By Jon Cassidy | Watchdog.org
AURORA, Ohio — The city of Aurora is moving ahead with plans to buy and close Aurora Golf Course, despite an appeal that could put the city’s taxpayers on the hook for an inflated purchase price.
According to Portage County real estate transaction records, 194 acres of the golf course were deeded to the city on Jan. 31, directly from Aurora Recreation LLC, the company owned by real estate developer Hunter Banbury.
The sale came one day after Ohio Watchdog reported that a study by the state Environmental Protection Agency in support of the sale was missing data on water quality; it was eight days after Watchdog pointed out that the program funding the purchase could be illegal.
The funds from the EPA were disbursed and received at the escrow agency’s office Jan. 31, EPA spokesman Mike Settles said.
On Feb. 27, an appeal of the sale’s legality will go to the state’s Environmental Review Appeals Commission for a prehearing conference.
George Heisler, one of six parties filing the appeal, said he had requested an order staying the sale on Jan. 29, but ERAC rarely issues such stays, according to the Ohio Environmental Council.
If ERAC or an appeals court ultimately finds that the EPA acted illegally or unreasonably and cancels the funding, then Aurora would be stuck with the tab.
The price of the project has been jacked up by millions of dollars through a questionable appraisal process.
“Simply stated, if you learn the details, the logic of the deal does not add up,” said Aurora resident Tony Pfenning.
At the heart of the deal is an appraisal valuing the golf course property at $3.9 million. That figure is from a Sept. 6, 2011, appraisal by Paul O. Van Curen & Co., which the city used in its application for EPA funding.
The appraiser cited a 2009 sales figure of $3.1 million for the whole course.
Yet Van Curen & Co. wasn’t appraising the whole property. Banbury, the owner, planned to keep the most valuable part, a new clubhouse and surrounding acreage zoned for commercial use, and 6.7 acres with street access and utilities in place for new housing.
The appraiser left that part out, nowhere mentioning the plans for subdivision, or that his higher figure was for a lesser property.
Still, the appraiser valued the salable property at $20,000 per acre, four times higher than the valuation the county auditor assigns it for tax purposes. The land across the entire undivided property is valued at $1,032,970 by the county auditor. Once Banbury’s 12.2 acres are cut out, the value drops to $971,505. With some $85,000 worth of buildings and asphalt that the city may keep, Aurora has a piece of property worth slightly more than $1 million.
“The embarrassing part is that Mr. Banbury’s purchase happened only three years ago,” Aurora resident Mike Burkons said. “Even if he bought it for $3.1 million, in this sale, he is retaining the clubhouse, pro shop and six acres on Trails End, which accounts for 85 percent of the value and is then selling rest for a huge profit.”
Though the project is purportedly about restoration, there’s little money for it.
There’s $237,000 to drain an artificial lake that sits several hundred feet from the river, and restore the gulley it sat in. There’s $417,000 to plant some trees along the banks and some fairways. There’s $36,000 to take down a few golf cart bridges and spread rocks around. There is no money for ongoing maintenance. The plan is to let it go wild.
In fact, the environmental covenant signed last month doesn’t require anything more than that, so long as the rest of the land is kept in condition “no less natural than the condition of the property at the time of the execution of this covenant.”
The covenant bans “agricultural, industrial, commercial, or residential activity on the property,” but not governmental activity.
Mayor James Fisher has said the city plans to centralize its Parks and Recreation Department operations at a big, new maintenance barn on the property, which is only accessible by bridge.
In its application for funding, the city promised to remove the property’s seven bridges “that impede natural stream morphology.” Then it realized it needed to get to the other side.
The three gas wells now in use can stay, per the covenant. The roads can, too, as long as they’re not widened.
So how did taxpayers end up paying $4.7 million to acquire a $1 million piece of land in order to make it permanently and officially useless?
Start with the recent news that Banbury has a deal to sell the clubhouse for use as a funeral home/party center, adding to his profit. The only reason Banbury can do that is that in May 2011, he got the citizens of Aurora to approve a measure to rezone the clubhouse area for commercial use. He told people he wanted to offer bowling, or a public pool, maybe an ice cream shop.
Instead, four months later, then-Mayor Lynn McGill was telling the EPA that the recent rezoning was part of Banbury’s “plans for the closure of the golf course area for redevelopment,” since “(t)he current owners purchased the property with full intention to shut it down for a large scale redevelopment.”
Banbury had no offers from other developers. There would be no reason for a developer to deal with hilly terrain, environmental restrictions and stringent zoning to put a 68-unit project in a sparsely populated area during a down market, especially when other large plots in Aurora cost no more than $6,000 per developable acre.
There wasn’t much threat of development. Neither was there much threat to wildlife. An environmental assessment found that “no rare, threatened or endangered species were found” on the site. But on a neighboring property, there is something called Floating Pondweed, which is on a “state potentially threatened” list. It’s not exactly material for a fundraising letter.
BirdLife International has declared the region an “Important Bird Area.”
Contact Jon Cassidy at email@example.com.