Oaky Woods purchase still up in air

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KATHLEEN, Ga. - From a logging road overlooking the Oaky Woods Wildlife Management Area, pine trees and hardwoods draped with honeysuckle vines stretch to the horizon.

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John Trussell of Warner Robins, Ga., describes the area where bears congregate. The property owners want to build up to 35,000 houses in the forest, which is popular with local hunters.  Associated Press
Associated Press
John Trussell of Warner Robins, Ga., describes the area where bears congregate. The property owners want to build up to 35,000 houses in the forest, which is popular with local hunters.

John Trussell gestures down to where Big Grocery Creek - barely visible - cuts through the woods.

"That's where the bears gather," said Mr. Trussell, of Warner Robins. "And that's also where they want to develop."

PLANS TO BUILD up to 35,000 homes in the cradle of this popular hunting and recreation area have riled this middle Georgia community. Some of the ire has been directed at the man whose home sits just on the other side of the tree line: Gov. Sonny Perdue.

Under Mr. Perdue's watch, the state declined to bid on Oaky Woods when timber giant Weyerhaeuser put the 20,000-acre tract up for sale in 2004.

Letting Oaky Woods go was a colossal missed opportunity, some local residents say. And Sonny - as most everyone here still calls the governor - should have known better. The land literally sits in his backyard. Mr. Perdue argues that the state didn't have the money at the time and that he would still like to preserve the place where he learned to hunt.

Charles Ayer is one of four men who bought the property for about $1,600 an acre. In an interview with The Associated Press at his sporting goods store in nearby Perry, Mr. Ayer said he would put the asking price now at $14,000 an acre. That translates into $280 million for the 20,000 acres, almost nine times more than the $32 million paid for Oaky Woods.

Mr. Ayer said he and his partners have already poured millions of dollars into the land for road and sewer plans.

"People say they want to save Oaky Woods. Well, that's not a problem," he said. "But they should be raising money."

Mr. Perdue's amended budget for the current fiscal year calls for $50 million in grants for land conservation, which has given residents here some hope that the state might still have a hand to play.

"He was attacked when we were unable to purchase it, he will be attacked if we eventually can," said Don McLagan, a spokesman for Mr. Perdue.

Mr. Perdue was battered over Oaky Woods in the final days of his re-election campaign last year after what had been simply a local issue in Houston County exploded across the state. Democrats questioned how Mr. Perdue's own land, adjacent to Oaky Woods, ballooned in value after the sale.

Mr. Ayer said he's talked to Mr. Perdue about the property as recently as "a couple weeks ago" when the governor said he planned to send Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Noel Holcombe to talk to him about the land's status.

Beth Brown, a spokeswoman for the department, said officials remain interested in Oaky Woods, one of six priority areas in the state. She said any purchase would likely require a partnership.

"The state should not be looked upon as a sole source for funds," she said.

Outgoing state Democratic Party Chairman Bobby Kahn said Mr. Perdue's actions "have totally discredited him, yielding a conflict of interest that disqualifies him from dealing with Oaky Woods on behalf of the people of Georgia."

Raye Jones, an area manager for Oaky Woods, said hunters are angry.

"They'll come and bend my ear, saying 'What was Sonny thinking?'" he said.

Mr. Jones has been part of a study that found middle Georgia's largest pocket of bears congregates on the site where the development is planned.

"I think Sonny is as fine a human being as I know," Mr. Jones said. "But if he lets this land go, well, that would just be a really sad mistake."


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