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May 18, 2013

Forever Wild an option for county schools’ Section 16 land

Cullman County school officials would consider the state’s Forever Wild program as a selling option for some valuable land on Smith Lake, though the board is still eyeing a variety of avenues to leverage the asset.

The school board gained control of the Section 16 property, which was set aside for school use by the federal government more than 100 years, after Cullman County voters approved a November 2012 referendum by 67 percent to give the school system dominion over the land.

Local resident Peggy Hill submitted the property for consideration to Forever Wild, with hopes the state program will purchase the land and convert it into a nature preserve.

The school system’s plan is to sell or develop the property, then place 90 percent of the revenue into a trust to create a new, long-term funding source. The school system also has control over  321 acres in Joppa and 122 acres in Chigger Ridge, though the Smith Lake lot is considered the most valuable.

Earlier this year the board established a volunteer steering committee to help develop a strategy for the property, which has been meeting with groups and taking proposals the past few months.

Hill has founded the Friends of Smith Lake Section 16 group, which is advocating a sale to Forever Wild. The program is considering a survey of the property, and has asked the board if it would be interested in selling the property at the right price.

Board members agreed at a Thursday night meeting to reply to Forever Wild, stating they would potentially be interested in a sale at the right price, assuming the process is no cost to the system. The letter is non-binding, but allows the state program to move forward with more information gathering.

“You want that property to serve the children, and Forever Wild is the best way to do that,” Hill said. “The greatest barrier to enjoying the outdoors is a lack of access, and that’s especially true for our children. I think that is just the most beautiful shore line on Smith Lake, and I want to share it with the community.”

Though the board is open to seeing what Forever Wild might have to offer, steering committee chairman Fred Cespedes said every option will be considered before any recommendation is made.

“We look at every option presented to us, discuss it and review it,” he said. “We’re trying to figure out which options are the most viable, then provide that information to the school board.”

Trent Moore can be reached by e-mail at trentm@cullmantimes.com, or by telephone at 734-2131, ext. 220.

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