Without a vote either in favor or in opposition to a commitment letter for a possible grant, Effingham County’s potential purchase of the Ebenezer Crossing property appears to be a dead issue.
The state Department of Natural Resources needed the commissioners’ letter of support and financial commitment to complete the grant application. But commissioners failed to approve the letter, and the deadline for the grant application passed without the required county commitment.
A motion to approve sending the letter died for lack of a second, and a motion not to approve the letter was met with a 2-2 vote.
Commissioners Vera Jones and Phil Kieffer voted not to approve the letter, and Bob Brantley and Steve Mason voted against the motion.
Commissioner Reggie Loper recused himself from the matter, since the land is owned by relatives. Chairman Dusty Zeigler was not at the meeting. That meant no other commissioners could break the deadlock with their vote.
“This is saying you’d like to proceed with the grant,” Sonny Emmert of the state Department of Natural Resources said of the letter. “If every condition worked out, then we’d go forward. There are several things that would have to happen. This is an extremely competitive grant. We don’t even know if you would have the opportunity.”
The DNR’s Coastal Resources Division was applying for the grant with the National Coastal Wetlands Conservation program for about 250 acres along the Ebenezer Creek and the Savannah River. The property also is home to Ebenezer Crossing, where hundreds of freed slaves drowned in the late stages of the Civil War.
As part of the grant application, on a 75-25 matching basis, the county was asked to commit up to $150,000. Emmert, who wrote the grant, said that commitment was necessary for the grant application to be considered.
“This basically allows the grant process to move forward,” he said. “The commitment shows the county supports their match. To show that, I need to back that up with a letter.”
The grant process also is highly competitive, Emmert said, with communities along the Eastern seaboard vying for the awards. He also viewed the proposal as having multiple benefits for the county, including ecological, water quality and historic benefits. He pointed out that it could be a draw for heritage tourists and ecotourism.
The Ebenezer Creek has been named one of four scenic and wild rivers in the state, Emmert said, and the other three are trout streams in north Georgia.
“It’s ecologically very important,” he said.
Citizens urged commissioners to pursue purchasing the land and preserve not only the historic crossing but also the ecosystem around it.
“We have to ask what is this property worth and what does it mean to Effingham County,” said Ruth Lee. “It’s a unique historic site. Nobody else has a site like this.”
Lee said the Ebenezer Crossing site could become a tourist draw, especially from African-American heritage tourists. She said making it usable as a tourist site would require little effort.
“Tourism is the golden egg for Effingham County that has not been hatched and will not be hatched if you don’t do something to preserve one of the most valuable pieces of property in the county,” she said.
Gussie Nease told commissioners she has canoed the Ebenezer Creek twice and was astounded by the views.
“There are places where it’s almost like going to church. It’s majestic,” she said. “It’s a place that should be saved, and there should be no question about saving it and protecting it. It’s a beautiful site to see and a beautiful place to be.”
Yet commissioners had a wide range of concerns — including the price, the timing of the grant application and if the county was locked into a commitment.
“Is it often that you do that that way, write the grant and then ask the county for support?” Jones asked.
Jones issued her concerns over the timing of the letter for the grant application, just three days before the deadline.
“In theory, I would not be against this,” she said. “I understand some of the benefits. But we have to look at things comprehensively. This is a business decision for the county in a condensed amount of time.
“When we have proper planning time, we can instruct staff to find money,” she added. “The fact the grant has already been submitted and here we are, I’m not happy about that.
“In today’s market, where we are, taxpayers don’t want us to spend money.”
Mason said he spoke with the landowners and they told him they wouldn’t take less than $2,000 an acre.
“We just don’t have a lot of extra money lying around,” he said. “I’m not a real estate professional but the match being asked of the county is not what the property is worth.”
Lee pushed commissioners to sell land the county owns that is not in use to bring in the revenue that could provide the county’s match for the grant.
“Look at the long list of property in the county you own that is not being used and is not going to be used and is not on the tax books and put it up for sale,” she said. “Use that money to purchase a valuable piece of property. There’s opportunities for all kinds of things there.
“There may never be another opportunity like this.”
Brantley and Jones voiced their support for selling unused county property.
“I think the county should be actively marketing property we’ve been sitting on for years,” Brantley said.
Kieffer worried that signing a letter of commitment meant the county had to honor its pledge, if it received the grant.
“It’s called a commitment letter, and that’s what I’m hung up on,” he said. “If the (federal) government has grant money available in these economic times, surely it will have money down the road.”
Said Jones: “If we make a commitment that is a legal commitment, we’ve got to honor it and stop not honoring them.”
The grant awards will be announced in January and communities have 18 months from that time to conduct the necessary due diligence — such as archaelogical surveys, biological assessments and historical resources surveys.
An appraisal also has not been done on the property, and Emmert said the applicant can back out of the grant if the appraisal is unsatisfactory. Emmert explained the grant was written with such a high dollar amount — more than $550,000 — because the grant funds cannot exceed the fair market value of the property.
“It’s good to be higher than lower,” he said. “If it comes back higher than fair market value, you have to re-enter the competition for the grant, so it’s good to have a buffer. If the asking price had been substantially higher than fair market value, it would have ended. Federal money cannot overbuy, it can’t pay more than fair market value.
“There were many roadblocks that could come up.”
Emmert also said the county could back out of the grant during the 18 months after it was awarded.
“This is not a contract,” he said. “This is saying you’d like to proceed with the grant. If every condition worked out, then we’d go forward. There are several things that would have to happen. This is an extremely competitive grant. We don’t even know if you would have the opportunity.”
Said County Administrator David Crawley: “The timing is not good. But the opportunity is good. It will take a year and a half after we find out in January. At any point in time, the board can say it will not move forward. There are multiple opportunities along the way to stop the process.”
Brantley and Mason seemed to be assuaged that the county had an “out” from the grant process, if it got the award.
“If we’re not obligated at that point, that really is significant to me,” Mason said. “If we do have that out, I feel better about it. I still want to make this happen.”
Commissioners were urged to preserve the land for future generations as well.
“This is a time we can protect this land for our children and protect these trees that have stood there for 1,000 years,” Nease said. “This is something we can never get back once it’s gone.”
Lee, a member of the Effingham Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the group is committed to saving the site and making it available to the public.
“It draws tourists like nobody’s business. This is a piece of property you know what the purpose is. It’s to save the greenspace, develop some interest in it and preserve the crossing.”
While working on a grant for the Living History Site and the area around it in Springfield, Emmert asked about other areas that might be considered. He was told about the Ebenezer Creek and the Ebenezer Crossing.
“It’s a wonderful piece of property,” he said. “It’s beautiful down in there. The grants allow for public access, and the county can benefit from that as well.”
Emmert said there is not much chance the land will be developed, since most of it is wetlands, though there are some usable upland acres. His biggest fear is that the trees there will continue to be harvested and that could impact drainage and water quality.
He also would like to have another chance at a grant for the land.
“I hope we can come back,” he said.