The land has been nominated for protection by Forever Wild, a group established by the state to purchase and conserve Alabama land for recreation. The group authorized an appraisal of the land in June, but Forever Wild cannot take further action until its next quarterly meeting, in September.
But September may be too late.
“The Board has authorized the real estate committee to take offers and bring them back to the board,” Jim Lowery told Birmingham Weekly. Lowery, the mayor of Fultondale, is the vice-chairman of the Birmingham Water Works Board and a member of the board’s real estate committee. “So that’s what we did, and that’s where we are.”
The Water Works Board accepted bids on the land, which it values at $3.2 million, during the month of July. The board opened the bids at a meeting earlier this month. Nelson Brooke, executive director of Black Warrior Riverkeeper, a non-profit group that works to protect the Black Warrior River watershed, wrote about that meeting in a guest column on the Locust Fork News-Journal blog.
“To the surprise of numerous bidders in the room, attendees were informed that the bids received by the July 31 deadline were actually being considered as ‘offers,’ and they would be negotiable once opened,” Brooke wrote.
Lowery says he thinks there were at least six offers made for the land.
“The highest bid was $3.75 million,” Brooke wrote. “By the end of the day, the highest bid was $4.01 million.”
The Water Works Board bought the land, located in Blount County, in the 1990s for $2.7 million. The board intended to dam the Locust Fork and create a reservoir, but later scrapped that plan in favor of a reservoir on Holt Lake, which lies downriver of the Locust Fork tract.
Black Warrior Riverkeeper, in conjunction with Friends of the Locust Fork River, nominated the Locust Fork tract for Forever Wild protection in April of this year. Brooke says the land could be an “incredible resource,” in terms of recreation opportunities and wildlife protection, for residents in Birmingham, Oneonta, Jasper, Cullman, and other nearby municipalities.
“It’s not every day that a large chunk of land like that comes up for sale along an amazing free-flowing river like the Locust Fork,” Brooke told Birmingham Weekly. “This is kind of like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Brooke said that the Locust Fork is a habitat for dozens of rare and endangered species whose chances of survival would be boosted if the land remained undeveloped. Keeping the land wild would also protect the drinking water that the Birmingham Water Works Board is tasked with providing.
“The opportunity to let the land filter run-off and pollutants and function as a healthy watershed would be afforded by a Forever Wild purchase,” Brooke said. “Watershed protection is something that the Water Works board has shown very little interest in.”
According to Lowery, the Water Works Board has watershed protection policies, but the board is only able to apply those policies in places where they provide water. Blount County, where the Locust Fork tract in question is located, is not one of those places.
Lowery expressed a personal interest in protecting water supplies, but stressed that the five-member Water Works Board must do what it thinks is in the best interest of the ratepayers.
“We’re a public utility, and we have an obligation to the ratepayers here,” Lowery said.
When asked if the board might wait until Forever Wild could meet and make an offer, Lowery said he didn’t know.
“That would be a Board decision,” he said.
The Birmingham Water Works Board was scheduled to meet Wednesday at noon to review information regarding the Locust Fork land sale. The board is scheduled to meet again on Thursday at noon, and is expected to consider action on the Locust Fork tract at that meeting. The meetings are held at the Birmingham Water Works Board building, at 3600 First Ave. North, and are open to the public. Citizens can contact the water board with their opinions on the land sale by calling the board office, at (205) 244-4000.
UPDATE: Here is a list of offers the Birmingham Water Works Board has received for the Locust Fork property. This list was provided by the Water Works Board.