Cullman County Schools Superintendent Shane Barnette, from right, speaks with school board members Gene Sullins and Heath Allbright before Thursday's meeting. 

The Cullman County School Board has approved a contract to sell the Smith Lake property that has been owned by the school system since 2010.

The 440 acres of property on Smith Lake features an unfinished house and 25,000 feet of shoreline, and was sold to R&D Lake Properties, LLC for a total of $16.1 million during a special called meeting Thursday afternoon. 

The motion to approve the contract to sell the land came after the board entered into an executive session to consider the sale or purchase of real estate. The board also held a special called meeting on April 22 to go into an executive session to discuss real estate negotiations, and went into an executive session during its regular meeting on April 15. 

Per Alabama Code § 36-25A-7, elected bodies are able to enter into a closed executive session when discussing real estate negotiations — as long as any contract to purchase, sell or lease real estate is discussed and approved during the public portion of the meeting. 

The majority of the property is Section 16 land that was acquired by the school system from the Alabama Department of Conservation. The rest of the property was purchased by the board a few years later to gain access to the Section 16 land.

That purchase of the land to gain access to the Section 16 property has been controversial among residents of Cullman County, but was essential to the sale of the rest of the lake property that the school system owned, said Cullman County Schools Superintendent Shane Barnette. 

The 10 acres of property were purchased by the board for $1.2 million in 2014, and sold for $2.9 million in the sale that was approved Thursday — and that money will go directly into the system's general fund, he said. 

"I'm thankful that we have been able to turn a profit on that land," he said. "It was significant in being able to sell the Section 16 land."

The school system won't see large returns immediately from the $13.2 million sale of the 430 acres of Section 16 land, as much of the money will be going into a trust fund that was also approved Thursday afternoon. 

As part of the original plan to take ownership of the property, 90 percent of the revenue from development or sale of the land is to be deposited into a trust account, with the remaining 10 percent deposited into the school system’s general fund — meaning $1.3 million of the sale's proceeds will go into the general fund with the remaining $11.88 million going into the trust fund. 

The interest from the trust fund will be allocated each year to the Cullman City and Cullman County School Systems, and will be based on the enrollment of students in each system, Barnette said. 

Property acquisition

Beginning in 2010, the Cullman County School Board and former Superintendent Billy Coleman unveiled a plan to take over control of around 438 acres of land on Smith Lake, citing Section 16 of the Alabama code, which set the land aside for “school purposes” decades ago.

It took two years of lobbying and a special referendum vote by the people of Cullman County — followed by another year of working to obtain a clear title from the state — but the board eventually gained control of the land from the Alabama Department of Conservation.

While the board was able to take over the 435-acre parcel of land, that piece of property did not have any right of way access, and in November 2014 — under the leadership of former Superintendent Craig Ross — the board approved the purchase of the adjoining 10 acres of land to make sure the Section 16 land was accessible.

Tyler Hanes can be reached at 256-734-2131 ext. 238.

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