The county and school board paid $3 million for 47 acres of land near Swain County High School. Just two months earlier, the same tract had sold for just $500,000. The lucky middle men made $2.5 million flipping the property to the county.
There were two sets of middle men in the transaction. The property was purchased from the long-time owners by Robert Leatherwood on April 3 for $500,000. The original owner had Swain County roots but had relocated to Ohio several decades ago. Leatherwood was a family relation and convinced them to sell.
As soon as the deal closed, Leatherwood resold the property that same day to Bruce Green and Bob Robinson for the same price of $500,000. Green and Robinson later sold the property to the county for $3 million.
According to Swain County Manager Kevin King, Robinson and Green had plans to sell the property to a developer. The county had been interested in the property for more than a year, however. Due to its proximity to the high school, it was seen as a prime location for needed school expansion. The school system wanted to build a new middle school and turn the existing middle school into an elementary school. The county had been unable to orchestrate a purchase of the property, however.
Then, in the spring, King noticed equipment was grading roads on the property. When he looked into it, he saw the property had changed hands. Perhaps the county would now be able to obtain it, he thought, and took the news to the commissioners and school board.
At the time, the property was under contract with Atlanta developers. The contract on the property expired, however, opening the door for the county. Unfortunately, the county had to compete with the price the developers would offer, King said.
“It was probably too much for sales that are occurring now in Swain County,” King said. But the site had access to water and sewer and the middle school could share athletic fields with the high school — two factors that will reduce building costs.
Candidates running for the board of commissioners are questioning whether the purchase was wise given the price, however.
“I’m not saying we didn’t need the land, but I don’t think we needed to pay that much,” said James King, a challenger running for commissioner. “That’s definitely too much for that tract of land.”
Robinson did not return phone calls seeking comment and Green had little to say about the transaction.
“They are jealous because they didn’t do it,” Green said of those questioning the price on the transaction. “I don’t have any comments on it.”
It’s not the first time Robinson and Green have sold land to the county. The county selected a tract Robinson and Green owned across from Ingles for a new jail and law enforcement center — 11 acres for $700,000.
Jim Douthit, who is running for commissioner chairman, has questioned that purchase, too. Douthit said there were other more suitable tracts the county could have selected for far less money.
Mike Clampitt, another challenger running for commissioner, also questioned the school land purchase.
“Any time there are big ticket purchases by the county administration, the voters and taxpayers should have a voice in that transaction on whether they want to spend that much money or not,” Clampitt said. “It shouldn’t be left in the hands of a few people.”
According to the county’s version of the transaction, however, it appears there wasn’t time to hold a countywide bond vote on whether to pursue the property for a new school given the competition from developers.
Nellie Burns, a school board challenger, questioned the need for 45 acres.
“That is huge,” Burns said. “Was everything done to try to secure this property at a reasonable amount of money?”
Steve Moon, a school board member who is running for commissioner, thinks it was a good deal, however.
“That land was such a unique opportunity. The commissioners did a good job obtaining that land,” Moon said.