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November 3, 2013

County schools get clear title to Section 16 land

Development plans still under consideration; trust to open soon

It took two years of lobbying and a special referendum vote — followed by another year of working to obtain a clear title from the state — but the Cullman County Board of Education finally has legal control of the Section 16 property in Cullman County.

Superintendent Billy Coleman spent part of this week in Montgomery finalizing the transfer of title to the school board from the Alabama Department of Conservation, which had previously held stewardship over the property. Section 16 land was set aside by the federal government decades ago for school use, though most was eventually sold off or used for other means — except for some potentially lucrative lots in Cullman County that have remained unscathed.

Now comes the fun part: Actually figuring out what to do with it.

Voters approved a measure last year by a wide margin to give the school system control of the 321 acres in Joppa, 122 acres in Chigger Ridge and 435 acres on Smith Lake. Officials believe the Smith Lake lot holds the most potential, as it includes 25,000 feet of shoreline that could be worth several million dollars.

The board plan to either develop or sell the property, then place 90 percent of any revenue from the land into a trust and use the interest as a new source of revenue for the system. Funds will be split between both local school systems, with the county receiving 83 percent and the city allocated 17 percent based on student population.

Officials established a new, 13-person advisory board to help develop a path forward — and now Coleman said he’s glad those volunteer community and business leaders can finally get to work.

“I think what this meeting does for us is open it up to where we finally have it, on our own,” he said. “We can finally start making some concrete decisions about some things. I think the board has spent the past few months doing some fact-finding, which was good, but now we can start to talk with some authority.”

Though the board finally has the authority to make use of the property, Coleman said he wouldn’t expect any quick decisions in the coming months.

“It doesn’t mean we're going to jump into anything, but it does close the chapter on property rights being transferred officially to us,” he said. “Now we can open up a new chapter of thinking about the choices we’ll have to make. We said from the get-go we were going to take a slow approach, and things are getting better with the economy, but we’re still going to be patient.”

In the meantime, the board will likely be considering the renewal of existing hunting club leases on the land and deciding how to proceed with those contracts.

But, no matter how much revenue they bring in over the next year, Coleman said he expects the board to move forward in the coming months to open its official Section 16 trust to hold current and future revenue.

“You’ll probably see us seek bids on that soon,” he said. “Though the first deposits will be small, they could get substantial at some point in the future. I think that’s important to have in place now, as things start to develop and become clear.”

Coleman said he hopes potential interest revenue from the trust can eventually help bankroll facility upgrades at some of the more outdated campuses across the county.

“We haven't been able to do a lot of capital projects yet, and this is kind of a long-term vision, to possibly provide some funding in addition to what comes from the state for that,” he said. “We have a long way to go still, but we’ve come a long way from people saying it couldn’t be done. It feels pretty good.”

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