The Higdon Estate property located across from Franklin High School on Wayah Street is under contract after a decade of being on the market — the potential buyers — the Macon County Board of Commissioners.
According to Macon County Attorney Eric Ridenour, the Board of Macon County Commissioners decided during a closed session meeting in February to authorize County Manager Derek Roland to enter into contract negotiations to purchase Higdon Estates. On Tuesday night, more than a month after commissioners authorized Roland to begin negotiations for the project and nearly two weeks after the county entered into contract to purchase the property, the board of commissioners unanimously voted to ratify the closed session action of the board.
The action taken Tuesday night was a ratification of board action, which is essentially the procedure of doing in an open public session, what was already decided in closed session. The ratification is necessary for the state’s Open Meetings Law which requires any official action taken by a public body, including the purchase of property, must be taken in open session, except for certain limited exceptions. While the law allows for closed sessions to discuss matters related to the purchase, sale, or lease of property by a public body, any action taken during a closed session must be ratified in an open session of the board.
Ratification is an important part of the process because it provides transparency and accountability to the public. Ratifying an action taken in closed session means that the public is made aware of the decision that was made and has an opportunity to provide feedback or raise any concerns they may have.
According to Macon County Commission Chairman Paul Higdon, the decision was made to move forward with securing the contract without discussing the purchase in a public session or with public input due to how competitive the real estate market is currently and to be able to gain access to the property for engineers to look at the property to determine if it was even useful to the county.
Commissioner Gary Shields, who serves as liaison to the school board asked for clarification from Ridenour and the board regarding the property and its future use. As liaison to the school board, he was not aware of any plans for the property or intended use and requested more details before considering purchasing the property for $1.3 million. Shields noted that while the property was mentioned in a past closed session, the only knowledge he had of the property was the possibility of negotiating the purchase of it.
Ridenour said the board discussed purchasing the property in February and the property owners accepted the offer of $1.3 million, and because they accepted the offer, the action to enter into the contract was before the board for formal ratification.
Known locally as the Higdon Estates, the property located at 195 Way Street in Franklin, across from Franklin High School, boasts 11 acres and the building sitting on the property is described as an estate consisting of a four bedrooms Georgian-style main house, a two-bedroom carriage house, and a large multipurpose barn. The property is located on rolling pasture lands and is located in Franklin’s Neighborhood mixed-use zone.
Although the property has been vacant for a decade, Higdon said there was another buyer interested in the property, which is why commissioners moved quickly to get it under contract. In the event the county decides not to purchase the property, the county would be out $10,000 in earnest money.
“It is going to cost us $10,000 to take it off the market in the Spring Selling season for 90 days, it’s going to cost us $10,000,” Chairman Higdon said Tuesday night. “Whether that is ideal if we move into Phase 2 development, and does this property supplement, enhance Phase 2 of a new high school? I don’t know. We got the architect coming, but there is no need to bring him in to look at that property if we don’t have it under contract. We can’t even enter the property without a contract. But now that we have it under contract, the most that is can cost us is $10,000.”
After voting to deem a county-owned parcel of land on Bethel Church as surplus property, allowing it be sold, Higdon noted that “the county isn’t in and shouldn’t be in the real estate building” which is why they sold the tract on Bethel Church Rd. However, immediately after that, Commissioner Higdon stated that although the county does not have a current plan or use for the Higdon Estates Property, it was a good business move for the county to purchase the property and hold on to it for potential future needs.
“That is probably the best deal for land, $1.3, $1.5 million for 11 acres of land, right in the middle of town, is the best deal going.
Commissioner Josh Young invited Macon County Board of Education members Hilary Wilkes and Stephanie Laseter to address commissioners during the meeting regarding the property. The two board members said that while they support any investment the county is willing to make into the school system, they were not comfortable providing input from the board as a whole, because they had not been made previously aware of the county’s desire to purchase that property nor had they had any discussion as a board to that effect.
Wilkes, who represents the Highlands District, expressed frustration of being asked by the county to prioritize capitol needs of the school system — none of which included spending $1.3 million to purchase that property, but did include comparable funding for the renovation of Highlands School to include PreK classrooms— and yet commissioners ignored the board’s priority list and instead decided to purchase property without consulting the school board and for an intended use also not discussed with the school board. School board members also shared her confusion as to why commissioners cited the lack of funding appropriated for the Highlands Project as the reason for stopping the project, just for Commissioner Higdon to turn around the very next month and specifically mention the county’s large and excessive fund balance as being the very reason to spend $1.3 million to purchase a property for “future use” even without an intended use or function. With the Highlands Project being estimated to cost around the same as the purchase of the Wayah Street property, the question was raised as to why the county was willing to use the fund balance to justify the purchase of a property never before discussed in Franklin, but weren’t willing to use the fund balance to complete the Highlands renovation project that citizens have been advocating for more than a year.
Commissioners John Shearl and Danny Antoine offered their support for the purchase of the property with the idea that because of the close proximity to Franklin High School, the property would be good to incorporate into the ongoing Franklin High School new construction build. While Commissioner Shields asked for additional details from his fellow board members regarding the property and its intended use, Commissioner Shearl and Antoine expressed prior knowledge of a desire to purchase the property for it to be incorporated into the ongoing Franklin High School new facility build.
“I think this property was brought up to actually be a part of the Franklin High School Project, that was, from my understanding, the whole point of purchasing that property,” said Commissioner Antoine.
Members of the public addressed Commissioner Antoine seeking clarification of his position or intent of purchasing the property, referencing a video posted online that featured Commissioner Antoine advocating on behalf of a Franklin-based Religious non-profit group for the Higdon Estates property to be transformed into a micro-school.
The video in question was uploaded to YouTube in December to the Kavod Family channel and until Thursday morning, was available for public view. The video has now been made private. In the video Commissioner Antoine states that it has been “a life-long goal” of his to open a micro-school. Video viewers took issue with Commissioner Antoine’s comments in the video which were interpreted by some as suggesting that because he now serves on the board of commissioners, he will have a better opportunity to achieve that goal with the Higdon Estates.
“In addition to serving the community as I have, it was impressed upon my heart from the Lord to run for local office, which I did, so I am a newly elected county commissioner, so that opens the door for us to serve in a greater capacity right now, which I am absolutely excited about.”
Commissioner Antoine clarified his position regarding the Higdon Estates during Tuesday night’s commissioner’s meeting and said that he was clear about his intention of supporting the purchase of the property as a county commissioner and that would be for the future of Franklin High School.
Currently, the Franklin High School project encompasses a phased approach to constructing a new high school facility on the existing campus of Franklin High School. Commissioners have allocated $1 million toward the first phase of the project. However, Commissioner Antoine noted that without the county securing additional property in close proximity to Franklin High School, he does not support moving forward with constructing a new facility.
“Personally, I did not see moving forward with the Franklin High School project with that property being right there and it not being added in as we need more space for the Franklin High School Project itself,” said Antoine. “Now I personally have spoken with Mr. Boney (architect with LS3P designing the new school) a little about it and how or if it could even work before this was even brought up and there were some positive discussion between myself and him, not the rest of the board, just myself and him and I was very much in favor of us purchasing that property specifically for the Franklin High School project because I don’t feel like right now where it sits, on the 20 acres, I don’t think it is adequate enough for what we want to get done, especially for these kids.”
Despite the county currently moving forward with plans to construct a new high school facility on the existing campus as requested by the Macon County Board of Education and as designed and planned by LS3P Architects, Chairman Higdon said the County has been looking at property surrounding the high school to purchase to incorporate into the new build. However, as the county began to look at other properties near Franklin High School, “the prices skyrocketed to where we just couldn’t afford it.”
According to Higdon, just because the county is looking at the property, does not mean it will be used currently when building a new high school instead, the property might be purchased and kept for future use by the school or county.
‘If we do end up buying this property, we aren’t going to tag it, limit its use, because if it doesn’t fit into the plans, if we do phase two, for education, then what do we do with it? There might be something else that comes along. Maybe we this thing and build a motel on it…Is the best use for this property related to education? I do not know. So that is where we are at on this thing.”
With Commissioner Higdon explaining his support of purchasing the property because he believes it is a “good deal” regardless if it is used for Franklin High School and that he doesn’t want it to be restricted or tagged for education, Commissioners Young, Shearl, and Antoine saying they only support purchasing it for it to be incorporated into the ongoing Franklin High School Project, and Commissioner Shields stating he was not fully informed on the intended use or direction, the Commissioners unanimously voted to ratify the motion to purchase the property and also voted to move $1,350,000 from the county’s general fund balance to pay for the property in the event the county moves forward with closing on the property.