More On Land

Controversial Loudon County school site eyed for sell-off

Land deal: Boondoggle or financial bonanza?

By Hugh G. Willett

When the Loudon County school board paid $2.2 million for 80 acres of land on U.S. Highway 321 in Lenoir City back in 2006, the deal was controversial.

The property was flipped and roughly doubled in price per acre the same day of the public sale. And opponents were doubtful a new high school would ever be built on the site.

Now, as the school board begins making moves to sell off the land, opinion is still divided about its value and whether or not the purchase was a good deal for the county.

The current county appraisal of more than $4 million for the land is a surprise to some and a delight to others who are pleased to learn that the county and the schools might make a profit on a deal that some considered a boondoggle at the time.

"I'd be happy if they just got out of it what they paid for it," said former school board member Freddie Gene Walker, who opposed the purchase.

The original 103-acre parcel was valued by the county at $584,000 when it was sold to Knoxville real-estate investor Richard Eisenbach for $1.3 million on October 2, 2006. The deed changed hands again later that same day, when the school board paid $2.2 million for 80 acres of the same 103-acre tract.

In addition to making a $900,000 profit in less than a day, Eisenbach retained 23 acres that included most of the level roadside frontage. The land purchased by the school board was steeply graded by comparison.

Eisenbach, who has since died, vigorously defended his role in the deal, denying that he had taken advantage of the school board.

When new members joined the school board following the next election, they called for an investigation. The board voted to send a letter to District Attorney General Russell Johnson, asking for a probe.

"If what appears to have taken place here is in fact correct, someone should be held accountable. A full investigation is warranted," said Van Shaver, a school board member at the time.

Johnson replied to the board in a letter that stated that he could find nothing illegal about the transaction, noting that regardless of the premium price, real estate was a sound long-term investment.

But there was also controversy over whether the land was ever needed in the first place.

In the early stages of planning for a school building program, some school board members had suggested a new high school was needed at the north end of the county. The decision had not yet been made to build a new high school at Greenback, and some saw a north county high school as an alternative.

The new Greenback High School is now under construction, and as the school building program enters its second phase, support for a new high school at the north end of the county seems to have disappeared.

"It was a terrible place to put a school," Walker said.

The school system, meanwhile, has been faced with budget challenges, including layoffs. Schools Director Jason Vance suggested recently that the county consider selling the land. There is some question of whether or not the school board can sell the land or whether the county commission has to approve the sale.

"We are consulting with our attorney to decide if we can declare it surplus and sell it, or if the county has to do this, since we are under the law of 1957 in regards to purchasing," Vance said.

If the land is put up for sale by either the school board or the commission, the biggest question seems to be the true value of a tract.

Loudon County Property Assessor Mike Campbell said the value of the land was determined during the 2009 property appraisal and will be reassessed in the coming year. The actual value would best be determined by an independent appraiser taking into account the best use of the land or what a willing buyer would pay, he said.

Campbell said the $4 million value seems a bit high.

"I'm not aware of any other $50,000-per-acre tracts out there at this point," he said.

Shaver is also skeptical about the appraised value.

County records show that nearby properties are appraised at much less per acre. A 71-acre tract adjacent the 80-acre school property is appraised at $829,000, or about $12,000 per acre. Another 71-acre tract two parcels away is appraised at $756,000, or just over $10,000 per acre.

"There seems to be a bit of a difference in near like properties," Shaver said.