Frank Munger

Document search is magical mystery tour

April 25, 2001

By Frank Munger News-Sentinel senior writer



Earlier this year, the Energy Department sold a slice of floodplain property to developers for $54 an acre, setting off howls of protests from conservationists already upset with the agency's land-use planning.

The 182-acre parcel along the Clinch River was sold to the Oak Ridge Land Co., which plans to create a smart-growth community -- incorporating facilities for residents to work, play and live -- on nearby land (about 1,200 acres) purchased from the Boeing Co. The floodplain is important to the project because it provides river access to the development.

Conservation groups that earlier had contested DOE's plan to sell the property were incensed by the sale price, calling it a sweetheart deal and suggesting the ecological value of the property was much greater.

"Heck, for the price of dinner for two the other night, I could have bought an acre of wetlands," said Dev Joslin of Advocates For the Oak Ridge Reservation. "I could have traded in one of our cars for the whole 182 acres."

Research scientist Virginia Dale called the $9,828 transaction "very sad."

At the time, DOE had little to say.

"The land was sold at fair-market value," agency spokesman Steven Wyatt said. "That's determined by the appraised value of the land."

Was the controversy unwarranted? Was the low price reasonable, since the floodplain apparently was viewed as unsuitable for development? Should DOE have come out strongly in defense of the land transaction, which is governed by specific rules and regulations?

Some folks thought so.

DOE officials, however, appear to have no interest in defending the property sale. In fact, the agency appears to be incapable of it.

When asked for a copy of the property appraisal, a DOE spokesman offered an all-but-unbelievable response: The agency doesn't have a copy of the appraisal, and nobody in the Oak Ridge office remembers who the appraiser was.

Can you imagine a DOE manager testifying to that during a congressional hearing?

Following my inquiry, DOE's chief lawyer, Jennifer Fowler, wrote a March 26 letter to Oak Ridge Land Co. asking for a copy of the appraisal.

"In connection with the sale of 182 acres of floodplain by the Department of Energy, you engaged the services of a DOE-approved certified appraiser and provided the resulting appraisal to DOE. However, we have discovered that the appraisal is not contained in DOE's files," Fowler wrote.

"On behalf of the Department of Energy, I am requesting a copy of the appraisal so that our records of this real estate transaction will be complete."

There apparently has been no response to that letter.

"We didn't keep a copy," Michael Ross, chief manager of Oak Ridge Land Co., said this week when asked about the property appraisal.

Ross said he doesn't think Oak Ridge Land Co. got sweetheart treatment from DOE.

"I do feel like we got a good value," he said.

He said developers wouldn't have paid about $3 million for the Boeing parcel if they hadn't been assured of getting the waterfront property from DOE.

Ross said he was somewhat surprised by the controversy, but he said Oak Ridge is a special place.

"There are certainly a lot of great and good things about Oak Ridge, and one of those great and good things is that there are a lot of very inquisitive and inquiring minds," he said.

"We plan to do something very special over there, and we think it will be in keeping with what Oak Ridge wants, even the folks that are our critics," Ross said.

He also said the project poses special challenges.

Ross said there is no final design or name for the proposed project because the company is still conducting market studies and evaluating land-use issues. But he indicated one focus would be on providing ways for walkers to enjoy the natural areas.

Meanwhile, what about that elusive appraisal on the riverfront property?

"We requested a copy from the appraiser, but he didn't keep a copy," Ross said. "He can get it through some kind of printing process .... But we just have not done that. If it becomes a major issue, we will."


Senior Writer Frank Munger covers the Department of Energy for the News-Sentinel. He can be reached at 865-482-9213 or at twig1@knoxnews.infi.net. This column is also available on the Web at www.knoxnews.com/editorsview/munger/

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