Saturday, May 31, 2008

Land Scams

In 2001 the city of Portsmouth sold almost 8 acres of land next to Route 23 to Portsmouth developer Elmer Mullins for the minimum asking price of $60,000. The price Mullins paid per acre, therefore, was about $7,500.

In 2006, the county of Athens sold a little over 4 acres of comparable land on East State St. to developers for $2.3 million. The price per acre the developers paid in Athens, therefore, was about $510,000. In other words, the county and therefore the taxpayers of Athens county received a half a million dollars more per acre for public land on East State St. than the city of Portsmouth received per acre for public land on Route 23.

The land in Portsmouth and the land in Athens are similar. Both the nearly 8 acres in Portsmouth and the 4 plus acres in Athens were vacant and suitable for commercial development. The city of Portsmouth and the city of Athens also appear to be similar. Both are university towns and county seats and of similar population and per capita income. In 2000, the population of Athens was 21,342; Portsmouth was 20,909. Both cities are among the poorest in Ohio: Portsmouth ranks 809, Athens ranks 1043. The per capita income in Portsmouth is $15,078; in Athens it is $11,061, so both cities appear to be, municipally speaking, poor cousins.

What can explain the startling difference in price between comparable land in Portsmouth and Athens? Why did Athens county and its taxpayers receive about a half million dollars per acre for the East State St. land, and the city of Portsmouth only $7500 per acre for the Route 23 land?

The short answer is that when it comes to political corruption and to selling out to developers, Athens cannot begin to compare to Portsmouth. Portsmouth is not only a drug dealer’s paradise, it is a developer’s heaven, a place where Neal Hatcher is making a fortune off the city and Shawnee State University, while taking virtually no risks, and where Elmer Mullins had to pay the city of Portsmouth only $7500 per acre for prime commercial real estate.

Route 23 Rip-Off

The longer answer is that Mullins paid a paltry $7500 per acre on Route 23 because the price was driven down because rumors circulated that the site was contaminated and even possibly toxic. Who was spreading those rumors? Portsmouth Police Chief Charles Horner did an inept investigation and accused former Mayor Bauer and the developer Mullins of criminally spreading the rumors to discourage potential bidders from coming forward. But Horner never produced evidence to prove his charges. He could not produce public statements by either Bauer and or Mullins spreading the rumors. Horner was no better at investigating land scams than he is at performing drug busts. And if there is anything to the rumor that Horner removed the hard drive from Mayor Bauer's computer and withheld that evidence from the Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation, then Horner may face charges that make land scamming look like a lark.

The city official who did publicly raise the specter of contamination at the Route 23 site was First Ward council woman Ann Sydnor. At one city council meeting she claimed water and soil from the site were being tested and that results would be forwarded to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. The OEPA has denied that it ever received such tests or mandated any cleanup of the site. There probably was a rip-off on Route 23, but no one has ever been held accountable.

The Athens land deal was apparently also a scam, involving rigged bidding, according to recent news reports, but that is not surprising since a Portsmouth developer, Jeffrey Albrecht was involved. But that is the subject for another blog.