Originally created 05/12/02

It's not easy being Greene

GREENSBORO, Ga. - Drive through the eastern part of Greene County and you'll notice dairy farms on rolling hills, U.S. National Forest land and white houses with tin roofs.

It's the appearance of a typical middle Georgia county about midway between Augusta and Atlanta: mostly agricultural and not much wealth.

The other Greene County - the Lake Oconee area to the southwest - is an area where a 2-acre tract of vacant lakefront land can sell for $2 million.

It's an area where millionaires pay top dollar to buy homes near world-class golf courses and have their boats cleaned and maintained in a marina.

The Lake Oconee region, once a typical farming area of Georgia, has been transformed since the mid-1980s to a place plush enough to attract a Ritz-Carlton Lodge - a five-star, renowned establishment - that opened in April.

Rooms in the five-story Ritz-Carlton will range from $275 a night to $6,000 per night. The latter price is for the "Presidential House," according to Ritz-Carlton spokeswoman Michelle Ciavola. The resort fronts Lake Oconee at Reynolds Plantation, a privately owned, high-security gated community.

Amenities at the resort include a 26,000-square-foot spa and a choice of four golf courses at Reynolds Plantation, off Georgia Highway 44 not far from the Putnam County line.

Some longtime Greene County residents appreciate the lake area and its satellite developments for the jobs they provide, whether they involve grading roads in an upscale community or working at the Ritz-Carlton. They say the new facility is helping drive an economic renaissance in rural Greene County by giving longtime factory and farm workers a chance to learn new skills in the hospitality industry.

Others say the lake and its high-class developments haven't done anything for them.

Ben "Hot" Boswell, a dairy farmer in northern Greene County, lost 140 acres - at $300 an acre - through condemnation when the Georgia Power Company built Lake Oconee in 1979 to produce hydroelectric power.

"I hate seeing it covered up," Mr. Boswell said. "(The land) was some of the best land we had."

Some longtime Greene County residents accept the changes the lake brings.

Rita Leach's family owns the VZ Grocery convenience store in Veazey, a community midway between the county seat of Greensboro and the lake.

"The way it used to be, you went to the store down there, and you knew who the people were," said Mrs. Leach, who has lived in the small community since birth. "Now it's just changed. We don't know the people like we used to."

But Mrs. Leach said the growth has been beneficial to her church.

"The little church that I go to, 20 and 30 years ago, there used to be 10 and 12 people on Sunday," she said. "Now the church is full. We get a lot of retired people that move here, and that's helped out. Those are very nice people."

MANY NEW RESIDENTS drawn by the lake - sometimes referred to by locals as "lake people" - come with plenty of money. A vacant 2.29-acre lot on prime, lakefront property in Reynolds Plantation sold for $2.3 million last year.

And under construction at the gated Port Armor community is a home some describe as the largest and most elaborate in the entire Lake Oconee area. It has 14,600 square feet of heated living space, two large garages, patios and porches, a bathhouse, a swimming pool and two boat docks.

"It's the finest home this side of Atlanta," said Greene County Tax Appraiser David Moore. "It's the largest in the entire Lake Oconee area. "The quality of construction, I mean, they've got stone-faced walls in the basement."

Builders estimate the structure's value at $2.5 million, but Chief Tax Appraiser Allen Skinner said that estimate likely doesn't even approach the home's total value.

Mr. Skinner estimates the average value of a house in the lake area is between $300,000 and $400,000. The average value elsewhere in the county is less than $100,000, he said.

Mr. Skinner said 90 percent of all new residential growth in the county is in the lake area, adding that there are "no high-class subdivisions outside of the lake" in Greene County.

Some 60 percent to 70 percent of the value of all taxable property - known as the tax digest - in Greene County is in the lake area. Mr. Skinner noted that since lake growth exploded five years ago, the tax digest has doubled: from $350 million in 1996 to $709 million last year.

He noted the lake communities contribute generously to the county's tax base but don't have many children in the Greene County School System. Therefore, county tax dollars don't support educating lake residents' children, Mr. Skinner said.

"They only have about 52 kids in the school system," he said.

The massive Ritz-Carlton resort, with an estimated value between $60 million and $120 million, does not contribute much by way of property tax.

The development will pay only $25,000 a year in property taxes for the next 15 years because of an exemption granted by the Greene County Development Authority, which purchased the land for the resort.

However, the Ritz-Carlton is creating jobs, and officials estimate the development will bring $509,280 a year in sales tax revenue for the county government and school system, and an additional $509,280 to be split among incorporated towns such as Union Point, Greensboro, Woodville, White Plains and Siloam.

"The whole basis of it was, they'll bring sales tax(-producing) jobs and help the economy of the county," Mr. Skinner said.

LAKE PEOPLE moving to Reynolds Plantation and other gated communities arrive from all over the country. Lake resident Chuck Forbes, a former health care attorney, and his wife, Margie, moved from Los Angeles in the mid-1990s.

Margie Forbes said she visited Reynolds Plantation after her sister, who lives there, encouraged her to look around.

"I said, 'Why would we move to Georgia?' She said, 'Just keep an open mind, and remember, they don't have earthquakes.' When we drove down here, the hair on the back up my neck perked up. I said, 'This is a beautiful place."'

Mild weather for golf is another lure for Lake Oconee residents.

"We wanted to enjoy ourselves 12 months out of the year," said John Faerber, a retired Lake Oconee resident who lives in the Great Waters gated community, an extension of Reynolds Plantation in Putnam County. "You can play golf 12 months out of the year. Being above the 'gnat line' (living far enough north in Georgia that the biting, flying bugs are not a problem) is one of items we've looked at."

The growth does not appear to be slowing.

Reynolds Plantation has about 1,000 homes and 100 more under construction. At nearby Harbor Club, there are about 200 homes, and 25 more are under construction.

"Our building is pretty good, even though the economy's down," said Bill Dotson, general manager of Harbor Club. "The people we're attracting are people that financially can handle it regardless of the economy."


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