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Opponents of Hofmann Forest sale worry about new owner's verbal commitment

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Those trying to block the sale of the Hofmann Forest by North Carolina State University took their opposition to the campus Friday in a brief, but loud protest. Those trying to block the sale of the Hofmann Forest by North Carolina State University took their opposition to the campus Friday in a brief, but loud protest.
RALEIGH, N.C. -

Those trying to block the sale of the Hofmann Forest by North Carolina State University took their opposition to the campus Friday in a brief, but loud protest.

After a superior court judge rejected a lawsuit that would have stopped the school from selling the 80,000-acre forest near Jacksonville, opponents filed an appeal.

As opponents of the sale wait for the court's decision, they're raising questions about the developer's intentions for the property.

Read the purchase and sale agreement

"The sales agreement lays out the case that they're allowed to do farming and livestock on at least 70,000 acres of the property and the other 9,000 acres aren't covered by any restrictions at all. So, they could develop it," claims sale opponent Ron Sutherland of the Wildlands Network.

Hofmann Forest's long history as an undeveloped piece of property is at the heart of opponents concerns.

Buyer Jerry Walker of Illinois based Walker AG Group has promised not to develop the land, N.C. State said.

"The sales contract is clear," said N.C. State's Brad Bohlander. "The areas we cared about including continuing as a working forest are reflected in that contract. And, the buyer has made a verbal commitment publicly that he will continue to use that land in those ways."

Walker's use of verbal agreements in business deals is nothing new.

In 2011, he won a lawsuit where he testified that "a sort of verbal handshake agreement was how he typically did business with friends."

Opponents of the sale said a verbal agreement on the forest isn't enough for them.

"Let's see him make a conservation easement into the deed," said opponent Fred Cubbage, who is a professor of natural resources N.C. State. "He can put that in the deed and we'll believe it when it's in the deed."

Meanwhile sale opponents said the school is disregarding Hofmann Forest's long history as an undeveloped research area, but the school said those arguments aren't relevant.

"Almost all teaching has moved off the forest," said Bohlander. "98 percent of sponsored research is no longer done in the forest.  It's really turned into an income generator. It's a tree farm."

The school believes the sale of the forest will generate $6 million a year in endowment funds, as opposed to the $2 million a year it gets now from its tree farm sales.

Steve Sbraccia

Steve is an award-winning reporter for WNCN and former assistant professor. A seasoned professional, Steve is proud to call the Triangle home since 2005 after over two decades in Boston, Mass.  More>>

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