled a database of the parcels, and the department will put it online once the bugs are worked out.
Phil Boswell, a board member and an Athens real estate broker, said many of the small parcels would be bought by adjacent property owners wanting to preserve the buffer of a vacant lot.
Board Member Jay Shaw said his experience in the real estate business leaves him puzzled.
“I don’t understand why it’s a big deal to get all these categorized,” he said.
It’s already easy to get online lists of property owners recorded by local tax collectors. Just give every DOT district manager a printout to check which plots are surplus, and then hire a local real estate agent to sell them, he said.
“The whole deal is marketing,” Shaw said. “You can’t sell anything in the legal section of the paper. ... You would be surprised by what you would generate by putting it on the open market.”
Copeland didn’t argue.
“I think there’s a lot of validity in that,” he said, adding that the database is critical because an effort in 2005 to identify surplus property bogged down in confusion over the paper documents sent to district managers.