SPOTLIGHT on Cobb County’s ‘Secret Land Deal’
One of our local papers pulled back the curtains this week to expose the ugly underbelly of a ‘secret’ land deal occurring under the noses of Cobb citizens involving our own Cobb County government.
In addition to current and former county officials, the clandestine deal involved a U.S. Congressman and Senator, as well as other business types. The group is trying to purchase 80 acres of land from the County, that some described as prime real estate and worth millions. Located near Dobbins, the purchasers wanted to develop an entertainment center on the property that runs along Windy Hill Road, between Cobb Parkway and Atlanta Road.
If they had been successful in securing the property, the deal had the potential to make every person involved millionaires for generations to come. They obviously had Cobb on the hook to sell. The lynchpin was the federal government changing its regulations that were attached to the original sale of the property which prevented the deal from moving forward.
Open record documents that the Marietta Daily Journal obtained exposed the scheme, along with sorted details that left many in Cobb shocked and concerned. Many are wondering if corruption and fraud is now afoot in Cobb. They also think the federal authorities, including the US Attorney, may step in because this now involves elected federal officials at the highest levels.
The land in question, near Cobb County owned Legacy Links, was once owned by the federal government. It was deemed surplus land 45 years ago by the feds and sold to Cobb in 1977, with two restrictions incorporated into the deed. To ensure that it did not interfere or conflict with neighboring Dobbins, the federal government required that the land be used only as a park or recreation space. It also restricted the sale to another government, which would protect its original restriction on usage. A reversionary clause attached to the sale directed that if either clause is violated, the property would revert to the federal government.
Former Chair Sam Olens, who served from 1999 to 2010, and former County Manager Rob Hosack are the past county officials whose names are all over this “sweetheart deal” arrangement. What is unknown to Cobb citizens are the persons currently within Cobb County government that may have been using their positions to shepherd this scheme along from the inside.
Congressman Barry Loudermilk and Former Senator David Perdue round out the group and are identified as federal elected officials who have been running interference in Washington. The two are accused of lobbying the Department of Interior and Department of Defense, whose approval to change the restrictions would be needed if the proposed land deal were to go forward.
MDJ reporting suggests that a deal regarding the property was first discussed in 2016, before the board of commission, when Tim Lee was Chair and David Hankerson was County Manager. Then Parks and Rec Director Eddie Cannon knew that an approval was needed from the Department of Interior, which was not coming after receiving a letter from a park service program manager that was not supportive of what Cobb wanted to do.
This initial position did not deter Olens or others within the county government. They went back to the park service with a new proposal in 2018 to sell the land owned by Cobb. Olens was a private citizen and no longer in County government but here he was approaching federal officials regarding county property, which left many wondering in what capacity did Olens approach the park service about selling property owned by Cobb County. They say Olens actions are troubling.
As they tried to advance the ball on this land sale, Mike Boyce was chair at this point and Rob Hosack was County Manager, serving in that role from 2017 to April 2020. There is no indication that Boyce knew of the behind the curtains dealings. In his capacity as County Manager, Hosack sent several letters on October 1, 2018, to the Department of the Interior and the Air Force, notifying them of Cobb’s plans to ask to be freed from the clauses. After passing through the hands of initial buyers of the land, Hosack is said to have outlined a plan that would have the property ending up in the hands of a third party. Again, the concerns for most Cobb citizens are who these initial buyers are and who the third-party developers would end up being. Some ask why all the secrecy. If the third-party developers wanted the property, why not make that known instead of the cloak and dagger?
During 2019 and 2020, letters were flying back and forth between Cobb County’s Hosack, Olens, and the federal agencies. Olens was continuing to advocate for his clients in getting the restrictions removed. At one point, an assistant secretary to the Air Force wrote to Senator David Perdue, notifying him that Olens request was under review. We assume that the Air Force letter is in response to a request from Purdue’s office.
In November 2020, a new player entered the picture, Cobb Attorney Patrick Riley, who was working in conjunction with the others to get a letter of non-objection from the assistant secretary of the interior, Rob Wallace. Around Thanksgiving, a parks service employee wrote to Olens that the letter was signed by Wallace. This was good news for Olens, but short-lived.
Olens soon began communicating with Cobb’s current County Manager, Dr. Jackie McMorris, however, .There is no indication that McMorris knew of the behind the curtains dealings that were occurring.
In January 2021 Lisa Cupid became Chair which raises questions as to what she knew. There is no indication at this time that Cupid knew of this dealing.
A letter from the Air Force earlier this year would cause the secret land sale plans to come crashing down all around Olens, Hosack, and County officials. Dated March 2021, the letter from the Department of Defense (DOD) placed their objections on the table. The DOD raised concerns related to the operations of Dobbins and interference with any plans they have to reclaim the property at some date in the future for expansion. County Attorney Riley wrote back saying, “The county is reviewing this response, but initially is disappointed with the position the Department has taken in this regard.”
Disappointment did not stop Olens, who wrote back to Riley that he had contacted Congressman Barry Loudermilk and was waiting to hear from him. Loudermilk would then contact Secretary of the Defense, Lloyd Austin saying “As the federal representative for Dobbins Air Reserve base, I respectfully request to know what information the Department of Defense took into consideration before coming to a decision of denial?” Loudermilk would later say he did not recall who asked him to contact the DOD on this matter. Many in the community questioned his intentions and interest behind this deal.
Under normal circumstances, selling land that the county owns would not be a big deal as Cobb and other governments have done so in the past and are currently doing so today. However, we searched several websites that listed different parcels of land for sale that were owned by the county. This land near Dobbins was not included on the list, which raises eyebrows.
Why was this land sale being directed to this group and what made them special? Yes, it was being led by Olens and Hosack, but does mean that the County should exclude all others who may have become interested if they knew that the property was being sold by the county. Also, why would the County not want to hold on to this valuable property? Why sell it?
If the secrecy was not enough of a problem for all involved, what makes this proposed land sale deal problematic is an attempt by the County to sell land they knew they were forbidden by the federal government to sell for commercial development.
The citizens of Cobb are the true landowners of this parcel of land and the county is the caretaker, tasked with making conscientious decisions when it comes to buying and selling property. Nowhere are they tasked with what has been transpiring in Cobb County from 2016 to the present time. Lastly, when was the county going to tell us that sale of this property was being considered and get our permission to make this small group millionaires with the sale of the land?
While impacted citizens around Cobb County are worrying about housing insecurities with the lifting of the eviction moratorium and COVID 19 is ravaging schools, overwhelming hospitals, and causing deaths to rise, a secret deal on land that is not authorized to be sold is making its way through Cobb government, is shepherding this deal through for rich investors to get richer the best use of time for Cobb officials – elected or appointed? Is this what we send representatives to Washington to do – lobby for the changing of federal rules to support their friends, buddies and others?
Meanwhile, Olens does not seem ready to give up on this deal, saying he is waiting on the military to get back to them. With a Spotlight on this deal, let’s see how far he and the county get, now that Cobb citizens are watching.