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Nunn, Lobbyists Get Big Tax Break On Land Deal

3:52 PM, Aug 14, 2014 • By MICHAEL WARREN
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Georgia Democrat Michelle Nunn experienced a week of embarrassment late last month when National Review's Eliana Johnson published a leaked memo from Nunn's Senate campaign. The memo was essentially Nunn's plan for how to win her race in Georgia, a state her Democratic father represented in the Senate until 1997 but that had grown more Republican in the ensuing years. The plan also focused on Nunn's own perceived weaknesses, including fears that the first-time candidate was a "lightweight," "too liberal," and not a "real Georgian."

Another of those listed weaknesses—unspecificied "conservation easements"—was explored in detail by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in a front-page article Thursday. It seems the Nunn campaign was concerned about the airing out of the details of a land deal conducted by Nunn, her father, her husband, and a pair of Washington lobbyists. Here's more from the AJC's Daniel Malloy:

In 2004, Nunn, her father, four-term Democratic U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, local builder Michael Wilson and two Washington lobbyists who were senior aides for Sam Nunn — Bob Hurt and Frank Norton — secured along with their spouses a $2 million loan to buy 850 acres of land in Glynn County.

At the end of 2008, the county approved a zoning change for a chunk of the property to “planned development,” with the lead owner listed as Ron Martin, Nunn’s husband. The plan was for 485 housing units, providing a projected boost of $147 million to the local economy.

But by then, the economy was in free fall, and development across the nation ground to a halt. In late 2010, the partners went forward with a much different vision: a conservation easement contract with a private land trust to forever ban development on the vast majority of the property.

The easement provided tens of thousands of dollars worth of tax benefits to the group, originally formed under the name Wisawee Partners, while preserving the environmentally sensitive area.

The Nunn campaign has argued such easements are supported by Democrats and Republicans alike, even citing an expansion of Georgia's conservation easement law supported by former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue, a Republican and the cousin of Nunn's GOP opponent David Perdue. Nathan Click, a spokesman for Nunn, told the AJC that “Michelle, her husband, Senator Nunn and Colleen Nunn were able to protect beautiful land in Glynn County for future generations through a program supported not just by Governor Perdue but a broad swath of Georgia leaders including Senators Chambliss and Isakson.”

Wetlands conservation is good politics, but it's hard to believe Nunn and her partners weren't trying to do anything but get out of a real estate deal gone bad. The two lobbyists who had gone in with Nunn on the purchase were Bob Hurt and the late Frank Norton, who founded the lobbying firm Hurt, Norton & Associates after leaving Sam Nunn's Senate office. Among the clients for which Hurt and Norton lobbied Congress is the Georgia Ports Authority, which operates the Port of Brunswick. The land Nunn and her partners had wanted to develop and sell would have likely benefitted from increased port activity in Brunswick that might come from, say, federal funds to dredge and expand the port.

In 2005, after the group had secured the loan to buy the property, their efforts to rezone the wetlands in order to build homes were met with resistance from locals, who wanted to, as Nunn's campaign now puts it, "protect beautiful land in Glynn County for future generations." Nevertheless, the land was rezoned in 2008, just in time for the real estate bubble to burst. After that, with Nunn and her partners facing high property taxes on land that couldn't be developed profitably.

The AJC goes on to report that before the easement, Nunn's partnership was assessed a tax bill of $23,100 for land that was valued at $2.55 million. After obtaining the easement, however, Nunn and her partners only owed $3,502 in taxes on land that was now worth considerably less.

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