RALEIGH, N.C. -- A leaked prospectus from the proposed Illinois buyer of a huge research forest owned by North Carolina State University appears to undercut public claims the company would conserve the land.
The News & Observer of Raleigh reported Thursday that the proposal aimed at potential investors includes plans to clear most of the nearly 80,000-acre Hofmann Forest near Jacksonville for a golf course community, commercial development and farmland. The document touts the fertility of the "virgin organic soil" for agriculture once the trees are gone.
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University officials have said they approved the $150 million offer from Illinois agri-businessman Jerry Walker specifically because of assurances his company would preserve the forest. The land sits in three sensitive watersheds and is home to a large population of black bears and rare Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes, among other species.
Officials with N.C. State University's endowment board, a private foundation, signed an agreement last month to sell the property to Walker's company, Hofmann Forest LLC. The deal is set to close within 180 days of that agreement.
Opponents of the sale have long contended that a buyer could develop the property and cut down much of the forest. Five of them filed suit in Wake Superior Court in September to block the sale, saying that such changes could damage important animal habitat and the water quality in three watersheds.
"This document confirms our absolute worst nightmares about what would be done to the forest," said NCSU forestry professor Fred Cubbage, a plaintiff in the lawsuit. "The development and farming it describes would be an unmitigated disaster for the environment, for the populations of animals and for the water quality in that whole area, which already is fragile."
The opponents obtained the prospectus Wednesday, a day after a judge declined to temporarily block the sale after questioning whether there was any specific proof that the buyer intended to develop Hofmann.
The private N.C. State Natural Resources Foundation gifted the forest to the university endowment in 1977. University officials have repeatedly said that Hofmann Forest LLC was chosen because of its intention to preserve the working forest and to continue to allow faculty and students to perform research there.
The prospectus does not include the date it was created, but the text suggests it was after the company was chosen to be the buyer. The opening statement reads: "Hofmann Forest LLC is a privately held entity selected to steward the Hofmann Forest for future generations."
The prospectus specifically touts the extraordinary value of the forest's "virgin organic soil" for farming if the trees were removed, along with plans for 2 million square feet of commercial space and more than 10,500 homes.
"With today's global grain shortage, the type of virgin organic soil found in the Hofmann Forest is at a premium," it says. "After reserving roughly 9,000 acres for development, the Forest would theoretically have 70,000 acres to convert to agricultural uses. Due to numerous mitigating factors, such as wetland areas, one could conceivably convert 50,000 to 60,000 acres to agricultural land."
N.C. State officials said Thursday they had been unaware of the prospectus.
"This is the first N.C. State has seen or heard of this document and it includes information that is not contained in the sales agreement," said university spokesman Brad Bohlander. "We are contacting the buyer to determine when the document was prepared, its accuracy and whether it reflects the buyer's current views regarding potential use of the land."